The long history of school choice division


Most people, acting rationally, would prefer to choose the school their child goes to as opposed to having their child forcibly assigned to a school. So opposition to school choice seems no less strange wherever it comes from. Nonetheless understanding the reasons is enlightening. The divide of opinion on school vouchers in the States, for example, is portrayed as being between the left and the right. Or Republicans against Democrats and whites against minorities. But it is not as simple as this and not really the case. A new paper (pdf) by Shuls and Wolf studies the empirical reality regarding the political and racial divide over vouchers and explains its history in the U.S to offer conclusions about the logic of political support of and opposition to school choice. It also explains, for the unacquainted, what we mean when we talk about private school choice.

These two charts demonstrate the rise and prevalence of Private School Choice Programs in the States today:





The interesting finding is that while support for vouchers does tend to be higher among Republicans, support at the policymaking level is found both among ideological Democrats of the social-justice-promoting kind like Senator Corey Booker, and Republicans like Senator Rand Paul who support free markets. Those opposed tend to be moderate and mostly rural Republicans and establishment Democrats.

Teachers’ unions contribute more money than any other interested party to election candidates in the U.S. Of their campaign contributions, 88-99% of national-level, and 80-90% of state-level, contributions have gone to Democrats. The priority policy issue for the main teaching unions – the National Education Association and (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – is to stop the spread of private school choice. Therefore one reason why so many Democrats may actually be opposed to school choice is that they would be doing so in spite of their single largest funder.

On the contrary, one has to ask why elected politicians in the U.S would support private school choice given teaching unions’ opposition. Research conducted for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found 40% of parents polled would prefer to send their child to a private school and 10% of respondents would rather a public charter school. Private school vouchers were supported by 63% of respondents.

As DiPerna reports, “The demographic groups having the highest positive margins and most likely to favor school vouchers are school parents (+42 points), Southerners (+36 points), Republicans (+42 points), young voters (+44 points), low-income earners (+47 points), African Americans (+50 points), and Latinos (+47 points)” (DiPerna 2014, p. 14).

Reports from parents are far-off actual enrolment figures. The National Center for Educational Statistics tells us 9% of K-12 students attend private schools and 4% attend charter schools. So the Friedman Foundation poll suggests that opposition from the unions is pitted against popular opinion, especially in areas with more young people and ethnic minorities.

Inspired by the Prisoner's Dilemma, the School Choice Dilemma explains some of this by  illustrating the compelling reasons for the opposition and support found in various political factions. Imagine two groups of students, one "advantaged" and one "disadvantaged"; one has enjoyed educational trips, access to materials and so on and the other hasn't. When both are given the opportunity to either accept their assigned school or to choose it themselves, they will be impacted in different ways.

If they both accept the assigned school, then there will be a mix of advantaged and disadvantaged students, which benefits (B) the disadvantaged from integrating with a brighter peer group; but may actually harm (H) the advantaged. Compared to this, the diagram shows that both will have an incentive to 'defect' and move to a situation where only they get S—the benefit of school choice. Advantaged students can already do this by buying houses near good schools or going to private schools—but the disadvantaged achieve this through targeted vouchers.


The conclusion is that we will probably continue to see rational politicians from both sides oppose school choice as the establishment in both parties have strong political incentives for protecting the status quo. Meanwhile social-justice politicians see school choice as a means to improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, and free-market individuals see school choice as a fundamental way to make education more efficient.