Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Addressing the Anti-School Voucher Position

Written by johnleemk on 1:30:22 pm Aug 27, 2007.

Something is rotten in the state of education around the world today, and I think the core problem is choice in the education system. It is difficult to choose to start a new school or try a new method of pedagogy, just as it can be sometimes difficult to choose to join a different school with a different method of teaching. In short, the solution to an efficient system a competitive market, is lacking.

There are a number of solutions to the problem of education. What we basically want to achieve is state subsidisation of education, while at the same time ensuring there is an incentive to innovate amongst educators in the education system. One solution I've touted is a voucher system.

Naturally, like all radical and novel proposals, this idea has had its fair share of criticism. Some of it is sensible, but a lot of it is not.

One criticism has been that poorly performing schools ought to be propped up and given funding, rather than be allowed to die at the expense of students.

The natural response is that ff the school is being run inefficiently, to the point that it cannot compete with others in the area, it ought to close. Under a proper voucher system, the only reason such a school might receive insufficient funds is that it is not taking in enough students, meaning that other schools in the area are picking up the slack.

Some have bemoaned the possibility of students flocking to academically- and financially-superior schools, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of excellence for a privileged few, while the rest languish in underfunded and understaffed institutions.

The problem here is that it assumes new schools will not start up to meet demand. Are there really no teachers in academically-performing schools who don't dream of starting their own school, where they can be free to practice their own educational philosophy? New good schools will spring up to meet demand naturally, as long as we do not create barriers to entry for new schools.

Some have correctly pointed out that there is no immediate or obvious effect from switching from a state monopoly on education to a competing market where education is heavily subsidised by the government.

But the change is choice, really. It's simple economics: the more a particular firm's methods of educating are in demand, the more that firm is rewarded. There are competing styles of education, and that's what matters.

We tend to assume that the usual pedagogical styles are perfect, and can't really be improved upon. I doubt this is true - the education system is stifling people around the world, whether in Asia or America - probably even Europe. (Finland might be an exception, from what I've heard.) Unless we have some competitive incentive to innovate, education can't move forward. The state monopoly on education in most countries has meant that we don't move forward.

There is also a noticeable tendency on the part of many to assume that there is some monolithic entity ("the schools") which will monopolise the education system, whereby schools collude to pick students for admission and allocate teachers. However, government policy should work to prevent monopolies from erecting barriers to entry and colluding. A market-based system does not eschew government intervention altogether - it's textbook economics.

There are some fears, especially on the part of Americans who have a relatively non-standardised assessment system, that examinations will be overemphasised under a competitive market system. After all, it's one of the few (if not the only) objective ways for the government and parents to benchmark schools.

But this assumes that the only proper assessment method parents and students will have are tests. How true is this assumption? Well, do we compare the difference in a degree from Harvard and, say, Virginia State, by comparing standardised test results from both institutions?

Not many people look at GMAT scores when considering a university, so if we open up the market in lower education, there's no reason to expect a sudden overemphasis on tests. I find that a lot of emphasis on tests comes from excess state intervention - Asian education systems being one classic example.

One potent argument has been that education ought to provide people professional skill training, and also assist them in becoming valuable members of their society through cultural and political literacy. A more competitive education system might lead to one or the other being unduly neglected.

But ultimately, if students and parents value mechanical engineering and physics over English and history, why should the government stop them from doing so? The evil supply side (the schools) is frequently demonised, but apparently, those who receive an education also ought to have no say in what they learn.

Another good point is that it would be unacceptable for schools to close, since this would negatively affect students' educational experience. But surely there are alternative solutions?

The government could subsidise schools which take in students from schools that close, perhaps tying the value of the subsidy to a student-parent rating of the school after a year. Not allowing failing enterprises to shut down creates a moral hazard because there is no incentive to avoid failure.

One more excellent argument has been that in reality, most people don't have much choice beyond the three or four schools in their locality. Travelling any further would be an undue burden. But is this really an argument for not permitting a market system to operate?

In a market system, what those schools are, how they would teach and how they would be run, is determined by the people, rather than the government. Under a state-monopolised education system, there is hardly any sort of assurance that the school system will reflect what the people and educators of the area expect of their schools.

There are a lot of fallacious arguments made in favour of school vouchers. In particular, statistics of cloudy veracity have been used to argue that there is a direct and immediate correlation between school vouchers and academic performance, reduced costs, or both.

I hate ideologues who make a fetish out of vouchers because of some stupid ideology (one which normally would not be opposed to eradicating state funding of education altogether), and hide behind dubious figures to claim intellectual superiority.

But in the end, the argument for vouchers lies in some mechanism of choice and autonomy for educators and students, while maintaining public funding of the education system. That is the ultimate end we want to achieve. Whether this is through vouchers or through some other sort of system altogether, I do not know; all I care about is how we can achieve this end.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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