My post on the Brookings Chalkboard is here. And another thought. There’s a lot of back and forth about ‘market-based reforms’ of public education. The concept gets confused by advocates pointing to the involvement in education reform of the Gates Foundation (‘obviously supporting reform so schools buy more Microsoft products:’ I don’t think so), or Pearson (‘obviously supporting reform to sell textbooks and software:’ well, maybe). But ‘market-based’ is not the same as private companies or organizations being involved in education.

Almost sixty years ago, Milton Friedman described a hypothetical world in which parents would receive tax-supported vouchers to pay for their children’s education. Parents could use their vouchers at whatever school they believed was the right fit for their child. There would be no distinction between public and private schools. They all would be private unless governments decided to open their own schools and use vouchers as revenue. Essentially the GI Bill does this for higher education. This is the market-based reform. The small-scale voucher programs that have been studied to date are nothing like what Friedman envisioned, for the simple reason that behind all these modern voucher programs, public schools still exist. In the world Friedman sketches, there is no neighborhood public school open and free to all residents of its local area. He was arguing that it was useful to separate the role of government in supporting public education from the role of government in delivering public education.

To see this usefulness in action, let’s think how parents would behave in Friedman’s world, one in which there is no free public school down the street. They would need to search for and compare suitable schools. They would look at indicators of school performance and quality: test scores, attendance rates, teacher absenteeism, retention rates, graduation rates, college-going rates. They might check references from parents whose children attended the schools. They might expect schools to respond quickly to their questions, provide regular updates on their child’s progress, and generally convince them the school is delivering the best education for the parent’s money (the voucher cannot be turned into cash and spent on other things, but it belongs to the parent). They would behave like buyers of private-school education.

And as sellers, schools would respond to buyers. How would public schools—and private schools—respond to parents in a market? They would identify and change practices that hamper their operations and effectiveness (Paul Hill describes some in his recent essay, which is for another post). They would monitor research and try to learn from each other to deliver an even better product. They would try to deliver the best education for the money. This is the powerful insight in Friedman’s essay and what he meant by the market model. Decades later, it is still worth thinking about whether this market metaphor can generate ideas or innovations that improve public schools.



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