The Economics of Vouchers


This week The Indicator, an almost-daily podcast about the economy from the talented team at NPR’s Planet Money, featured an episode about school vouchers.

So, what could a group of self-confessed economic geeks possibly contribute to the discussion? Especially in ten minutes.

Quite a bit, actually

For one thing, they start with a pretty basic question, one that doesn’t come up much in all the politics: “what does the evidence say about the core thing school is supposed to be for: giving children a solid education?”

One of their guests actually did some research into that question and found that Chile had tried a country-wide voucher system back in the 80’s. The results were not what advocates in the 2023 US have promised.

What I found is that vouchers or school choice do a couple of things at least. One is they probably make people happy – at least those people who use the voucher. There’s a certain thing of, like, having some control in your life or being able to choose a school for your kid. From a social point of view, you would want kids, on average, to learn more. And the surprising thing about Chile, I think, was that there was basically a lot of people moving around – a lot of people choosing different schools, leaving public school and going to the private sector and so on – and there was surprisingly much less evidence of anything really happening, say, on the average level of learning.

More recently and closer to home, “study after study from New York to Louisiana to Washington, D.C., [came] to the same conclusions”.

In almost all these studies, “learning”, of course, is measured by grades and/or standardized tests. Both are flawed tools at best, and fail to assess a huge variety of other factors that go into both a good school and a good education.

However, the program also touched on a critical factor about any kind of “choice” program: “parents often do not have good information about schools”.

All public schools in most states are required to publish some basic data about what’s happening in their classrooms. Demographics, test scores, teacher qualifications, and more.

Private schools (and most charters) have sales brochures, with cherry-picked data and comforting photos.

How can parents make a meaningful choice for their children without solid information about the school?

The mother who was interviewed for the podcast actually had a plan when looking at schools and a list of questions for administrators. How many others will do that? How do they know what to ask in the first place?

There are so many other issues with vouchers that could never be covered in a short podcast.

But they are also not being addressed in the many states where legislators are rushing to throw money into these programs. The public is simply told that choice is good and that the “free market” will fix everything.

Which is crap since choice, in schools or anything else, is worthless without good information. And we’ve already seen how little the “free market” cares about anything other than profits.

The photo has nothing to do with the topic. Just nice fall colors and some birds. Enjoy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.