January 29, 2013 12:04PM

School Choice Is Nice, but It’s Freedom That’s Key

This is National School Choice Week, and that’s great. Having the ability to choose a school is certainly better than being assigned to a single, government institution. But just being able to choose a school must not be the ultimate goal. That must be total educational freedom, both because freedom is the most basic of human rights, and because freedom best provides education for the whole of society.

Unfortunately, when you’re stuck in day-to-day ed policy grappling – Which studies show what about test scores? How much did New York City spend on rubber rooms? – you can easily lose sight of the major, broad reasons that educational freedom is so crucial. In honor of National School Choice Week, here’s a quick refresher:

Freedom involves choice, but a little choice is hardly freedom

You can have choice without having freedom. You don’t have freedom if you can choose between Wendy’s and McDonald’s for a burger, but are forbidden from having any other food. Or if you can select between the local Methodist and Lutheran churches, but nothing else that might satisfy your beliefs or spiritual needs.

Freedom means being able to choose from any options that others are freely willing to provide and that don’t force harm on others. We’re not particularly close to that, for any meaningful number of people, in any school choice program.

No one is omniscient

People make bad choices all the time. But guess what? That includes the people who presume to know what is “best” for each and every child. It is the inescapable reality of humanity that no person or group is even close to omniscient, which is why the argument so often proffered against choice – we can’t let people make bad choices for their kids – is utterly backwards. Because human beings are so limited, it is far safer that power reside in voluntary agreements between educators and parents than with central authorities. When bad decisions are, inevitably, made in the former, only small numbers are hurt. When in the latter, everyone goes down.

Unintended consequences

There’s been a lot of coverage lately of Rice University student Zack Kopplin’s crusade against voucher programs, which allow people to choose schools that teach creationism. Were Kopplin’s argument fundamentally that taxpayers should not have their money taken against their will to schools with which they might disagree, it would be one thing: vouchers do transfer taxpayer money, though they provide far more overall freedom than does public schooling. But Kopplin’s argument – like the arguments of so many people on numerous education issues – isn’t ultimately about freedom. It’s about prohibiting others from learning something he doesn’t like.

This is first an omniscience problem – Kopplin is so sure he is right about creationism that he’d keep people from freely choosing it. But assume Kopplin is right and creationism is entirely wrong. That hardly makes his demand one that, if met, would necessarily produce net educational good. No, potentially serious, negative, unintended consequences could accompany freezing people out of religiously based education. For instance, traditional Christian morality calls for married, two-parent families, and one of the few things in social science that one would call pretty firmly established is that coming from such a family gives a child a significant leg up. Religious people also tend to have much greater stocks of social capital than the nonreligious, also generally a plus.

In light of those things, would it be worth undermining religion because you think creationism is nonsense? Maybe, maybe not – like most matters, there are far too many caveats, unanswered questions, and variables surrounding religiosity to make an absolutely conclusive determination. But those who attack choice because they don’t like what some might choose often don’t contemplate the potential negative consequences of their actions at all. And without freedom, if those negative consequences prove real, it inflicts harm on everyone.

Special-interest capture

“Concentrated benefits and diffuse costs,” and “everyone is self-interested.” Put those together, and you quickly grasp why the systems that serve society best tend strongly to be the ones in which people interact voluntarily, not those in which government is in charge.

When I want to buy a computer, I am almost guaranteed to get one with terrific functionality and reliability. Why? Because the people who make and sell computers – selfish, profit-seeking corporations – have to produce something good or I, and countless other selfish, profit-seeking customers, will go somewhere else.

Not so with public schools. They take my money no matter how they perform, and my only hope for satisfaction is to vote in politicians who will reform them. But I also want the politicians to provide strong defense, transportation, fiscal discipline, etc., and I can’t focus just on the politics of education. In contrast, teachers unions, administrator associations, and other edu-employee groups can and do focus on education, and will do so more than anyone else because their very livelihoods are at stake. And what do these self-interested people want? More money and less accountability, the opposite of my interest. But the politicians will tend to pay much more attention to the employees on education then to me because they are single-issue and highly motivated, while I am highly divided.

In stark contrast to buying a computer, I lose, the producer wins, and that is how the system is designed.

Competition, innovation, and specialization

A free market is really just the economic outcome of having free people, and these three things – competition, innovation, and specialization – are what drive the success of free markets. Providers in a free market compete for customers, and two keys to winning that competition are providing the best product at the best price. Do that, and customers will leave the other guy and come to you. And how do you make better products at better prices? Innovation!

Of course, not all customers want or need the same thing; some may need a big flatbed for haulin’ stuff, others a tiny hatchback to save on gas. Given that, free markets also feature specialization, where customers with different needs can get products well suited to them because there is money to be made in catering to smaller groups. In contrast, and despite the fact that all children are unique individuals, what do we get from public schooling? One set of standards and tests, because, generally, money can only go to the single, government system of schools.

We need freedom, which is the most basic human right and the key to delivering the best education for the entire society. As we pursue school choice, we must never lose sight of this much bigger goal.