Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Forgotten Aspect of School Choice

Over at the Quick and the EdErin Dillon talks of school choice on steriods, the case of the Mapleton School District outside Denver where every school is a school of choice. Having read and listened to the linked NPR story, I finished Erin's post. This comment gave me pause:
The research and advocacy around school choice often focuses on building the supply of schools and reducing barriers to choice for parents and students, but not much has focused on what is needed to build a knowledgeable consumer base. There is a bit of a “build it and they will come” attitude about school choice reform. But without a culture of informed choice, school choice reforms might either see little to no impact, or might see choice (somewhat like the higher education market) shifting priorities to things like sports or fancy facilities and away from the quality of teaching and learning in schools.
I will readily admit that much of the school choice research has been focused on reducing barriers to choice and builiding up the supply of choice oriented schools. That much is fair and it may involve a certain amount of "build it and they will come" mentality.

But I don't think we need to be spending money or time to "build a knowledgeable consumer base" because we don't have to. First, we can agree that a school choice environment is a market economy, operating on the idea that people will choose for themselves the options they seek. One of the fundamental economic premises of a market economy is that almost every decision made by the millions of actors in an economic system are made in the absence of complete or perfect knowledge of the entire market. Indeed, consumers make choices based only on their wants, desires and/or needs, without regard or even care about what anyone else wants or needs. In short, millions of transactions occur each day without anyone having a complete picture of what is going on. Over time, those goods or services, in this case schools, will learn to deliver on what is demanded by the market. Any school that doesn't fails to a certain extent and must retool and reinvent itself.

Based on that premise, we don't need to build a knowledgeable consumer base--one already exists. If we assume for a moment that those people who can afford to live anywhere will consider the quality (however defined) of schools in their calculus for deciding where to buy a home, then we have an adequately informed consumer base. These folks have made a decision for themselves as to the quality of the schools. Now, whether that decision was an informed decision based upon their own wants or needs or a "short-cut" decision based upon what other people like them have done is not important. They have acted based upon their needs.

Now, at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum comes those without the choice of where to live. They may have little choice in where to send their children to school, but they can still act out of a desire to fulfill their desires in the education market. They may not know exactly what they want, but they certainly know what they don't want. Again, they do not have perfect information, but they can make a informed decision.

In either case, the individual actors are making an informed decision, based upon the information they have at hand. Admittedly, this information is far from perfect or complete, but we have in these two examples and "knoweldgeable consumer base." Now this may not be the knowledgeable consumer base that Dillon believes should exist, but that kind of knowledge base--almost perfect--does not and cannot exist. Dillon seems to think that people will be drawn, like college students and their families, to high-performing sports teams or flashy facilities, instead of quality teaching and learning. But what apparently Dillon wants to do is substitute her vision of quality school choice (based on teaching and learning) away from real school choice, in which a range of schools compete for enrollment and students--yes, including sports focused settings or fancy campuses.

There are certainly people out there who will choose a high powered basketball or football or soccer program over a math and science focused or foriegn language centric option. The beauty of a market system is that the option belongs to the consumer--not the policy maker. The individual consumer can make the choice based on their individual needs. Just as students may make decisions about colleges based on less than perfect information (or because their basketball team made it to the Final Four), parents and students can make such decisions in an elementary or secondary school market as well. Each decision is just as valid as any other and people can and will change their minds mid-stream. An education market means that changing their mind entails far less cost (i.e. selling and moving their home) than our current method.

So the research and advocacy on school choice should remain focused on building more options and lowering the barriers for admission into the education marketplace. If you build an education market place that is vibrant and real, the consumers will education themselves as far as they need to--be assured of that.

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