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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 01 2013

The Persuasive and Progressive Case for School Choice, Vouchers, and For-Profit Education

I went to Wesleyan University, a far left paradise where the number of conservatives could be counted on two hands (one for students, one for faculty). Naturally, in my first education policy class, we all went crazy about the horribleness of the voucher/privatization movement. But despite our talk, when the professor played the devil’s advocate, none of us could come up with a solid case against the movement. It was a fantastic exercise, forcing us to realize that most of our critiques were shallow and emotionally driven. Indeed, I don’t think we were alone: my biggest gripe with the professionalization movement (or anti-reformers) is their essentially visceral and emotional case against the role of for-profits in education. Such arguments are ineffective at persuading half the population, ignorant of the reasonable hope of for-profit organizations to improve schools, and miss the opportunity to discuss the surprisingly convincing empirical and theoretical arguments that for-profit organizations cannot improve our schools.

The American Enterprise Institute is advertising a new book exploring the role of for-profit institutions in education. The video included seems to have a very one-sided take in favor of giving for-profits a chance, but the book seems to have a refreshing diversity of contributors and supporters (most surprisingly Columbia’s Jeffrey Henig). I haven’t read the book yet, but have been thinking alot about for-profit education and thought I’d use the occasion to explore the topic, since it may be gaining speed in terms of popularity as it may be the one thing that unites the reformer and the tea party right (and perhaps even some on the left that are averse to bureaucratic control of schools). Now, I am very nervous that for-profit education will spread, because I don’t think it will help. I’ll explain my reasons in the next post, but for now want to emphasize that there is a very persuasive case to be made in favor for-profit education. I think the left needs to get better at rebutting that argument. So I’ll play devil’s advocate. Prove me wrong.


The case for for-profit education: Think about the world economy in the 1500’s. Think about life expectancy, quality of life, diversity of culture, etc.  Now compare that to today. It is not difficult to argue that the number one driver of such improvement in virtually every single indicator was the spread of free market (read: private property rights, freeish trade, not necessarily lack of regulation, redistributive income taxes, or lack of a safety net) institutions. As the deeper economic thinkers have argued, this is true not just because competition aligns incentives or is inherently virtuous, but because it allows people with the best information to make decisions. Prices then embody this localized information, and therefore give the rest of the world more information with which to make important decisions. Free markets also promote comparative advantage, so that the people and organizations are naturally guided by such price signals contribute in arenas where they have the most to offer. Finally, they ensure creative destruction, where instead of stagnating, unproductive businesses or industries go out of business, more efficient ones replace it, and displaced workers find more lucrative and productive uses for their skills.


Whether or not education is in “crisis”, we can all certainly agree that it hasn’t improved in efficiency at the same rate as the rest of the economy. The thought of our education system continually improving, innovating, and becoming more efficient at the rate of the rest of the economy should appeal to equity advocates, economists, and disgruntled taxpayers alike. The best case for applying this market-based logic to our school system (sympathetically reviewed by a far-left educational economist) is John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which makes a case that many “anti-reformers” (not necessarily professionalizers) should find compelling: democratic control, especially in conjunction with collective bargaining, produces  centralization, diminished school and teacher autonomy, and more regulations/reporting for the most struggling schools, invariably increasing their struggles. This is empirically true, as evidenced by virtually all complaints about the current school reform movement. They believe having an accountability system that rests on consumer choice in a market-based system would allow for school autonomy and specialization (think of principals as owners), which would translate into teacher autonomy, a more nuanced understanding of what good teaching is, and a more professional workforce. Instead of being held accountable to districts, states, and the federal government, schools would only be accountable to the families they serve. Their success would hinge on their students’ and families’ satisfaction.


Many have taken this idea a step further, arguing that integrating markets into education would allow for unbundling schools (half way down), so that traditionally defined roles and expectations (for example, one elementary school teacher teaching all subjects to one class of 25 students without help) get unpacked and then reassembled in ways that take into account teacher skills, student needs, etc. (for example, an all-star literacy teacher could spend all day teaching students how to read). Most teachers probably would agree that they either dislike or are not good at some of their responsibilities (e.g. discipline, paperwork, grading, math, teaching social skills, organizing the classroom, certain kinds of special education), and that some of their colleagues excel in these areas. A market-based system would give schools the autonomy to experiment with unbundling, so that you could specialize in what you are best at. It could also allow schools and districts to rethink what parts of the “teaching” role require advanced degrees and what kinds of courses would best prepare teachers. This may send productive signals to ed schools, and help clarify what exactly we mean by creating a teaching profession.


Think this could be done without the corrupting influence of profits? Think of pervasive political and district corruption over the past decades, think of the not-for-profit organizations that pay their friends exorbitant salaries while getting checks from all the biggest philanthropies. In a for-profit world, your salaries are only as big as your impact. Excessive profits or salaries would result in underinvestment in education, excessive parental dissatisfaction, and loss of revenue. Salaries would be high only to the extent that they attracted the best school leaders and teachers.


So, to sum up, do you think schools have not improved nearly as fast as they could be? Do you hate the idea of obtusely measured test-scores driving teacher evaluations, school rankings and closings, and teacher pay? Do you think forcing schools to make AYP, to plan their year around standardized tests or face forced turnaround or closure is both stupid and inhumane? Do you think your school and classroom should have more autonomy to address the concerns of your students and families? Do you think it’s reasonable that schools can have different approaches to achieving strong results for their students? Do you think schools shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel each year because of capricious local, state, and federal regulations or mandates? Do you think students have unique needs to deserve unique individualized attention, that they are more than a datapoint?  Do you think the ultimate measure of your success can be summed up in the relationships you build with your students and families, not necessarily your test scores?


Clearly, school choice, vouchers, and for-profit education are for you. Don’t agree? Prove me wrong.

5 Responses

  1. mches

    If you will indulge me:

    (1) Learning is a socially constructed activity. Class size and access to tutoring, for example, improve learning precisely because this increases the amount of social interaction between a teacher and a learner.

    (2) The bulk of a school’s outlays are committed to personnel. The bulk of that outlay goes to teachers.

    (3) Schools seeking to maximize profit will then need to drive down the cost of labor, either by paying teachers less or by reducing the number of teachers on force.

    (4) Absent any protection from organized labor, credentialed and experienced teachers will flee the profession and the talent pool would then be diluted by the inexperienced and untrained who will be required to work more hours for less pay and/or be supplanted by technology (see: Rocketship).

    (5) Parents possess asymmetric information about school quality. A privately-run school under this system may supply certain things some parents desire (discipline, good test scores, religious ed) with no real way of knowing if those practices translate to social mobility, economic security, or even college preparedness.

    (6) Elite private schools will charge even higher tuition when all parents are given equal subsidies (vouchers), allowing the most exclusive schools to provide yet more resources for the most well-off students.

    (7) Private schools, armed with a right to refusal, will weed out children who pose disciplinary challenges, setting an early precedent of institutional rejection and segregation of the most at risk youth.

    (8) Students who are in need of additional services (students who are ELL or have IEPs) are more expensive to educate. In a pure voucher system, they will either require additional subsidy (creating a moral hazard) or be rejected from mainstream schools and further segregated from non-disabled and English-proficient peers.

    If you accept these premises, this leads to widening inequalities between rich and poor, able and disabled. This does not fit a progressive agenda. For a public school model that works, see Finland.

    • yoteach

      Thank you for engaging!

      I definitely buy (5) and (7), and think the idea of institutional precedent is especially compelling.

      I’m not sure how 1 and 2 counter the voucher argument. (3) Happens all the time now because schools are the first thing on the cutting block when tough times hit or when some decide that taxes or deficits just *should* go down. There may be ways to preserve voucher sizes from axing that wouldn’t be a possible compromise under the current system. (4) is also currently happening at a scary rate with and without access to organized labor. I see (4) as being a result of lacking autonomy, feeling deprofessionalized, and being judged by algorithms or bureaucrats they have no relationship with. Vouchers could improve this. Businesses tend to be much better at realizing the importance of holding onto talent, evidenced by link at the bottom and the esteem with which it’s viewed by companies. (6) could be prevented by barring schools from charging tuition on top of voucher receipt (an easy compromise if vouchers are already conceded). (8) could be mitigated by some kind of scale of voucher size. Perhaps this creates some moral hazard, but perhaps this designation could require non-school actors. I also see it as a way of increasing attention paid to these students. The voucher could also increase based on poverty level, parental education, etc. so the government could more easily focus their efforts on particular marginalized groups.

      • mches

        1 and 2 are preconditions that lead to the diminished quality of educations from vouchers/privatization, not counters to vouchers. I should have been more clear.

        Your counter to 3 is not universal nor is it a logical endgame for public system. Suburban school districts like the one I went to as a child regularly pass bond elections which allow wages to remain competitive and facilities to be updated/built.

        My bigger point with 4 is that public system protects the profession’s quality with credentialing and training. A pure private system with no credentialing assures a revolving door of inexperienced novices given “teacher-proof” prescribed, scripted curricula. Data-beholden accountability is not an essential feature of public systems, just our crummy one.

        Your counter to 6 is most problematic. Limiting what a school can charge will limit the number of firms who will enter the market. It appears egalitarian on its face: “Ah ha! Now you’re forced to spend the same amount on school no matter what!” But it would be impossible to control money spent on family outlays outside of school. This is begging for loopholes which the wealthy are extremely adept at creating (regulatory capture!) Other exclusionary mechanisms would be used in the absence of discrepant tuition costs.

        Scaled voucher holds the most promise for me of all these ideas, though it contradicts the gospel of “equitable and increased per pupil expenditure doesn’t matter.” If the solution is to raise and distribute educational spending more evenly, why not just do so in the existing public system? See how that works first before throwing publicly elected school boards and workers’ rights out the window, too.

  2. yoteach

    Really interesting points. Regarding (4), I’m wondering if other industries and sectors of the economy are examples of private organizations that value professional autonomy, university credentials/partnerships, and more nuanced human resource policy. Various technology/engineering firms certainly value advanced degrees, businesses not only value but can often pay for MBAs, all without formal professional associations. Lawyers and doctors have carved out an interesting partnership between universities, bar (and analogous medical) associations, and for-profit (as well as not-for-profit) institutions. All that being said, I could see the future you paint as well, but again am not convinced the success of legitimate and respected teacher training programs necessarily requires a totally public system.

    I think you raise a good argument with #6. Certainly your right that it wouldn’t be as simple as it seems to cap what families can contribute (I’m not sure I see a good reason to bar outside organizations from investing in schools or districts to raise funds–though one could certainly make the case that this would lead to constantly growing districts to increase returns on investment, centralization/bureaucracy, and an analogous hierarchy that’s just void of anything but profit motive). Though does a widespread problem currently exist with charter schools bullying families into contributing more? I also imagine the most wealthy will say screw the voucher and just continue to enroll in unsubsidized totally private schools.

    I think the reason we don’t experiment with a public version of scaled vouchers today is (1) the funding mechanisms are much more complex (contributed from state/district and federal government) and going to either schools directly, CMOs, or districts to get filtered in particular ways and (2) political capital. Again, I think only large concessions in other arenas could lead to increasing funds for particular groups (especially when those groups don’t fall along class lines alone).

    With (3) your right that I’m thinking less about suburban schools at the moment. My childhood district was the same way.

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