School Choice Needs Quality Control and Accountability

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 19 2012 12:05 PM

School Choice Needs Quality Control and Accountability

The idea that market competition alone will produce high-quality learning environments for children is based on some pretty obvious fallacies. Think about the realm of snack food. Market competition in the realm of snack food does a great job of producing tasty snacks and delivering them to consumers. But it does a terrible job of promoting long-term health. Not because the market is failing, but because markets are about consumer satisfaction not public health.

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But a Washington Post review found that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist. [...]
Some of these schools are heavily dependent on tax dollars, with more than 90 percent of their students paying with federal vouchers.
Yet the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information, relying mostly on marketing from the schools.

Now the D.C. public schools are no great shakes, either. But in both cases, if what you want is public spending that promotes student learning, you need to actually measure student learning and create financial rewards for the production of student learning. DCPS has moved substantially in that direction with its IMPACT system for teacher compensation and retention. But the voucherized sector—much like in Louisiana—is actually being allowed to languish as the cesspool of publicly funded rent-seeking that conservatives fear from traditional public schools. The issue is that the underlying organizational form of the school system isn't what matters. What matters is whether money is tied to producing worthy policy aims.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.