Bloggish debate concludes, comments open

Andrew Leigh and I weren’t sure how our ‘bloggish debate’ on whether public schools should be privatised would go. Can you transport an old-media leisurely exchange of views to an instant feedback forum?

The posts, with comments off, did seem to lie dead on the page. They did not give me my blogging fix, or I suspect the fix of the regular commenters who didn’t want a week off from arguing among themselves – I had to write other things during the week (Andrew L restrained himself, but he has more of a life than I do).

But the idea of a bloggish debate seemed novel enough that we received far more links from other blogs than was otherwise likely, if we had we each written what we wrote separately. We even hit one of the big American blogs, Marginal Revolution, which for the first time knocked off Google to become the largest single source of referrals to my blog. My daily traffic this week has been about 40% higher than my long-term average, despite the closed comments, so overall the experiment has to be classed a success.

I’m not sure that I would make a habit of it though. I found writing it harder than writing a normal blog post, because it is more difficult to make the structure work: the challenge was to make a coherent case of my own while still responding to what Andrew was saying. It was easier in this case than my gay bar door policy debate, where the exchange went off on a tangent immediately and I had to simply ignore what Alan Soble was saying to get it back to what I wanted to argue. But the two Andrews debate still required more thinking about structure than normal for a short piece of work. It would have been impossible with comments open and many more threads to deal with.

If it worked for readers, it was perhaps because he and I were capable of having a discussion. With Soble, I was on such a different intellectual wavelength that there was little common ground on which to engage. What do you do with someone who thinks that he, sitting in Philadelphia, is better able to judge how lesbians in The Peel behave than The Peel’s owner? With Andrew, I have some ideological disagreements, but we have common views about what counts as evidence.

Anyway, I’m interested in people’s thoughts on both the format and the substantive issues. Comments are open on all the ‘bloggish debate’ posts.

Should public schools be privatised? Day 6

Day 6

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3] [Day 4] [Day 5]

Andrew Leigh:

Dear A.N.,

What a brutal final paragraph! So if I don’t support your plan, I guess that makes me a conservative who doesn’t care about teacher quality. Few arrows could have better found their target.

I’m pleased that you and I have found common ground on civics, at least. I began by claiming that public schools provided a common crucible. You said that public school civics was in crisis. But since neither of us could provide empirical evidence, we weren’t willing to stand fiercely by our claims (incidentally, I think this is why people like John Quiggin and I enjoy arguing with you so much more than we enjoy arguing with many people on the right of the political spectrum). Perhaps one day, policymakers will have some believable causal estimates of the impact of school type on some set of ‘good’ civic indicators. In the absence of that, only the firebrands will be able to stay passionate about that one.

So now we’re left with the more traditional economic arguments. You take the view that privatised public schools will be more efficient and more equitable. I think the opposite is true on both counts. Whether it’s for political or economic reasons, companies like Edison Schools that have set up to run large numbers of schools have done very badly. According to their Wikipedia entry, their costs are higher than the public system, and they have still failed to make a profit in all except one quarter of their existence. A result like this makes me concerned about the viability of such a model in Australia. If private schools have one-third of the market when they get 55% of the government funding, can we really be confident that they could make a viable go of it in the rest of the market with 100% of the government funding? Shocking as it may sound coming from an economist, I think there may be some things that governments do better than markets, and one of them is running schools.
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