The truth about school choice is emerging. It doesn’t raise standards.

I read this article in last week’s Economist. The implications are quite extraordinary for anybody follows the political debate about school provision. One of the central ideas of the right, school choice, is in collapse.

The article concerns school voucher schemes in the USA. In a number of areas vouchers are distributed to poor families, so that they can use them to get places for their children in private schools. The article takes a case study from a large scheme adopted in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. One interesting feature for policy wonks was that the vouchers were distributed randomly, which is evidential gold dust. You can compare the children who got vouchers with those that didn’t on a level playing field, as it were.

Voucher schemes are popular with the right, ever since the economist Milton Friedman advocated them back in 1955. Fans included the Economist newspaper. They were also quite popular with the poor families themselves – though, if I remember correctly, researchers felt that was more to do with a sense of empowerment than any educational benefit.

But in this study the children with the vouchers did worse than those allocated to their local state school. even after controlling for other explanations. Meanwhile dramatic improvements have been made in that state system in Louisiana through the use of good old-fashioned state management.

School choice has been a favourite idea of the right, who prefer market-mimicking solutions to state control. This is very much part of a fashion that the left refers to as “neoliberalism”, on this occasion with some accuracy (they have a tendency to apply it to anti-state followers of Ayn Rand, who should be regarded as libertarians rather than liberals).¬†Neoliberals think that state run systems are inefficient because of inadequate or dysfunctional incentives for those running them, while markets are more efficient processors of information. The fashion for school choice caught on in Britain under the last Labour government, promoted by Tony Blair in particular, and then turbocharged in the Conservative-led governments that followed. The British policy was to introduce state sponsored “academies”, free of local authority control, to mimic private schools. Alas it is difficult to see this as anything other than a colossal distraction.

As it happened the Labour government had managed to raise school standards spectacularly, especially in London, through good old-fashioned management before they started messing with academies. Using a system of school inspections (by Ofsted, a state agency) to develop a broader idea of quality than mere test results, the British state has created a system that has delivered substantial improvements. According to last weekend’s Guardian, private schools are worried by the climbing standards of state schools. To be fair some of that may be due to the propaganda buzz around academies.¬† Certainly they do have something to be said for them as a way of diverting attention from private schools – including tapping into latent demand for state schools that local authorities struggle to recognise.

Right wing think tankers would do well do examine the remarkable success of many British state schools, and try to think about the reasons for their success. Voucher schemes can be quietly dropped.

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2 thoughts on “The truth about school choice is emerging. It doesn’t raise standards.”

  1. Sorry Matthew this is not good , and you re a good man !Firstly , vouchers are something the right favour , but many of us , and anyone worthy of the name, should favour choice if we are Liberals .You try being trapped in a “get what you are given ” scenario, horrible !Yes we need to be mindful of the whole , but holistic , and that is not homoginised! Holism , NOT homoginisation !

    I hear a lot of much older and far leftier Liberals than me decry it. Then the same people say how good Jo “Mr. choice agenda ahead of his time genuine Liberal ” was! He knew more than most , how the state take the taxes and give what they give and we get what we are given .Passive receipt of top down “services”, whether by central or local “authorities”, might be socialism , it might even be old time conservatism , it is not Liberalism !Anyone who says otherwise is making it up as he or she goes along , so why not allow others to CHOOSE to in schools or hospitals ?!

    I am not on the economic centre right of the Liberal Democrats. On economics I am centre left of the party .But I am not when it comes to the above agenda.My wife is originally form the USA , keen Democrat supporters in elections we may be and are , but the dominance of top down government and machine politics and union intansigence , have rendered education a debate often won locally by the more moderate right there . It need not be . Check out the work of the Liberal Party of New York and the Democratic Freedom Caucus !

    1. Thank you for bring me up on this Lorenzo. It was rather a hurried post, and greatly oversimplified a complex problem. I am certainly no advocate of top-down state services which users have no influence over. I would go as far as to suggest that choice has a role in education policy too, in quite a few contexts. But often, as in many public services, choice is not appropriate – they are natural monopolies. We need to find better ways of managing these – because mostly the state runs them badly, including schools. But there are cases where the state is doing a good job, and we do need to learn from these.

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