If We Make K-12 Education The Same As College, Expect The Same Results

“Imagine,” ask Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz, “what might happen if government involvement in education were restricted to giving school vouchers to households below the median income.”

I think it’s pretty obvious what would happen. K-12 education would start looking a lot more like college education, where by far the biggest federal involvement is semi-targeting tuition subsidies for people in need. What would happen is that is that out of pocket spending by higher income families on schooling would explode. Right now across the vast majority of the country, the convention is that moving to a place with a decent public school system and sending your kids to it constitutes doing the right thing by your kids. But in vouchertopia, there will be massive status competition. Parents who can afford to foot the bill to send their kids to the Ivy League of high school will do so. And, like in higher education, the “quality” of a given school will be determined primarily by the quality of the inputs. Consequently, schools will compete to try to be as selective as possible and will offer targeted tuition discounts to kids who enter school with unusually high ability levels. High school graduates will earn a substantial premium over dropouts, but we’ll have endless disputes over how much of this earnings premium is signaling/selection and how much reflects actual learning.

Needless to say, Kling and Schulz predict, instead, that vouchertopia will lead to an explosion of efficiency and innovation. But they have to explain why making K-12 education more like college education won’t just make K-12 education the same as college education. This is their effort:

Beyond grade 12, entrepreneurship in education is held back by government support for the incumbents in the industry. From accreditation to subsidies, government sends a message that existing colleges and universities are the only legitimate players, while new entrants are suspect.

But “giving school vouchers to households below the median income” would be a subsidy and it would require a system of accreditation. And since the vouchers would need to be pegged to some kind of objective measure of school costs, the vouchers would increase in size as tuition costs skyrocket, driven by status competition. Libertarians wouldn’t like this, and they’d write articles about how the problem could be solved if we would just get rid of subsidies and accreditation.

If subsidizing children’s education is a good idea (and I think it is), then you need some kind of effort to ensure that you’re paying for quality. That means you’re necessarily in some kind of statist command-and-control space. Alternatively, if you want to say that the government needs to just get out of the way, then the government needs to get way out of the way, and I don’t think there’s any evidence that this would be a good idea. A lot of Americans have in their heads this idea of us being historically the most free market and capitalistic country out there, but from the earliest days of the republic, we’ve been the best educated country.