Jay Greene’s Great New Manifesto

Education scholar Jay Greene has a great new pamphlet called Why America Needs School Choice. Concise and very readable, it does a fine job of introducing the general public to the arguments and evidence in favor of market forces in education. In the process, it debunks six “canards” put forward by defenders of the status quo school monopoly.

Of particular value is Jay’s explanation of why existing “school choice” policies, while often producing positive results, have not yet transformed American education. He notes that these existing programs are hobbled by enrollment limits and regulations, and thus represent only dim shadows of what truly free and competitive education marketplaces would offer. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, the manifesto might more precisely be called Why America Needs a Competitive Education Marketplace, though perhaps that would have narrowed its appeal.

One minor quibble: On page 46, Jay writes that:

No private school choice program has been eliminated legislatively. Aside from a few adverse state court decisions, every choice victory is permanent, and every defeat is temporary.

The implication is that legislative and court action are the only avenues by which choice programs can be overturned. A third, public referendum, exists–and was responsible for the repeal of a Utah school voucher program in 2007. Would-be reformers should remember that lesson: unless the public understands and accepts the value of a policy, it may well overturn it before the first student ever participates. Manifestos like Jay’s are a good way to help spread that understanding.

A more significant problem with this particular passage is that it seems to imply that every “choice” program is a victory, and it asserts every victory is permanent. There is good reason to conclude that neither is the case.

The worldwide historical and modern evidence indicate that private schools will ultimately accept government funding no matter what strings are attached, and that such subsidized schools can consume the unsubsidized sector. This has happened in the Netherlands, for instance, which no longer has an unsubsidized private school sector after a century of government-funded private schooling. And since subsidized schools may not be operated for profit, it has no entrepreneurial chains of private schools.

So what happens if the subsidies eventually accumulate so much regulation that government-funded “private” schools become indistinguishable from today’s government schools? The result would be a move from the current 90% government monopoly to a 100% government monopoly. Not a victory at all, as the international evidence shows that the least regulated, most market-like education systems enjoy the greatest advantage over centrally planned school systems such as our own.

Last year, I ran a statistical analysis of the level of regulation imposed on private schools participating in voucher and education tax credit programs. I found that vouchers impose a large and statistically significant burden of extra regulation on private schools, whereas tax credits do not.  There are other issues with vouchers and charter schools as well. So all “choice” programs are not created equal.

Still, these concerns aside, Jay has written one of the best introductions to the case for educational freedom I’ve seen. I hope it gets a wide readership.