When I started reading AEI director of education policy studies Rick Hess’s latest article, I feared a Stern-esque public defection. “Oh no,” I thought. “He’s about to denounce school choice as a failure without any consideration for what it needs to work.” Then came the pleasant surprise: Hess makes clear that school choice hasn’t produced transformative competition and innovation because, so far, almost no competition or innovation has been allowed to occur.
Pointing to everything from enrollment caps, to profit prohibitions, to suffocating bureaucracy in choice vehicles ranging from charter schools to voucher programs, Hess concludes that “the lessons are increasingly clear. If school choice is to enjoy a brighter future than wave upon wave of supposed school reforms, it is time for reformers to fight not just for choice but for good choices.”
I couldn’t agree more, and want to be the first to welcome Hess aboard the good ship Free-Market Education! We here at Cato have been sailing it for some time now, and offer all kinds of guides for anyone who wants to cruise with us, including the Cato Education Market Index; Dismal Science: The Shortcomings of U.S. School Choice Research and How to Address Them; and Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence. We’d especially like to invite choice equalitarians to join us, those folks who want options for the poor but don’t see that choice’s real power can only be unleashed when schools are unfettered and choice widespread. Low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, price change, the ability to make a profit, unsubsidized competition—all these things are critical to thriving industries that give us everything from iPods to dress shirts, but as scarce as Ecuadorean polar bears in moribund k-12 education. That’s not a coincidence.
Free markets work, Hess understands, but not when they’re in name only.