Educational Equality and the Varieties of School Choice

by Harry on November 15, 2006

I recently posted Educational Equality and School Choice (pdf) at the Equality Exchange. The paper is supposed to be an example of the kind of work I called for in my recent article in Education Week, an evaluation of a school reform idea in the light of a theory of values. However, I very explicitly simplify the evaluation so that all I am considering is the likely effects of the wide variety of school choice schemes on educational equality, and not on other values. So it is, at best, a partial analysis. The basic argument is that however you conceive of educational equality, choice is likely to compromise it, but that this is not a sufficient reason to reject choice because the alternative is not a no-choice and egalitarian status quo, but a highly unequal status quo in which choice is realised through the housing market (to an extent which is hard to measure). So we have to look at the varieties of school choice on offer — and I suggest that some of these are likely to be worse, and others better, from the perspective of equality, than the status quo (giving reasons in each case). And, of course, in most English-speaking countries school choice is a fundamental part of the way schooling works, and is not going away any time soon, so I make some suggestions at the end of the paper (which I think I shall beef up a bit in the next version) about how to regulate and reform choice to give it a more egalitarian edge. I’d welcome suggestions for improvements.



SamChevre 11.15.06 at 11:46 am

Maybe the paper answers this question–I’m hoping to read it but haven’t yet done so.

How do you define “egalitarian” for this purpose? Is egalitarian “everyone gets the same amount of resources within the school system” (no extra resources for high-needs disabilities, for example)? Is it “everyone gets whatever resources are needed to get them to the same point” (no extra resources for high-ability students, for example)? Or is it defined in some other way which I’m altogether missing?


Matt Kuzma 11.15.06 at 11:47 am

The basic argument is that however you conceive of educational equality, choice is likely to compromise it, but that this is not a sufficient reason to reject choice because the alternative is not a no-choice and egalitarian status quo, but a highly unequal status quo in which choice is realised through the housing market (to an extent which is hard to measure).

Well, we don’t actually have to relegate ourselves to choosing between the Republicans’ cop-out idea and no idea at all. The way you evolve any system through trial-and-error is to suggest a change, look at the marginal effect of that change and then either accept it or reject it based on its net effects. If you make the choice of accepting or rejecting the change on the basis of its effects, then no matter what you end up in the best place from which to make the next change. But when you propose adopting a particular change simply because the status quo is unacceptable, you’re helping the terrorists.

Why not reject the idea of school choice on its merits and propose an alternate change – say by addressing the way school funding levels are determined?


Laura 11.15.06 at 12:16 pm

Great post and paper, Harry. We were talking about middle class school choice just a couple of week ago.

Of course, I agree with every word of your paper. The only quibble is that at times, you contrast real world schools with hypothetical vouchers. The real world vouchers in the US have given a few poor students some more options, but these options aren’t even close to the quality to options that middle class parents possess. In Cleveland, school choice was restricted to the city boundaries. The suburbs were given assurances that no poor city kids would end up there. I imagine that if vouchers were scaled up, the suburbs and middle class communities would continue to rig the system to give themselves the edge.


harry b 11.15.06 at 12:17 pm

Matt — I’d happily propose an alternative to school choice, but it wouldn’t be on the political table; no-one is going to stop people from having the freedom to move houses, or abolish private schools. The issue is what sort of school choice are you going to have, and what the paper tries to do is show that there are better and worse versions (from the point of view of equality). All english-speaking countries other than the US have very well-developed formal choice systems, and one of my aims to is to show reformers in those contexts which reforms would promote, and which would inhibit, educational equality (it is not, apparently, obvious). Of course, I am in favour of radical reform of school funding arrangements, but don’t say much about this outside of the context of choice in the paper. I hope that legislators in the states opposed to school choice can see from my paper that when school choice is on the table it really matters what kind of amendments are proposed (and that the paper gives some guidance).

samchevre — well, for the purposes of the paper which of several viable conceptions of equality we adopt doesn’t matter that much so, as I usually do when it doesn’t matter, I adopt a modified “fair equality of opportunity” standard; that resources should track social disadvantage, and that children with special educational needs should get significantly more resources than others. If you find that I’m wrong, by the way, in thinking that it doesn’t matter much which version (among several plausible versions) we adopt, that would be useful to know (to say the least!)


Z 11.15.06 at 1:58 pm

I thought your article was very good. I particularly liked the fact that you took in account the diverse ways in which schools influence chidren. A progressive voucher scheme of some sort combined with school choices sounds very appealing to me, I must say.


Cory Mason 11.15.06 at 3:08 pm

Harry, I enjoyed your article very much. It articulates some of the egalitarian goals of the voucher scheme quite well.

Having come off a rough political season in which vouchers are seen in black and white terms, as a poltitcal tactic, and with charged emotion, I am happy to try to dialogue in a space that tries to dig out the answers through the ‘crooked timber.’

I accept Harry’s definition of egalitarian as a good framework from which to have this conversation (I should, since he taught me so well). There are plenty of other places that explore the policy, politics, and finances of vouchers. What is unique about what Harry and others do in this space is to actually consider the egalitarian aspect of the voucher scheme; something deperately missing from the political dialogue.

What I am about to say are things Harry and I have been discussing for years, and would really welcome others’ thought on the matter, although I realize I am crashing this discussion a bit late.

Part of what I would like to have more exploration on choice and egalitarian justice is this:

1. Does the current voucher scheme actually offer a more egalitarian option to the students who participate in it, especially given the severe limitations and wanting oversight and regulation in the program? I suspect the answer might be a mixed bag: that some fare better and sone fare worse. It would be nice to establish that emperically.

2. Do vouchers create a more or less egalitarian consequence for those students in the public schools? Do vouchers threaten the public school enterprise by taking away much needed resources in the process? Are we leaving those kids behind? If vouchers do, what are the ethical consequences of vouchers, both utilitarian and deontological?

3. If the voucher scheme is not an acceptable egalitarian alternative (and perhaps even if it is), what is/are the egalitarian solution(s) for struggling districts? (This is Harry’s tough question for those with egalitarian tendencies who reject vouchers without much consideration).

4. Is the voucher scheme egalitarian anywhere? Would it be acceptable as an egalitarian project in the richest public school district in the state, or does it need to occur in districts where: poverty rates are high, the achivement gap is large, drop out rates are high, or some other indicator? I know Harry argues that choice de facto occurs by property value, but what about the voucher scheme writ large?

5. Is the public school enterprise an egalitarian project, particularly in its requirement to educate anyone?

6. Given that big changes are needed to improve struggling districts, and that political solutions can be slow and imperfect, how does time factor into the egalitarian aspects of the voucher scheme and the status quo? Is it enough to propose an egalitarian solution in and of itself, or does justice require us to consider the consequences of delay and generational poverty too?

7. Does egalitarian justice require these things be addressed in a certain order; or lexically?

Harry is right to say, “Education policy, just like social policy more
generally, should be guided principally by considerations of justice and only secondarily
by pragmatic considerations such as what compromises must be made with existing
social forces opposed to justice in order to optimize the justice of the existing institutions.” But is time ever a factor?

8. Harry says at one point “explicit choice
schemes may be inegalitarian because they benefit not the least advantaged, but the most
advantaged among the less advantaged.” Assume this is true, how does one make the voucher scheme egalitarian, by abandoning it, or repairing it?

Lastly, I hope no one minds me asking so many questions. This is my first post, and it is likely that all of these questions could be better articulated.


SamChevre 11.15.06 at 3:48 pm

Harry, I’ve gotten about half the paper read. I’ll comment more when I’ve finished, but I have a few comments so far.

1) I think the definition of equality does matter, in “on-the-ground” terms. I’ll make clearer why when I get to the point on resources.

2) Choice and equality could avoid conflict if preferences are heterogenous. “Those who choose the worse providers get worse provision.” That is true but unimportant if the “worse providers” are worse at something unimportant to the chooser. For example, let’s say I’m interested in math, and you are interested in philosophy. Having the option to attend MIT (me) and St John’s College (you) means that for each of us, our chosen provider meets our needs BETTER than the alternative provider does. I see heterogenous preferences as one of the largest problems with the current government-run school system; there is significant and reasonable disagreement as to what the goal and structure of education should be. (Look at the varieties of specialization among private schools (college-track, remedial, religious, specific disability, specific ability, linguistic), as compared to public schools.)

3) Resources are the key issue; I think this fact is frequently misunderstood. One of the KEY resources in education is classmates. My rough guesstimate of a numerical value is as follows.

A good teacher is worth 10 points.
A studious student is worth 1 point.
An indifferent student is worth 0 points.
A disruptive student is worth -5 points.

You can model student learning as (sum of points/number of students).

Now, the problem is that if there are 2 disruptive students in the classroom, there is NO WAY that you can provide enough resources to give as good an education as if there are no disruptive students; unless your definition of “equality” allows “everyone learns nothing” as acceptably equal, results cannot be equal between disruptive and non-disruptive students. So there are two possible responses: transform disruptive students into non-disruptive students, or isolate disruptive students. Those aren’t resource issues; they are structural issues, and government schools are perceived, IMO accurately, as unable to do either routinely while acting legally.


Tracy W 11.15.06 at 5:17 pm

I found the whole paper a bit puzzling, as you take that egalitarianism is the only relevant value in evaluating voucher schemes.

I’d definitely prefer an inegalitarian outcome where every kid learns to read and write well enough to read a newspaper and write a publishable-quality letter, but some kids also learn to read and write in ten foreign languages, over an egalitarian outcome where no one learns to read and write to the standard outlined above. (Of course, I’d even more prefer the world where every kid learns to read and write in ten foreign languages as well).

But, on the basis that you’re clearly starting out with the assumption that the relevant consideration is egalitarianism, I tried to read it while ignoring my puzzlement.

In which case I think you miss one argument for school choice – that it allows parents to move their kids away from schools that have turned out to be very bad for that kid, for example due to bullying (which has led some kids in NZ to commit suicide).

On the other side, you appear to be arguing that school choice is unlikely to lead to quality improvements, yet the current system is inegalitarian in part because rich parents have school choice (private schools or moving house). Surely if school choice will not led to quality improvements, rich parents do not benefit from their effective school choice, so therefore the current system is egalitarian?


harry b 11.15.06 at 6:07 pm

Too much here to do justice to, I’m sorry (I’m harbouring a lousy cold and trying to get ready for a long day tomorrow). But lots of points are well-taken, and I’ll adjust the paper accordingly. Just 2 things: tracy w — I agree that lots of other values matter, including ensuring that the least well educated are well educated. I do think the current system is inegalitarian, though I doubt the choice in it improves things much, because some people have a lot fo choice and others don’t; so the ones with a lot of choice can just gravitate to the superior product (using their money to buy it). In fact I agree with the proponents of choice who think it might shake up so-called good schools which currently coast because they have a ready supply of easy-to-teach kids.

samchevre — I agree with point 2 and with point 3: I think that much of what you say in point 3 is implicit (or at least I assume it) at a certain point in my paper, but I see that the opening paragraphs might suggest otherwise, and anyway it should be made explicit so I’ll do so (early in the paper).

I’ll give my answers to cory’s questions directly to him, but others should feel free to provide their own answers, with the stimulus of knowing that suddenly he is actually in a position to have some effect on what actually happens!

Laura — your thread, which I did follow at the time, is a great rebuttal of the notion that there is no choice in the public school system as we know it! Thanks for the comment, too — you’re right and I’ll revise accordingly.


Tracy W 11.15.06 at 7:26 pm

Harry, did I misread the section titled “2. How is Choice Supposed to Improve Schools?”? I thought you were arguing in there that due to information problems, transaction costs, etc it was unlikely that parent choice would improve school quality. If that’s true, then rich parents will not overall gravitate towards the superior quality schools. Therefore logically their school choice does not increase educational inequality (in terms of outcomes).

I certainly am prepared to believe that in NZ private schools do not offer any quality improvements over state schools with similar student populations, though I do not know of any clear-cut evidence on this point.


harry b 11.15.06 at 8:08 pm

tracy — what I intend to do in that section is express skepticism about the wilder assumptions of pro-choicers, which rely on parents having better information and markets operating more fluidly than is realistic. If you want radical improvement, choice isn’t going to deliver it. But, sure, it can deliver some. My guess is that the behaviour of more advantaged parents improves the schools their kids attend, though, not because they know a lot about schooling, but because high concentrations of easier-to-teach kids yield better outcomes both because kids are resources for each other (as samchevre says) and because they act as magnets for teachers (easier working conditions, so the applicant pool is better, and if principals know anything they will get better teachers). Schools as a whole aren’t better for it, but the better resources get to the easier-to-teach kids, thus producing inequality.

There is a study of the assisted places scheme in England (which operated from 1981-1987), which suggests that going to an “academic” private secondary school in the UK improves your A-level grades by a couple of points: enough to make the difference between getting into a terririfc and a very good university, or a very good and a good… I do think that’s unjust, but (to me) it seems a pretty small pay-off for the 100,000 pounds or so that it costs to spend 7 years at a “good” private school.


vivian 11.16.06 at 12:08 pm

Slightly off topic, but Harry, would you consider writing specifically on choice/voucher issues as applied to special needs populations? How do we decide on a fair allocation of resources among a sub-population of really dissimilar kids, where there can be disconnect between the dedication of teachers and the “big picture” stonewalling administration? I bet the circumstances are a lot like the kids who most deserve vouchers, but there are rarely private alternatives for those kids.


SamChevre 11.16.06 at 12:48 pm


I would find your answers to Cory Mason’s questions of considerable interest.


Cory Mason 11.16.06 at 3:13 pm

Why the focus on egalitarianism?

What a great question. I have two answers that might make sense.

1. I think public education in America, for all of its imperfections, is the most egalitarian institution our country has ever known. It has become moreso overtime as we have attempted to expand that enterprise to people regardless of race, class, religion, region, or gender. While I don’t argue that public education’s only virtue is its egalitarian nature, (Dewey’s arguements are perhaps equally compelling) it is at the very least one of the most important. Therefore, when we look at schemes such as vouchers, I think it is important to ensure that such structures maintain public education’s egalitarian goals.

2. We need more disucssion of egalitarianism on this issue not less. This may sound too ‘Mom and apple pie’, but I really love the way the US Constitution begins its charge: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice…” Once we acknowledge our less than perfect state, justice comes first.

Too often the consideration of justice in public policy, let alone egalitarian justice, is at best a platitutde and at worst lip service. I think the challenge of considering egalitarian justice needs to be foremost in our minds. More often than not (in the realm of policy and other places) it seems the furthest from it or entirely absent.

Can we use this space in part to offer something a little more to those who consider vouchers, choice, or any other enterprise?


Matt Mitterko 11.16.06 at 4:24 pm


A few comments:

In section 4, in relation to the choices of poorer parents, I’m unsure how important it is that we empirically evaluate whether or not they choose well. If there are other values at stake in their respective communities, their choices may be influenced by family structure, social ties and/or cultural norms. The result being that they might select schooling that is different from that which would allow their children to excel in relation to other children. Such a choice would appear to be a poor choice, one which we could determine empirically, but it is not clear to me that an egalitarian would condemn them for such choices.

(Such a choice might be sending one’s child to a school that does not require public speaking, as a result of being from a quiet and reserved family, whereas most other public schools in their particular state do. Doing so might result in the child performing objectively lower than others as a result of choosing on the basis of the compatibility of the child’s schooling with her family’s social structure and personality versus choosing on the basis of her ability to compete with her peers.)

The root of this concern is simply that one might propose an egalitarian system that would give all parents the ability to select a school for their children, which is currently restricted to the economically mobile. This is a very basic view on vouchers, but it would appear to neutralize any concern about school selection by poorer parents. This includes the worry that the government might select schools more effectively for children, since under the proposed view only the freedom to choose schools is the relevant feature to equalize. In the case of bad schooling choices, we could simply say that those who select poorly have made flawed but acceptable choices under the system. This view likely won’t get you the most egalitarian distribution, and could be challenged by an equality of outcome view. But it addresses the influence of culturally diverse values on the structure of a child’s education, which would presumably affect our ability to measure appropriate school selections.


Helen 11.16.06 at 7:36 pm

As far as I can see from the government funds to private schools here in Australia, vouchers will be a lousy way of getting education for poorer kids. (1) Government issues vouchers; (2) Schools raise fees due to increased demand; (3) only the kids whose parents can afford to top up the voucher amount get into the better schools and you’re back where you started.

How would you address the problem of the better schools simply raising fees? If government (“free”) schools, why bother with vouchers – why not just fund them properly?


anon 11.17.06 at 1:49 am

An excellent paper, as one would expect.

A couple of comments:

–The information problem facing parents as they choose isn’t nearly so dire as you suggest. A parent is concerned with how his child is doing/will do in the school, not with how well the school does according to value-added tables. The two things are not necessarily linked. Most parents, I believe, are pretty good at determining the first. (I’d know if my 1st grader’s teacher were awful, even if the tables said the average teacher at the school was excellent.)

–The right to exit needn’t be exercised often for the threat of exit to be effective.

–To the extent that all available options empower the most well-off to choose schools for their children, the egalitarian should support allowing those parents not as well off to enjoy the same privilege. That is, egalitarian arguments should consider the parents as well as the students, even if the needs of the students are primary.

–The point above about students being a key resource is really crucial. Funding inequities have been attacked with some success, but the changes in financial resources haven’t had much effect on the relative desirability of most schools. (Think of how those well-off parents are so easily able to make the decision on where to buy a home and send the kids to school all at once, despite the fact that, in the US, there isn’t much value-added data available. That suggests that they’re using something else in calculating.)

Some personal anecdotes, which I think illustrate what I’m getting at.

–My parents sent my brothers and I to Catholic schools in an urban area in the midwest. My older brother started at a school on the city’s racial dividing line in 1974. My parents pulled him out after one year because, in their view, the school was lowering its academic expectations due to the changing racial composition of the school. Instead he and the rest of us went to a neighboring Catholic school. The first school closed, after a long decline, 5 or 6 years ago; a charter school now occupies the site.

–When I was in 2nd grade, I reported to my mother that I was doing the same reading work that I’d done in 1st grade. My parents saw my frustration (and my anger at having been “tracked” to the lowest rung) and insisted on changes. The school responded not by fixing things just for me, but by entirely re-thinking their approach and fixing things for everyone. My parents weren’t important people in any wordly sense, but they were effective advocates for me, especially in a system open to listening.

–My older brother went to the public high school closest to our home. It was a situated in a nice professional neighborhood, but the students attending were bussed in from around the city. The high school, once the jewel of the public system (in large part due to its surroundings), was not well regarded. The school population was nearly 80% black. Students dealt drugs in the school. Students would come and go as they pleased. Students would ignore and disrespect teachers. There were frequent fights. My brother, never much of one for school, faced with this chaos, dropped out. In the midst of this experience, my parents discovered that there still existed a small cadre of (white, middle-class and up) parents who insisted on sending their kids to the school (despite their other options) and who enrolled their students in classes together. (These folks included a local billionaire who sent his kids there a decade before my brother attended.) Apparently this system of class enrollment had been used since the school had been desegregated years earlier. The parents would select the classes and teachers together, and this small group of students would operate as a school within the school. Originally the school administration cooperated with the effort, but that changed over time. The school is now closed.

–Before my youngest brother started school, my mother, a former teacher, suspected that he had a learning disability. Rather than put him in Catholic school, she enrolled him in the local (almost entirely all-black) public school, which had special programs she believed he could benefit from. It did have the programs–plenty of support professionals and the attendant resources–but she wasn’t pleased with the quality. After a couple of years in a couple of different schools, public and private, the family moved across the state line to a smaller house in a district with well-regarded public schools. My parents were generally pleased with the education he received, but they were always monitoring the instruction. They didn’t do a lot of second-guessing, but they did engage in a lot of dialogue.

–My wife and I were faced recently with choosing a home and school. Though we knew we wanted to send the kids to Catholic school, we needed more room and had to decide whether to continue at the school and parish where we were, or to move on. We ended up, fortunately for us, finding a house a couple of blocks from that school and parish, so the kids are able to walk. As we looked, though, we realized that our decision was being affected by the decisions of other parents who were looking at public schools. We live in a well-regarded public school district. This district has 5 high schools of similar size and with similar facilities. It’s a suburban district and it is relatively racially homogenous. Each high school has its own intra-district district from which it draws students. However, one of the high schools is seen as more desirable than the others, and people pay a premium to live in that intra-district district. The subdivision we ended up in is split into two of the five districts. Houses in the more-desired school area are priced at about a 15% premium to comparable homes in the less-desired school area. As far as I can tell, the only significant difference between the two high school populations is that the more-desired school population includes students drawn from the wealthiest portion of the metropolitan area. (The free/reduced lunch populations, for example, and the racial compositions are almost identical.) We found the resulting property value differences an oddity until we discovered the real reason for it–something irrelevant to us was apparently a financially valuable thing to others.

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