Opponents of school choice measures such as vouchers or tax-credit scholarships love to do a little two-step.
First, they insist choice measures be limited only to low-income families — for the sake of being “fair.” Then, they note the tuition charged by existing private schools and say these families couldn’t possibly make up the difference between those prices and the value of the voucher or scholarship, and thus we might as well scrap the choice measures.
With that, they sit back and fold their arms, confident they’ve done something other than prove the basic laws of economics apply to education.
Before we burst their bubble, let’s take a step back.
The goal of anyone interested in education should be to see that all children attend quality schools. Right?
In a triumph of hope over experience, choice opponents think this can be accomplished through existing public schools alone. If only we spend more and more (and more) money on them.
The rest of us understand the public schools need more competition. More competition would not only mean new, better options for families. It would compel public schools to improve themselves, too.
That is, after all, the way the world works. Consider an example: digital cameras.
Economist Mark J. Perry last year observed that, in 2000, Nikon’s popular CoolPix camera was a 3-megapixel camera that cost $1,337 (adjusted for inflation). By 2012, the CoolPix was a 16.1-megapixel gadget that retailed for $197.
So, in 12 years the camera became more than five times more powerful even though it sold at less than a sixth of the price.
What drove those changes? Technological innovation, of course, but also competition. In fact, competition spurred the innovation: Had Nikon enjoyed a government-enforced market share of more than 90 percent, we hardly could have expected its camera to undergo such substantial increases in quality or decreases in price, much less both.
We shouldn’t expect to see competition change education quite that dramatically, though there is great untapped potential for schools to use technology. But neither can we expect education to improve at more than a modest rate so long as public schools face little competition.
That brings us back to means-testing for school-choice measures, and those basic laws of economics.
In case it’s been a while since you took Econ 101: When demand rises, supply increases to meet it. All else being equal, this tends to drive prices down over time.
It is precisely because demand for educational alternatives is artificially depressed, by the existence of “free” public schools, that their supply remains so restricted and their prices so high.
If we continue to limit school choice measures via income thresholds, or most any other restriction, we will simply ensure demand remains low. That’s a sure-fire way to keep supply low, too, and prevent the robust competition needed to boost the quality of all schools.
And that, in turn, will keep tuition prices from falling to the point even those families that do qualify for a voucher or tax-credit scholarship can afford other options.
The end result will be failure for the choice measures, and more middling improvement in educational quality.
To be fair, choice opponents aren’t the only ones who favor means-testing. Some advocates would accept income limits if that meant choice measures moved forward sooner.
While I can’t fault them for their impatience, and while I certainly share their concern for lower-income families, they need to realize they risk crippling the entire effort before it has a chance to succeed. Worse, they risk preventing even those lower-income families from seeing the very changes they so desperately need.
That’s hardly “fair,” to those families or anyone else.
– By Kyle Wingfield