I used to think school choice (vouchers/charter schools) was an alluring, intuitive, and potentially game-changing policy that could (if regulated adequately) produce gains in achievement comparable to gains in growth in any sector changing from bureaucratic to market management. Then I went to Sweden, where there has been an egalitarian national voucher program (probably more progressive than any voucher program we could create) for twenty years. After about thirty hours of interviews and a 200 page thesis on the subject, it became clear to me that school choice and educational competition does not lead to improved achievement or innovative new ways of learning and teaching. This is mainly because on the margins, it’s too expensive to compete and attract students based on well thought-out academic innovations. Instead, schools competed by offering flashy vocational programs that appealed to 14 year-olds, laptops, and drivers licensing programs. Moreover, the chaos that emerges from a system where enrollment rates are fluctuate so dramatically from year to year precludes teachers and schools from spending time on long-term plans for their classroom or their school, which has a profoundly negative impact on their long-term innovation, planning and creativity.
Unfortunately, I find that those who are skeptical of school choice as a primary means to of educational reform choose to argue with polemics, relying on turning people off to the very notion of mixing markets and education or pointing to a couple unconvincing studies in the United States, without dealing with the nuanced issues at stakes or taking seriously and effectively rebutting the benefits of school choice. They as a result are left out of the national conversation on school reform, and have little influence in even our left-leaning Department of Education. As someone who sympathizes with the logic of market-based education reform, I hope to provide a more nuanced and open-minded critique of the reform movement.