Public Policy Forum Blog

Dog bites man and school choice oversells

Sometimes when I read the Journal Sentinel's headlines, I wonder if I'm actually reading The Onion.

Today's headline is an example: Choice may not improve schools, study says

After decades of MPS score stagnation despite school choice, charter schools, open enrollment, Chapter 220, and intradistrict busing, this is now newsworthy?

I have yet to read the new study that makes this finding, but from the paper's coverage it seems that parents are the scapegoats. Allowing them choices didn't improve schools because they failed to make good choices.

But maybe that's not a failure of the parents, maybe that's a failure of the "market theory" of school reform. We all make bad choices when we act as consumers. Despite a general legal theory of caveat emptor ("buyer beware"), there are lemon laws and tort law and product recalls. Why weren't similar consumer protections built into the education marketplace?

If a parent chooses a school that turns out to be a bad school, there's no way for that parent to recoup their "losses." You can't sue a school district for educational malpractice and good luck trying to get any satisfaction from an unregulated private school. Leaving the bad school for a better school was supposed to be enough accountability to improve the bad school...but years of research have shown this isn't the case. And it's because it's not easy to tell the bad from the good. There is no Consumer Reports for schools; parents find a good school through trial and error. What if you had to buy a refrigerator that way?

I guess the newsworthiness of this study is that it was authored by a conservative advocacy group, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, that has a long history of supporting school choice. Perhaps they will now support policy changes that provide parents with the information they need to make good choices. I don't think I'll hold my breath for that, though. The study looked only at choice made within the public school system, where academic information is readily available to parents; when asked whether the study shed any light on private school choice, where there is no such information available, the author demurred.

Anneliese Dickman