Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

The Market Doesn’t Care About Educational Equity

April 08, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

As the rhetoric in Minnesota's upcoming gubernatorial race heats up, you're bound to hear a lot about school choice -- in-district choice programs, charter schools, and vouchers to private schools. While Minnesota currently doesn't have a voucher system, here are a few key details to keep in mind when candidates toss out the idea.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University, presenting at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference this year, reported that many areas that have voucher programs don’t have enough participating private school “seats” to meet the voucher supply. Private schools in these areas can choose not to accept vouchers, and many choose to do so for financial, academic, or religious reasons. Of the private schools willing to accept vouchers, many are Catholic schools (where tuition is already pretty close to the voucher amount), and families that aren’t Catholic may be reluctant to jump in.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. In most cases, vouchers are less than the amount private schools charge for tuition, but participating schools are generally expected to accept the voucher as payment in full. Accepting students on vouchers may also require private schools to participate in state tests that they were not previously subject to. Finally, for schools that have been built around a particular focus or denomination, accepting students from outside their preferred type can be seen as less than preferable.

Voucher supporters may not see this as too big of a problem, anticipating that the market will provide by seeing new schools open specifically to take in students on vouchers. Families sold on the program who assume that vouchers will let their children access local high-prestige, high-quality private schools, however, may find themselves disappointed.

This raises the question of who does fill that gap between existing schools willing to accept vouchers and the number of people looking to use vouchers. This is where the experience of Milwaukee’s longstanding voucher program, and to a lesser degree, established charter school programs (which are also about the creation of new schools outside the traditional district system), are instructive. Roughly, we can think of most new schools as falling into one of five categories:

  1. Schools started from scratch by well-intentioned people, and that prove effective and sustainable.
  2. Schools started from scratch by well-intentioned people, and that prove ineffective and/or unsustainable.
  3. Schools started by multi-school chains that prove effective and sustainable.
  4. Schools started by multi-school chains that prove ineffective and/or unsustainable.
  5. Schools started with the intention of making a quick buck on public dollars, at the expense of children and families.

Here, the state has a definite interest in making sure that the process of starting and running schools that accept public money—whether private schools accepting vouchers or charter schools—are effective and sustainable. This is where the pure free market ideology underlying a market-based system of education runs into the necessary regulation required to advance equity. It’s a reminder of what we’ve known for a long time: Markets promote efficiency, not equity. The conditions required for an equitable school system are not, in general, compatible with the conditions required for a purely competitive market.

As recent reports here in Minnesota have demonstrated, there is still a need to keep an eye on how we maintain effective oversight of charter schools, too. Here, that means relying on state-approved authorizers to keep an eye on the charter schools in their charge. While there has been some attention paid to increasing the pressure on authorizers to close charter schools over academic performance as measured by test scores and graduation rates, we also need to keep an eye on other factors that contribute to the quality and safety of the education students receive.

One major goal of school choice is to give families more power over their children’s education. People should have more power than just the option to walk away from district schools. We need to do more to empower families to help guide and improve the schools their children attend within districts, and we need to ensure that non-district options are safe, high-quality, and not out to exploit students and families. The market doesn’t care about education equity, so we have to.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Mike Downing says:

    April 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Markets simply look at outcomes. Compare input costs vs outcomes with other developed countries and the U.S. should be embarrassed!!

  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    April 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    The purpose of charter schools ostensibly to create labs for documenting possible improvements or new models of success.  The data gathering used in charter schools comes nowhere close to monitoring the effectiveness of specific interventions or school models.  The school leaders have insufficient background or interest in documentation and are just interested in operating a school using techniques or content of choice.  The promise of charter schools was never intended to be fulfilled as written into law.  Operators of charter schools are well-meaning teams (or often individuals) who have good intentions but virtually no background in research and statistics analysis needed in order to have something to talk about related to the success of their schools.  As entrepreneur spirits they are interested in operation, not inspection and consideration.  We need persons to run the store, but we need a reason to run the store and the reason cannot be assessed using the current global measures required for statewide comparisons. The money spent on charters is at present a palliative to critics of regular schools. 
    The true measure of success should be detailed measures of raising the lowest quarter of students to criterion-based standards that are clear and concise (unlike the common core that has been constructed to be curricula for implementation instead of general standards).  The easiest and mindless thing to do is to promise to raise standards.  We usually don’t need new standards.  Instead, how about mastering the standards we already have (for the lower quarter of the school population (aside from certain categories of special education where other standards apply).
    The charter schools should be all about methods for mastery.  Instead, the regular school model is continued in the charter schools with similar results.  Look at the progress of students in the lowest quadrant—that tells us more than any measure I know. 

  • Yi Li You says:

    April 15, 2014 at 6:25 am

    I feel public schools in US, esp in MN is pretty good. I never think of letting my kids attend private schools. My kids have very good and positive experiences in their schools. By observing them, they love to go to school every day, even when they are sick, they don’t want to miss school.

    American education system really cultivate children of positive attitude in their environment, society. The polite, loving behaviors, etc.
    The one thing public schools can improve that: increase academic study load a little. students should have one final test every year at least from 1 grade to 12th grade. Now high school students don’t have comprehensive tests yearly:
    only: Writing test in 9th grade, reading in 10th grade, math in 11th grade. No test in 12th grade.

    I feel MCA test (English, math, science) should continue in high schools, besides those graduation tests in writing, reading, math. 2 tests each year not big deal for high schools. They are old enough to handle.
    Plus these tests are comprehensive test, just to see how well they master in general. Not test particular books they read or study. So test themselves won’t create extra burden for students.

    For these standard tests, all private schools, charger schools and home school students should take as well. In this way, we can compare how well each category of schools are doing.

    On the other hand, parents are not stand-by for their kids’ education. I don’t mean parents should teach and/or do homework with their kids. They need to be cooperative with school teachers, communicate with their kids’ teachers. at least attend parent teacher conference each semester. Remind their kids to do their homework each day.
    If kids need special help, e.g. special ed students, parents may need to help their kids at home also. because special ed students need extra help.

    I observe one fact that: some students at private schools are often comparing family assets a lot, talk about buying brand products for dialing living, e.g. clothes, shoes, etc. I don’t think that is healthy way in cultivating their personal characters.

    Yi Li You,