Wednesday, September 11, 2013
A new and robust study of 20 years of data from Australia--The Myth of Markets in School Education--concludes that its schools do not operate as markets. The conclusion/assertion rests on two major factual findings: most public schools do not face any real competition because there are no competitors; and the connection between school autonomy and student performance is weak. I am sure that opponents and supporters of school choice, charters, and the like will seize on or discount this report in the coming days. In the end, I am not sure how much it can tell us about our own system.
Most obviously, it is from Australia and based on a different system, geography, and demography. Putting those differences aside, it seems to conceptualize different issues than the ones we often debate here. For instance, while many in the United States support school choice and charters on the premise that they will increase competition and reform the whole system, a major motivation of those policies in the United States is based on individual autonomy and exit strategies. Some would go further and claim that this global reform is just window dressing for policies really meant to undermine the traditional public system. Even short of this extreme claim, the effect on the education system as whole is a secondary concern for major school choice constituencies. For them, the primary motivation is to allow parents to choose/decide their children's educational fates. Thus, choice, charters, and vouchers are ends in an of themselves. If this is the case, the Australian study may address points that are potentially irrelevant to many here.
My quibble with the report itself is that it seems to equate operating like a market with operating like an effective and beneficent market. To the extent school autonomy and competition policies do not have a positive effect, the report concludes there is a market myth. In my article, Charter Schools, Vouchers, and the Public Good, I frame the problem slightly differently. Charters, vouchers, and choice necessarily create a market in the places where they exist. The question then is what effect--positive or negative--these policies have on education systems, whether it be global or local. My analysis, like the Australian report, finds little evidence of an effective and beneficent market, but, unlike the Australian report, finds a market of sorts anyway. This market, however, can operate to the detriment of public schools because public schools are premised on concepts of the public good that are antithetical to markets. That these policies have nonetheless gained so much traction in public policies is a testament to the fact that they resonate so deeply with those concerned about personal autonomy. It also highlights the importance of making moral, or pseudo-moral, claims in education, a point which I argue civil rights advocates need to remember here.