I’m certainly in favour of school choice. But I’m not convinced that Julie’s proposals – which would cost between $5 billion and $10 billion, depending on various options – represent value for money. Most of it would be spent giving current private school parents the entitlement they would have received had they sent their kids to a government school.
It’s paying people to do what they would do themselves anyway without public assistance. As a classical liberal, I need a lot of convincing that this is a sensible use of taxpayers’ funds (and personally I have difficulty with yet more income redistribution to people with school-age kids).
It is likely to speed up the current trend, by which private schools gain 0.3-0.4% of market share each year. But there are limits on how quickly private schools can expand, and even at triple that rate the majority of kids will still attend government schools for years to come.
So I do not believe that school choice can be achieved through the marginal method of speeding the shift to private schools. We have to tackle the central problem of centralised state education bureaucracies exercising too much control over government schools and over curriculum.
One potential model for government schools is public universities, which retain their public status while enjoying a reasonably high degree of operational autonomy (though they have signed too much of this away to get federal cash). I’d favour creating chains of quasi-government schools; large enough to get some economies of scale and to establish brands in the market, but not big enough to be dominant players. They would then be given substantial control over hiring and firing, curriculum, teaching methods etc.
Ideally, I’d also abolish guaranteed free public education, and fund all schools on a version of the SES model (the principles behind it, not the mess it has become). This means that middle-class parents would pay more, though poorer families in private schools would pay less since free education for the poor would be retained. This is a fair proposal in my view, and one that could lead to a reduction in total government expenditure rather than the increase Julie proposes.
However I would not jeopardise the educational, cultural and political benefits of abolishing centrally-controlled public education to make middle-class parents pay what they should. In that sense, I view a voucher system that treats all families equally as a second priority reform.