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Future Shock: Markets Are Powerful, But Not Enough

By Andrew Rotherham

The commentary by Paul Hill and Terry Moe lays out a compelling vision for a more pluralistic school system. And because of changing parental demands, technology, and the imperative of a more customized school system this is the direction - in fits and starts - that schools are evolving. While predictions are hard (especially about the future), Hill and Moe are moving to where the ball is going to be.

Thankfully, there is real promise in this approach and more choice is not at odds with the core democratic values of public schooling. But there are also real challenges to this approach - that are too often overlooked. Three issues in particular deserve special attention.

First, talking about the need for oversight is much easier than actually making it happen in practice. Leave aside more than a century of struggles in public education; more recently, there are clear lessons from the charter school experience. Strong charter school authorizers have done an excellent job using a blend of quantitative and qualitative data to make determinations about school performance and then acted on that data. However, much of what happens in the authorizing space remains haphazard. This speaks to both how intentional this work has to be and also how politically complicated it is. And because most charter school authorizers are local school districts, the reality that they have a hand in today's mixed results for charter schools is a wake-up call about today's education infrastructure.

More generally, it is never easy to close low-performing schools and the idea that Adam Smith will somehow succeed where other efforts have failed is disproven by the experience of various public and private choice programs. Without keen attention to closures - not just performance metrics, but how to manage the process to actually close schools and ensure students end up in better options - a more pluralistic system could simply replicate (or exacerbate) today's problems under a different governance arrangement.

Second, there are important roles that school districts play and that must be preserved in a more pluralistic system. First, there is the basic responsibility to make sure that every child within their geographic purview is in school. There is also the role - infrequently discussed in policy conversations but nonetheless vital - of making sure that students who may be neglected, abused, have special needs, or are facing other issues are referred to the appropriate local agencies or law enforcement. There are also bureaucratic roles as part of the interface between schools and states and the federal government.

None of these issue are an inherent barrier to moving toward a more pluralistic system (and some of the bureaucratic roles could certainly be handled more efficiently than they are today), but these issues are examples of key public responsibilities and governmental roles that the marketplace cannot simply step in and address.

Finally, as Hill and Moe point out, the idea of "free" markets is something of a misnomer. We regulate different markets to different degrees and use various rules and regulations to create incentives and disincentives for various kinds of behavior and activities. Any marketplace for public schools will need, for instance, rules about access, civil rights, and accountability. In addition, policymakers will have to create incentives to ensure that all students - especially economically disadvantaged and special needs students - are served. Without deliberate attention more choice and pluralism can lead to the warehousing of some kinds of students, especially at the high school level.

Today we see a disproportionate amount of attention in the social entrepreneurial community toward helping the students who are least well-served by the current system today. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that as schooling becomes more pluralistic this ethos, alone, will be sufficient to maintain a focus on these students. Public policy - through finance, incentives, and direct support, for instance, new school incubators and technical assistance - must ensure that a genuinely high-quality blend of options exists for students in different communities.

None of the issues I've raised here are insurmountable barriers to a more choice-driven and pluralistic system of public education along the lines of what Hill and Moe describe or even reasons to oppose such an approach. But each illustrates that as we move toward a more mixed or market-oriented and customized school system policymakers must be intentional and thoughtful about how policies governing our public schools are constructed.

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner of Bellwether Education Partners.

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