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Parents as Education Consumers

One of the favorite arguments made by corporate reformers is that competition between public schools will improve educational quality.  They base their assertion on what they say is the market's fundamental efficiency. As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I've also repeatedly warned that not all children have parents who are involved enough in their education to take advantage of the options open to them.  There's another warning I'd now like to emphasize.  It's called consumer inertia ("Obamacare's Inertia Problem," The New Yorker, Dec. 8).

The basic assumption of competition among schools is that parents are consumers.  Therefore, if they are given an ample menu of schools, they will exercise their power. But that is not what has happened under the Affordable Care Act.  People have had great difficulty comparison-shopping and changing their allegiance.  Economists call this switching costs, which can be seen partially in monetary terms.  But they can also be seen in terms of the hassle involved.  It takes too much time and knowledge to understand the complicated and confusing products available.

I submit that switching costs also exist in education when parents are given the opportunity to choose from an array of schools.  To begin with, each school has a different mission.  Then there are pages of rules to follow in applying for admission.  Parents who lack education and sophistication are overwhelmed and often fear making the wrong choice.  As a result, they give up and keep their children in the same neighborhood school that they complain about.  Corporate reformers will claim that making more information available is the answer.  Yet I wonder if this is not counterproductive. There is already information overload, which drains parents of energy and time.

But the supreme irony of parental choice is that months of research and deliberation can come down to a fraction of a second of mathematical calculation.  At least that's the case in New York City, where experts in game theory were commissioned to design a sorting solution to the matching of parents and schools ("How Game Theory Helped Improve New York City's High School Application Process," The New York Times, Dec. 5).  The problem was that there were too few good schools to satisfy the demand for admission.  To make the process equitable, experts devised what is called the deferred acceptance algorithm.  Students "propose" to their favorite school, which accepts or rejects the proposal. In the case of rejection, the algorithm seeks to make a match with their second-choice school, and so on down the line.  The strategy has dramatically reduced the number of disappointed students and parents.  Yet it has not eliminated it.

I still believe in parental choice.  But I cannot stress enough that it is far from the solution.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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