Don’t play the market when it comes to children’s education

Pupils at this charter school appreciate President Obama’s support, but it’s not the only option. Flickr/The White House

Education policy in the United States is paved with some glaring failures. Despite this, many Australian reformers are looking west for inspiration, as the Gonski review of education funding is carried out.

The Rudd Government’s warm embrace of former New York City education chief Joel Klein epitomises the flow of ideas.

But it doesn’t stop there. Some commentators are calling for the introduction of such US innovations as vouchers (which parents can take to state or private schools) and charter schools (which are publicly funded and privately managed, sometimes by for-profit firms).

Parental choice

The principle of consumer choice is at the heart of this agenda, supported in Australia through the relatively crude mechanism of expanding public subsidies for private schooling.

The US offers far more sophisticated and developed policy approaches in many jurisdictions. A wide range of public and private options are presented to parents, with novel school structures and supports to encourage mobility between schools.

If the answer to Australia’s problems is more choice, the US offers myriad cases where communities are saturated with it, and with competition between schools pursuing those choices.

But the now substantial track-record of school choice reform in the US is far from compelling.

Improving performance with vouchers?

A stream of studies on voucher programs, which have been around for two decades, have failed to find clear evidence of improvement in the achievement of students who use vouchers to attend private schools.

Instead, growth in achievement is indistinguishable from, and sometimes less than, the gains of comparable children staying in public schools.

However voucher programs in the US are dwarfed by the charter school movement, which began in 1991 under the promise of increased achievement, access and innovation.

Charter schools

These programs radically restructure school governance by (for better or worse) foregoing the American tradition of local control. Instead schools are publicly funded, independent of local elected authorities and modelled largely after private schools.

Charter schools have been enthusiastically embraced by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, each government putting hundreds of millions of dollars into their expansion.

There are now some 5,500 charter schools across the US. Few if any researchers find greater innovations in charter school classrooms compared to other types of schools. They are also developing new and unique ways to exclude poor children.

Despite a few bright spots, most research shows charter schools are underperforming, on average, compared to other public schools.

Less than one in five is obtaining higher scores than demographically comparable public schools, while one-third are clearly inferior, according to a multi-state Stanford University study.

Why go with the market model?

In view of this paltry record, the obvious question is, why are policymakers so enamoured with market models for schooling?

And why are they still investing millions of taxpayer dollars in strategies that aren’t just unproven, but have proved to fall short of meeting the challenge set out for them?

Take, for example, the situation in Milwaukee. Repeated evaluations of the means-tested voucher program, such as the one by Princeton economist Cecilia Rouse, showed that the results of public schools students were equal if not surpassing their peers who had used vouchers to attend private schools. And yet the voucher program was expanded. See also this and this.

Similarly, even though repeated studies showed that charter school students were behind their public school counterparts, the Obama administration required states to eliminate restrictions on the growth of these schools in order to help them access billions of federal dollars.

Choice should mean improvement

Certainly, the idea of choice has appeal. Parents appreciate having alternatives to schools, especially when they are otherwise assigned to failing public schools.

However choice is not an end in itself, but a means to greater goals such as innovation, improved learning, and more equitable opportunities for disadvantaged children.

The “luxury” of choice is not itself an adequate justification for the continued expansion of choice programs, and may in fact be detrimental to more important goals for schools.

It’s all about the money

To understand the attraction of putting education out to the market, we need to understand the enormous amount of money at play.

State-supported education involves hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The similarities of efforts in various countries to re-orient the systems providing these services highlight the globalisation of market ideology, which is presented as a universal model for consumer and social services.

And these efforts are promoted by well-funded coalitions of foundations and think tanks which are playing an increasingly central role in brokering the information available to policymakers on these issues.

Evangelising about the programs

Foundations have been particularly active in the US in commissioning and funding reports that support their agendas, and supplanting traditional forms of research, such as that from universities, especially when such research would undercut reformers’ plans for re-configuring schools.

Then, not content with shaping their own country’s social policy, many of these groups become evangelical in spreading the market gospel — creating satellite centres, intellectual groundwork, and facsimile programs in other nations.

The record indicates that there are limits to the magic of the market. We need to be cautious that research and policymaking are not also made into commodities to be controlled by monied interests. Children’s education is at stake.