The hypocrisy of Democratic politicians

Sandra Tsing-Loh is shocked and hurt that Obama sends his daughters to an expensive private school rather than the local public schools.

In Obama's defense, the public schools in Chicago are terrible.  My parents struggled with the same decision--my father worked for a Democratic city administration at the time, and they had both ideological and political reasons to want me to go to public school.  But the catastrophic condition of New York's public schools at the time was too much for them, and at considerable personal sacrifice they ended up putting me in private school.

What is intolerable to me is when parents who have exercised school choice for themselves then oppose it for everyone else.  Of course, Obama has little choice; the teacher's unions have far too firm a grip on the Democratic party for any of their politicians to buck its wishes.

It is true, to be sure, that vouchers will not ensure that everyone gets to attend the kind of ridiculous private school that I attended, tuition $38,000 and counting.  On the other hand, 22% of the kids in that school are on some form of financial aid; a $5,000 voucher for each of those students would let the school admit more financial aid students, which they ardently wish to do.

The worries about taking money away from the public schools are more valid:  as I heard from many administrators whom I interviewed for my story about demography, shrinking school districts do not see their expenses decline as fast as their student numbers.  Buildings still have to be heated, yards cleaned, and so forth.  Because the student numbers decline across grades, they have to lose a lot of students before they can get rid of one teaching slot.

Still, if the voucher is for less than the current full funding of the children, I see no problem.  And there's no question that public school budgets are bloated:  top-heavy with administration, for starters.  Too many city governments look at the schools first as a jobs program, second as a means for educating kids.  Why shouldn't they?  The mostly poor citizenry they serve aren't going to buy a house in the suburbs, and if they did, it would probably be a net fiscal plus for a city providing expensive services on a very thin tax base.

Vouchers, Democrats say, are no substitute for fixing the schools.  This would be true if anyone had anything other than nice-sounding phrases with which to fix them.  Giving money to failing urban school districts is like giving money to failing third-world economies; the entrenched interests siphon it off for their own uses.  Teacher salaries go up, janitorial pensions get fatter, more administrators are hired.  But the kids don't get any smarter.

Obama's plan to fix the schools:  more money.  More money for teachers, more teachers, more after school programs.  Absent are any specifics about what the new teachers will do that is any different from what the current teachers are doing that isn't working.  John McCain doesn't either, but at least he's planning to shake up the educational architecture that gets worse every year.

One of the central insights of economics is that exit matters.  Markets don't do better, over the long run, because people in the private sector are smarter or well meaning.  They do better because they can be fired.  What's more, they frequently are:  firms that don't satisfy their customers go away.  Look at the businesses that people in America complain most about:  cell phones, utilities, cable companies, health care.  What they have in common is that the end consumers do not have meaningful right of exit--those companies have at least a temporary monopoly on their customers.  Private sector firms can fail spectacularly, as many financial firms just did.  But the important thing is that they fail.   Schools that do to education what Bear Stearns did to mortgage bonds maybe get a stern talking to from the mayor, and in extraordinary circumstances, the principal may be fired.  (Though this takes year).  But the school itself keeps going no matter how bad a job it is doing.

Middle-class parents instinctively know this, because they move to places where the right of exit keeps school quality high.  Scarsdale knows that if it doesn't keep the schools successful, middle class parents will leave, taking their lavish tax dollars with them.  Riverdale, too, knows that it needs to keep parents happy and test scores high.  The New York City public school system, on the other hand, mostly has to get butts in seats, because that's how they get their money.  It's not that the teachers don't want to teach kids; it's that they don't have to.  And as anyone who's ever tried to write a novel in their spare time knows, anything onerous that you don't have to do generally runs afoul of other priorities.