Educational Choice: A Mixed Bag

Frederick Hess takes a hard look at the school choice movement:

The biggest mistake pro-market school reformers have made can thus be put simply: They have mistaken choice for competition. The conviction that school choice constitutes, by itself, a market solution has too often led reformers to skip past the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities that choice-based reform can provide. Choice is merely part of the market equation; equally crucial are the requirements that market conditions permit high-quality or cost-effective suppliers to flourish, that regulation not smother new entrants, and that rules not require inefficient practices or subsidize also-rans.

Note that reformers rarely focus on "choice" when promoting market-based improvements to other sectors; in earlier decades, reformers didn't speak of "telecommunications choice" or "airline choice." Rather, they talked of "deregulation." Implicit was the understanding that deregulation involves more than the mere proliferation of options, that dynamic markets require much more than customers' choosing among government-operated programs and a handful of non-profits, and that vacuums in a particular sector will not naturally or necessarily be filled by competent or virtuous actors. Whether dealing with nascent markets in Eastern Europe in the 1990s or the vagaries of energy deregulation, reformers have struggled to nurture the institutions, incentives, and practices that characterize healthy markets. Markets are a product of laws, norms, talent, information, and capital, and the absence of these can readily yield market failures not because markets do not work, but because markets are not a magical salve.