An introduction to the economics of school choice
Spurred by perceived inefficiencies in centralised education systems, school choice has in the past decades gone from a mostly fringe academic theory to a mainstream policy option worldwide. The idea is that the expansion of choice – through, for example, open enrolment and private-school vouchers – will increase market incentives in the school system, thereby spurring higher productivity in the sector.
According to economic theory, one would generally expect markets to be more efficient than monopolies in allocating resources, leading to competitive pressures, emulation of best practices, and innovation. Broadly speaking, there are three mechanisms through which choice is supposed to increase education quality. First, it may improve the match between pupils and schools. Second, if choice leads to a reallocation of pupils to higher-quality schools, we would assume that achievement would improve. Third, choice forces schools to compete to attract pupils, leading them to improve or go bust.
However, there are also reasons to be sceptical of school markets, which are in many ways very different to other markets. Indeed, school markets in the developed world are 'quasi-markets' where the government pays the bill. This also means that the price mechanism – which normally acts as an easily interpretable signal to consumers and producers how to act – does generally not exist in developed-world education systems.
Even in cases where the price mechanism does exist, as in many developing countries, education quality is complex and not easily discernible, making it difficult for parents to hold schools accountable for their performance. More advantaged parents may also primarily seek to use choice to segregate their children rather than maximising school quality. If so, we may merely expect
But what does the empirical evidence say? Overall, research often finds small-to-moderate positive effects of choice and competition on academic outcomes. There is little evidence of outright negative effects, with some exceptions. Interestingly, the findings from the developing world, where school markets are perhaps more similar to regular markets, often indicate more consistently positive effects in this respect.
The idea that school choice is a panacea or that it is entirely negative, as it is often claimed by supporters and detractors respectively, is therefore not supported by the literature. Instead, the effects of choice likely depend on the institutional framework in which it operates. For example, parents often start choosing better schools when they are provided with quality information, indicating that informational interventions may improve the functioning of choice. In other words,
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Heller-Sahlgren, Gabriel. 2013. Incentivising Excellence: School Choice and Education Quality. CfEE: London.
Heller-Sahlgren, Gabriel. 2018. 'Smart but Unhappy? Independent-school Competition and the Wellbeing-efficiency Trade-off in Education.' Economics of Education Review 62:66-81.
Lavy, Victor. 2018. 'The Long-term Consequences of Free School Choice'. NBER Working Paper.
Muralidharan, Karthik and Venkatesh Sundararaman. 2015. 'The Aggregate Effect of School Choice: Evidence from a Two-Stage Experiment in India.' Quarterly Journal of Economics 130(3):1011-1066.
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