Radically Centrist Education: A Thought Experiment

This one’s heavy on the “radical” and light on the “centrist”. 

I knew I had a bit of Marxist in me somewhere. There are remarkably few instances where elimination of private services can have any benefit. Some recent (broadly unrelated) findings from Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, to me, suggests otherwise. But I’d argue my following proposal for education reform is also sufficiently centrist as – given certain important caveats – it will heavily diminish the Department of Education’s driving mandate.

Consider a country where the federal government didn’t fund any educational institutions. It levied no redistributive taxes to help the poor catch up with their richer brethren. We could well be living in a night watchmen state. It did, however, institute one law: private education is banned at the primary and secondary level, and federated states must randomly allocate children into schools across a reasonable geographic distribution. Another way to think about it is all privately established institutions (aside from a select, grandfathered few) must offer entry by lottery (this would also deal with a few adverse selection effects of which I speak later).

Socioeconomic cohesion is a natural argument in favor of this proposal. But the potential upsides run a little deeper than that. Take a very divided city like Chicago, with a rotting inner-city populated by blacks and gentrified suburbs with private and what-might-as-well-may-be private schools catering to the affluent. In Chicago, like the United States around it, the merely middle class and affluent do remarkably well. In fact, for families earning over $50,000 – a healthy, but definitely not incredibly high, sum – Americans are amongst the most educated internationally, contrary to stereotypes otherwise.

Lagging education in America derives largely from a large number of poor immigrants and a historically impoverished underclass. (Apologists of our system rightly note that adjusting for ethnicity, Americans are the amongst the best-educated youth in the world).

Here’s the immodest proposal. We know that middle class and affluent schools are doing something right. We don’t know what, and we certainly haven’t been able to export that know-how into success at the inner-city and rural areas. Throwing money, by itself, hasn’t helped either. There’s good reason to believe a lot of it has to do with community engagement which thrives when parents can afford to take a lot of time off to hold the school accountable, and have the confidence to fight against a bad administration.

But let’s say all kids in Chicago were randomly allocated to a school within suitable distance – long enough that rich kids might have to go to poor areas, and vice-versa. The large number of affluent plus families in the area would be compelled to ensure all schools are up to snuff, lest their poor kid end up in a bad program.

This might mean that the rich would voluntarily raise property taxes to finance local education – because private schools are illegal it’s, to their chagrin, the only way to increase financing. It might also mean that schools cut back on wasteful or unnecessary programs. Whatever the case there’s little reason to believe resource scarcity will be a serious problem in a country as rich as the United States.

Because public education is a very localized process in the United States, we might say there’s a “wisdom of the market” that lets good schools succeed. That is to say we don’t know exactly what they do, but if we align those with resources to the right incentives it’s not hard to replicate. We can bank on the fact that America’s extremely successful upper middle will never let their children go to a shoddy school. Today, because richer districts pay well and offer better working conditions, the affluent schools also crowd out the labor market for teachers leaving less motivated and competent teachers for the poor. This proposal would paralyze that competition.

The big caveat is that if states randomly allocate kids across a narrow geographic area, adverse selection processes will compel the rich to select themselves out into their own little cove to a greater extent than today. This isn’t a light issue, but there’s no reason to believe that geographic residence “markets” are perfectly competitive and that people want to gentrify beyond a certain extent (the allure of living in exclusive neighborhoods is probably as conspicuous as it is utilitarian).

We haven’t seen high taxes in richer, bluer states like New York – Rick Perry’s Texas campaign be damned – drive out the best and brightest. In general, it’s a lot easier to move within a locale than between locales, and the evidence that we might have broad, cross-regional assortative effects is extremely weak. (Otherwise California and New York would be poorhouses, by now).

I think this would elevate educational attainment and lower expenditure as a percent of GDP, at the same time. Aside from paying teachers more – which richer districts do quite well – a lot of the money we’ve thrown at education has been for naught (many, much poorer, countries do better for the poor than we do). By getting government out of any and all educational subsidy, the random allocation mandate would force an efficient utilization of scarce resources – something that economists would love.

Naturally, this is a truly radical proposal that murders any resemblance to our deeply unequal, yet government-dominated, educational system of today. I’m not even sure I support it but, given a few caveats, it could offer important insight into making education work. It’s a deep abridgment of personal agency and liberty. But it’s also liberating. Whether we like it or not we live in a society with a strong government omnipresent in most activities. It’s unclear whether this is any the more illiberal than taxation or regulation, but it has potentially grander benefits.

  1. ‘I knew I had a bit of Marxist in me somewhere’

    You have a lot more Mussolini in you. It’s a classic fascist argument you’re making; everything for the state, everything through the state, nothing against the state. In this case, forcing little children to pay for your enthusiasms. How do you live with yourself?

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