Alex Massie

A Choice Revolution

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Reihan Salam has a characteristically excellent post on school choice that has some bearing on the Conservatives' proposed reforms in England. Reihan's talking about the US and the suggestion that Milwaukee's voucher programme hasn't delivered as much as one might like, but his general argument applies to this side of the atlantic too. Bottom line: choice is not enough. Or, to put it another way, choice is a beginning, not an end*. As he puts it:

[C]hoice-based reform at its best creates an opportunity for educational innovators to create new models, deploy new technologies, etc. The ultimate goal is to create a flourishing educational marketplace that goes beyond the binary choice of going to school A or school B. We also want to create markets for focused solution shops that, for example, focus exclusively on recruiting high-quality teachers, offering specialized math instruction, developing strategies for integrating technology in the curriculum. Some of this already exists. But the way that educational dollars are disbursed stymies the development of these specialized markets, and educational productivity suffers as a direct result.

Consider, for example, a food marketplace in which you receive a large voucher that can only be spent at a single food facility — a combination supermarket-restaurant that served all of your food-based needs. Fast food, fine dining, cereal, arugula: once a year, you choose where you'll get all of it. Or buy a house that is bundled with your single food facility. Would we have as diverse and competitive and productive a marketplace for food?

Clearly this creates a political problem: how do you measure success before it's had a chance to be, well, achieved? In this context it's easy to see why politicians prefer to measure problems by inputs than outputs. See all this extra "investment"? That proves we're on the right track!

You can measure cash; allowing time for far-reaching reforms to work their way through the system (and building that choice system in the first place) doesn't sit comfortably with the nature of the modern political cycle. Too bad, you say and of course that's true, but it's also one of the reasons why anything more than piecemeal reform or, more simply, lobbing more money at a problem, is so difficult to achieve.

*Though I'd say that even choices that lead to no overall improvement in performance could stll be considered useful in themselves and that options are a virtue. Clearly, however, it's optimal when there's sufficient capacity in the system and diversity of provision to provide real choices. As, for example, exists with university entrance. Now, sure, provision is going to be greater in large urban areas than in small rural communities but, again, we're talking about starting a revolution here, not completing it in a year or two.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.