Fairness prompts me to direct you to this post from Matt Yglesias, who feels that my earlier response to him misrepresented his views. I’ve never been one for half apologies, and I do think that a lot of what I said was and is relevant to his points. (I really hate the “I’m sorry if he’s offended, but…” thing.) However, I do regret focusing on charter schools when he didn’t intend to be discussing them specifically.
To be as direct to his points as I can, then– there is still an assumption here that is lacking evidence. Matt argues that because of the high price of land and housing in the best school districts, poor parents lack the means to enroll their children in the best schools. That’s true. But note something here.
If you took the Washington DC metro area and somehow managed to change the current unfair situation where the low-income neighborhoods have the worst schools and instead made it that the lowest-income neighborhoods have the best schools, people wouldn’t just stay in place. Parents of means would start relocating to the places where the schools are best.
The question is, if we gave poor students equal mobility to their rich counterparts, what would the consequences be for their educational performance? If the assumption is that it would improve, I have to challenge that assumption. That is an empirical question that has to be answered empirically. I’m not sure what Matt’s preferred policy regime would look like to achieve equity in student/parent mobility. I focused on charter schools in large part because they are one of the primary mechanisms advocated by school reformers for increasing student mobility and parent choice. It’s true that this is not a perfect analog for having the money available to move to wherever you want, but along with magnet schools and private school vouchers, charter schools are a primary means of achieving this mobility. And as you are surely bored of hearing from me now, we lack credible empirical evidence that these mobility-increasing measures work to improve student outcomes.
The pessimist will point out that there’s the thorny cause/effect problem here, as several of Matt’s other commenters have done in the past. Are poor people trapped in bad school districts? Or are bad school districts bad because they house poor students? I am not a strict economic determinist by any means. (If I was, I wouldn’t be chasing the career dream that I am.) But I think that Matt is assuming a simplicity about school quality when it is an immensely complicated issue, and he knows better. I’m tempted by the half-serious old challenge: swap the students from the worst public high school in New York with the students from Stuyvesant and see which school looks good and which bad. In fact, we’ve had some evidence on that score recently, albeit obliquely.
So the same old boring critiques apply: we lack evidence that student mobility improves educational performance for the students who are falling behind. Additionally, we still lack effective metrics that, with high validity and reliability, can assess which schools are good or bad, meaning that even parents with the means to move their children lack the information necessary to do so intelligently.
If the assumption is not that increasing student mobility improves student outcomes but merely that choice is a benefit in and of itself, I’m back to a simple philosophical disagreement. I don’t think it’s responsible for government to fund different choices (of whatever kind) simply to provide choice.
Update: Commenter Roger Moore says
Watch out, though, because you’re in dangerous territory there. I’ll agree that we shouldn’t redesign our national educational system around a concept that hasn’t been adequately tested, but it’s never going to be adequately tested until somebody tries it. You have to have some kind of trial for new ideas or they’ll never get a chance to prove themselves.
Agreed. I’m an advocate of experimentation with policy, certainly. I’m not strictly opposed to charter schools, although the details (particularly in their orientation towards the teachers unions and the attendant political dynamics) matter very much. Pilot programs for increasing student mobility are important. I’m just curious what form they’ll take, and I want us to be responsible about waiting for the data.