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.