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A Case for Educational Markets From the Left

By Jal Mehta

I've been struck by the vitriolic reaction that always emerges around proposals to increase market forces in education. I wanted to use this post to say something about why even some of us on the left see some value to markets in education.

Most of my views are generally consistent with what we would think of as the left side of the political spectrum. I believe that the role of government is to help us achieve our collective aspirations, which means providing health insurance for all of our citizens, ensuring educational opportunity for all, protecting the environment, and a number of other functions associated with the public good. To put it in slightly more abstract terms, I believe in a welfare state that provides people with opportunity and protects them from the vicissitudes of capitalism.

So given that backdrop, why have I come to think there is a role for educational markets? It's not because of any love for Milton Friedman, but rather out of the painful gap between the rationale for public school espoused by Horace Mann, and the reality of a system in which 50 percent of students don't graduate in many of our nation's city schools.

To be more specific, I see three reasons to support a portfolio district type model, whereby schools are freed from many top down regulations, parents are given choice across public schools, and the role of the district and state is to support this system of schools rather than to run a school system.

1. Value pluralism - Schooling is inescapably about values and purposes, and in a nation as diverse as ours, there should be somewhat different versions of school. Some parents and students will want something more like Montessori, and others will want something more traditional. That's okay, and even healthy. Portfolio districts like Mapleton, CO, intentionally create this variety, and help parents and students choose the school that is the best fit for them. The authorizing district plays a role in providing a floor, and assuring that some common things are done in the spirit of e pluribus unum.

2. Effective schools - Relatedly, the literature on effective public schools, Catholic schools, and high performing charter schools is clear that good schools are mission oriented; they are organized around a shared set of goals that create a normative culture for faculty and students. The usual approach seeks to stovepipe in programs to lots of schools, and schools find themselves trying to comply with multiple, potentially inconsistent, signals from the district and state. In contrast, with the system of schools approach, each school is treated as its own unit, its own problem-solving or learning organization. The role of the district, then, is less to tell all schools to do X, and more to respond with support as School A is working on problem A, school B is working on problem B, and so forth. (Think of what a sea change that would be in the district role!) And, like a portfolio manager, it also has responsibility to close a school if it really is not working.

3. Making the decisions where the work gets done - Here's where critiques from the left, like Kozol's Death at an Early Age meets up with critiques from the right, like Chubb and Moe's Politics, Markets, and Schools, as well what you might think of critiques from the center, like Peters and Waterman's In Search of Excellence. From very different perspectives, all criticize the role of centralized bureaucracies as too distant from the real work of frontline practitioners. Schools need the ability to hire their own staff and make a range of other important decisions if they are going to be held accountable for results. Andreas Schleicher's research on international PISA leaders also stresses the importance of this kind of school-level autonomy. The charter-type tradeoff we see in portfolio districts provides the needed discretion to make these decisions.

There are at least two important criticisms of markets in education. One is about equity. Obviously, I worry about the potential for exacerbating inequality within a more market-type system, and would put a pretty firm government thumb on the scale to try to avoid it. There are lots of possibilities--you can attach more money to the poorer kids, giving schools greater incentives to enroll them; or you can use controlled choice, where parents rank schools of preference but the district makes the final decisions about assignment.

The second is about democracy. More choice does have the potential to change the way that parents interact with schools from voice and loyalty (we are collectively arguing about what we want from our schools) to exit (I'm finding the school that is right for my child.) But this is not necessarily the case--in a system in which more power is devolved to schools, parents can have increased democratic deliberation at those local sites. Rather than one site of democracy (the district) you now can have 50 or 100 different mini democracies.

We need to figure out a way to put together the elements of the system in a way that takes comparative advantage of what can and should happen at different levels. Right now, we assume that states and districts should reach a single set of decisions, and many schools should implement them. The portfolio model reverses that, empowering schools to make lots of different decisions, and asking districts to support and hold accountable. In my view, that's more friendly to good practitioners and more likely to yield better practice. Which is why this lefty supports a role for markets in educational improvement.

Jal Mehta is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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