Saturday, August 12, 2006

An Unsung Victory for School Choice

After last year's hurricane-induced destruction, you'd think New Orleans would have better things to do than run controversial and expensive experiments with large government programs. But with most of its sunk costs refloated on September's floodwaters, the city has a nearly unprecedented chance to try again and redesign its infrastructure properly (not that it could really design it any worse). I earlier argued that this was the perfect time to kill flood insurance subsidies, but I knew that actually wasn't going to happen. But time pressure and organizational difficulties have forced the Big Easy to try something arguably even harder. This year will see the largest and most dramatic implementation of school choice in the country.

Now, any purist libertarian could immediately point out all the problems in our program. Money doesn't travel to private schools, only to chartered public schools. This means that no school can charge more than the "voucher" and still get payments; further, the schools are bound by the constitutional constraints, like the Establishment Clause, that limit all public schools—so no religious or creationist schools. I'm sure there are a number of hoops the charter schools must jump through to get funding. But this is in many ways closer to a full voucher program than anything else I've seen get actually implemented.

The men and women who are launching new schools are, predictably, enthusiastic about the program.
The city's pre-Katrina public schools were "kind of like the restaurant that everyone's forced to go to and still it gets worse and worse and worse," said James Huger, a real estate developer who is leading a private group setting up one of the city's 28 new charter schools. "In a real society, there's not too many bad restaurants that stay in business."

Now, there won't be many bad schools that stay in business either, he said.
But incredibly enough, government officials also seem to have signed on to the arguments we libertarians have been making for decades. Leslie Jacobs of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education:
I think over time, as people adjust to the system, more and more parents are going to begin to choose...I don't think every single parent is going to be engaged and exercise their choice, but I think we should give every parent the right to exercise that choice. And it is going to empower a lot of parents who didn't feel empowered before. That will force schools to see parents and students as their customers.

Still, a couple of things to keep in mind before we all get too excited—even if the experiment pans out. If we see a dramatic improvement in school quality, that's not necessarily due to the school choice system; it would be hard to set up a more dysfunctional school system than the one we had before the flood. Second, New Orleans was in a sense primed for this already. Partly because we're a very religious city, and partly because our public school system sucked so very badly, we had an unusually large, far-reaching, robust, and respected system of private schools. Parents here are used to thinking about where they should send their kids, so the whole charter school setup wasn't nearly as new or confusing as it would have been in other cities.

And I can't decide whether I think the advent of votech schools like the Priestly School of Architecture and Construction is good or bad. That education is probably a lot more useful for many of the prospective students, who weren't really college-bound anyway. And yet, America has a long tradition of believing that all citizens should have a liberal arts education to allow them to participate effectively in the public square—a tradition that these votech schools are working against. But most of the students these schools serve probably would have gotten no real education, liberal, vocational, or otherwise, in the prior setup; on balance, I think anything that lets more people become more educated more easily and cheaply is a good thing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really liked your blog - my only comment is that althought new orleans does have a well built and respected private school system - it has historically served 60% of the new orleans population (not includign the jefferson parish students to attend private schools in the area and in new orleans proper) - it sounds true when said they are use to making choices regarding school placement, but with 40% of your population unable to make any choice or to be limited to 2 or three magnate schools -i think that 40% of the population being given a chance to choose when none exsisted before changes the educational ballgame alot, and i agree it is a senerio that makes a libertarians' hheart sing

August 15, 2006 5:08 AM  

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