Market Education — Understanding the Evidence

I recently wrote that that the private sector can and does expand to meet demand in response to large scale school choice programs. I gave as examples the Netherlands, Chile, Sweden, and Denmark, all of which have national school choice programs that resulted in expanded private education sectors.

Though she acknowledges that she is unfamiliar with the programs in Denmark and Sweden, The Quick and the Ed.’s Sara Mead claims that this evidence does not show “what Coulson believes it does.”

She supports that view by questioning the results in Chile and the relevance of the Netherlands, and by presenting American voucher programs as a putative counter-example.

These objections do not hold water.

First, Chile. As Ms. Mead correctly points out, the expansion of the private sector in that country has occurred more rapidly in middle and upper income areas than in low income areas. As I explained in my chapter in What America Can Learn from School Choice in other Countries, there are two main reasons for this: Chilean government schools serving the poor receive substantially greater per-pupil funding than do private voucher schools, and most of Chile’s poor are concentrated in rural areas.

The poor are poor, not stupid. Research shows that when Chilean government schools get total funding that is between 150 percent and 300 percent of the private school voucher amount, they start to do as well or even somewhat better academically. When they get roughly the same per pupil funding, they do poorly compared to private voucher schools. The poor in Chile are thus often making a wise choice when they decide to frequent the much higher spending government schools.

It is also the case that it is easier to open a viable school in an area of high population density than one of low population density. So, until the high-population density areas are saturated with schools, growth of private schooling in rural areas will be slower than in urban areas. If, as seems to be the case, Chilean private voucher schools continue to enroll a larger and larger share of students, this gap will eventually go away.

In the Netherlands, where government schools do not receive higher per pupil funding than private voucher schools, there is little difference in enrollment rates by income. In fact, the private Catholic school sector in the Netherlands has a slightly lower average socio-economic status than does the government sector, but its students nevertheless outperform their wealthier government school counterparts.

I could go on like this at length, picking apart the rest of Ms. Mead’s argument (e.g., existing U.S. voucher programs haven’t grown more because they are explicitly capped in size or funds!), but this is enough to make my point: if you actually look at all the relevant evidence, and make an effort to understand it, the kind of superficial objections that are offered by the anti-market crowd fall apart.

Ms. Mead adds that “If Mr. Coulson sends me a copy of his book and any other relevant materials, I would be happy to learn more about this.”

That’s a nice, polite thing to say. And I appreciate it. But, as scholars, we are not supposed to wait for the evidence to come to us with a bow on it. We are supposed to go out and find it, and if it is apparently contradictory, to try to make sense of it. And we should wait to offer policy advice until we’ve been able to complete that process with a reasonable degree of comprehensiveness and confidence.

I wish I could come up with a nicer way to say that, but it has to be said.