Static Analysis and School Choice

Below in my first post on the old 1968 edition of The Population Bomb, I said one of the key mistakes of these doomsayers was static analysis, which I described as:

blind projection of trendlines without any allowance for individuals
actually doing something to alter those trends, particularly in
response to pricing signals.  This leads not only to predictions of
disaster, but to the consistent conclusion that only governments
coercing individuals on a massive scale can avert dire consequences for
humanity

A great example of the static analysis fallacy in action today in in the debate on school choice.  School choice opponents often bring out some or all of these arguments:

  • Private schools are often more expensive than public schools, so even with vouchers set at the state per pupil spending, many won't be able to afford private schools
  • Private schools have admissions requirements and testing, such that many students will not be able to meet the cut
  • Private schools are disproportionately religious, leaving few options for secular parents
  • There are no where near enough private schools for the potential demand

Do you see the consistent fallacy?  All the arguments assume that private schools, in terms of pricing, mission, supply, etc., will remain static and unchanged after a voucher program is instituted.  I hate to waste electrons stating the obvious, but the private schools that exist today did not evolve in a vacuum.  They evolved in a world of monopoly public schools, and their nature is based on that reality.  Change that backdrop, and the schools will change.

For example, take the cost issue.  Sure, many private schools are expensive.  The main reason is that private schools have been created in an environment where their customers must have the ability to pay for their kid's education twice.  My kids go to private school, and every month I pay their bill to go to a public school they don't attend (via my property taxes) and then I pay a second bill to the private school they do attend.  As a result, many private schools have high prices, because their customer base can pay.  If the government instituted a special tax so that everyone received a government-funded Yugo, don't you think that the number of inexpensive cars sold by private companies might dry up some?

But private schooling does not have to be expensive.  My kids go to a fantastic school here in Phoenix.  We have moved around a lot, and we have been lucky enough to be able to send our kids to some very good and sometimes very expensive private schools, and I can say with confidence that their school here is both the best and the cheapest!  In fact, the tuition I pay for an education far, far superior to the local public schools is less than what the state of Arizona spends as an average per pupil in the public schools.

The same type of rebuttal can be made to all the other arguments.  Private schools often have tough admissions requirements because the public schools have already staked out the niche for the lowest-common-denominator education, so private schools differentiate themselves by serving an intellectual elite.  But does anyone doubt that if millions of average kids suddenly had $6000 vouchers in their hands, someone would step up to serve the heart, rather than the tail, of the normal distribution?  And I addressed here the huge potential for private school to evolve to serve a diverse range of viewpoints.

Arizona Watch has a nice post on this same topic, including similar thoughts in response to criticisms of school choice:

The statist arguments against HB 2004 are more clearly spelled out in Mike
McClellan's blog
on AZCentral in which he calls HB 2004 "tuition tax fraud." Mike is (surprise
surprise) a public school teacher. Indicative of the quality of public school
education in Arizona, Mike's arguments against HB 2004 are weak, but I'll
briefly refute them here.

1. Private schools can choose who they take "“ many have entrance exams that
will block some students from entering the school.

Mike's correct: private schools can choose the students they accept. Some
students may not qualify for their first choice school. The real point he's
making here is that some students may not have access to private schools even
with the corporate funding "“ that the bill would create a class divide in
education. That's absolutely incorrect. If private schools become affordable to
a significant portion of the population, then more private schools will emerge.
These schools will assuredly serve different market segments. There will be prep
schools, technical schools, art schools, religious schools, atheist schools, and
schools that just provide a decent basic education. There will even be schools
that specifically serve challenged students "“ those students who Mike claims
won't have access to private schooling. The opposite is true. Schools will be
better able to serve a variety of students in a manner far more effecting than
the current one-size-fits-all public school system.

2. Even if they can attend the school, the tuition might not cover all the
costs the student will incur "“ books, uniforms, other fees. If the schools won't
waive those costs "“ and many can't afford to do that "“ the student's family
might not be able to make up the difference.

Certainly some private schools will be more expensive than the tuition grants
can cover. However, many more will design their tuition structure specifically
to stay within the limits covered by the tuition grants. It is absurd to think
that schools would deliberately price themselves out of the market. If the
demand exists, private schools are going to find a way to meet that demand and
earn those tuition dollars.

3. And here's the big one: Republicans apparently believe there are quality
private schools everywhere. They oughta take a more careful look. While Phoenix
and Tucson have plenty of private schools "“ some far too expensive for the
Republican plan, by the way "“ that is not the case in the rest of the
state.

Do you see a trend here? The answer to this last argument is the same as the
answers to the previous two. Tuition grants will create demand for private
schools. New private schools will emerge to meet that demand and collect that
grant money. This is basic economics.

The one concern I have is that statists and choice opponents have many ways to block private schools.  Even with vouchers, zoning and land use laws in many areas have provided a powerful tool to block private school expansion.

By the way, here is one way to test whether people who make these arguments against choice really mean them or are using them to hide the true reasons that they object to school choice:  If they are right, then what are they worrying about?  No new schools will open, no publicly educated kids will be able to afford or meet the admissions standards of those schools that do exist, so nothing will change.  But they seem really worried about school choice, which makes me think that they don't even believe their own arguments.

  • Bob Smith

    Private schools are expensive and rare, and will remain so even if vouchers are commonplace. Why? Private schools are subject to architectural, planning, zoning, and land use restrictions that public schools are not, and they have to pay property tax on top of that. It's especially bad in a state like California, where the obstruction of land development has been elevated to a high art. All that is assuming that your school project can get built, a difficult task if members of the local school board or teacher's union also sit on local planning commissions and architectural review boards, a commonplace occurrence.

  • Elizabeth

    Bob -- I have to disagree with your comment. When buses started rolling in my city almost 40 years ago private school because of federal mandated desegregation orders sprang up over night -- literally. Many of them started in churches. Today, the ones that survived (most of them) have found permanent homes and many have moved out from under the religous umbrella.

    I believe private schools will once again spirng up if vouchers are passed in whatever location. The only question I have is will private schools who accept vouchers eventually come under the "thumb" of the federal government? No one can answer that. Too me that is the major obstacle to accepting vouchers. Once that item is cleared watch out...

  • http://tswe.blogspot.com/ Scott

    "coyote's post on private schools today just said everything you usually babble but, you know, in complete sentences" - This is from my wife.

    You are making me look bad, and since learning to write well is hard, I do request that you make your post less intelligable just to even the playing field.

    thanks in advance - Scott Wickham

    http://tswe.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.zianet.com/ehusman/weblog/blogger.html Eric H

    The opposite case also happens: look at the claims the same people will make about some great new federal grant. For example, the Clinton Administration's Hope scholarship tax credits were available to every college student, and because such subsidies avoided the notice of college administrators everywhere, the tuitions remained the same and the students made out like bandits ... not! It probably took colleges about 5 nanoseconds to calculate what the tax credit meant to the median student (in terms of her or her parents' income tax rates), and therefore how much they could raise tuition and capture the entire subsidy themselves.

    Politicians' response? Huh! ... wouldya lookat that? Tuition went up, so obviously the colleges and universities are out to screw the students. What we need is a new scholarship program!

    Now apply that analysis to Medicare, Medicaid, Big Pharma, etc.