Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The perils of school choice

Competition and other market mechanisms are not improving educational outcomes while increasing inequality

School choice has been one of the most controversial issues in education. Why should something which is so self-evidently desirable, that parents should have choice of which and what kind of school their children go to, be so controversial? The controversies are rooted substantially in the evolution of the US school system; the simple phrase hides an ocean of deep crosscurrents.

From the middle of the 19th century till the 1960s, there were roughly two sets of ideas grappling with issues related to schools, which often conflicted on the matter of choice. The first set was about school education being foundational for democracy, about equal education for all and about curriculum that must develop engaged citizens. These ideas (and inspiration from the Prussian model) led to the common school system in the US. All children from a neighbourhood would go to one school, which was publicly funded and publicly managed, thus the phrase common school.

The other set of ideas were equally a part of the core beliefs underlying American democracy. This was about the centrality of freedom of individuals and thus of their choices, often coinciding with libertarian thought of minimizing the role of the state. It was this set of ideas that then shaped the character of the American common school system in significant ways—schools being funded through local taxes, the curriculum being determined by local boards.

Let’s look at a few details related to school choice in the battle of these ideas. There was conflict over choice in curriculum—some thought religious instruction was integral to education, which was strongly opposed by the idea that public institutions must be secular. The choice of who should be the schoolmates of one’s children was another key issue; for almost 10 years after Brown vs Board of Education and the desegregation of US schools, school choice was used to hold on to segregation in some places.

Substantially driven by Milton Friedman’s ideas, a new dimension was introduced to school choice in the 1960s. This was about introducing market mechanisms such as competition amongst schools to drive efficiency and quality. Central to this was the idea of parents as consumers, choosing which school their child would go to, in aggregate forming the demand side of the school market. This was the advent of the economistic way of thinking about school education.

Proponents of these ideas were aware of the quasi-public good nature of education and the normative importance of providing equal education to all children. So their practical recommendations amounted to a quasi-market, with provision of schooling done by competing schools, both public and private, but the financing to make sure that all children had access to equal education being publicly provided. Over the past 30 years, this economistic notion of school choice has become its core meaning, other matters have receded to the periphery. This narrowing of meaning has made school choice a direct force against public school systems, at least that is the way it has often unfolded.

In the past three decades, this notion of school choice has been implemented in the US, Sweden, Chile, etc., enabled by educational vouchers, charter schools and other mechanisms. The evidence over this period and from various quarters is clear that competition and other market mechanisms—school choice of this nature—are not improving educational outcomes in any of these countries; on the other hand, it is increasing inequality. No wonder Chile, Sweden, etc., are rethinking on this matter. I have written about this earlier (Politics trumps economics and Swedish education experiment).

The unheralded haven of the economistic notion of school choice is India. With the complete absence of any design, almost by oversight, we have developed perhaps the most competitive and the largest market in schools in the world. We have schools of every sort mushrooming everywhere, with parents entirely free to choose schools for their children. True to a market, schools are available at various price points, marketing themselves hard. The right to education law has created perhaps the world’s largest voucher programme by another name. In a related aside, it’s so-called threat for closure (often for good reasons) of schools is vastly exaggerated.

This haven is the most unequal school system in the world, hardening and sharpening all manner of socioeconomic inequalities. And as this kind of school choice has engulfed the country, educational outcomes of our school system have steadily deteriorated.

Education creates incomes and livelihoods. But it does lot more than that. It is a critical building block for a more just and equal society that we dream of. In providing more opportunities to students who lack them and creating shared citizenship, education strengthens the foundation of the republic.

Reducing education to mere economic choice does the opposite. When, as in India, so called choice does nothing to improve quality and worsens already existing inequalities, it sows the seeds of alienation and social upheaval. Our only real way out of the morass we have made for ourselves is to improve the public education system.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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