The School Choice Information Problem

November 19, 2015

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

“I support school choice,” some education policymakers say, “but we need to make sure parents choose good schools!” In order for parents to choose good schools, of course, they need good information. Not information from government bureaucracies—which have a long track record of measuring the wrong things and deceiving parents—but from emerging resources such as Great Schools, Global Report Card, School Grades, and more. Better information, not tighter regulation, is the best way to let parents improve school quality.

Are parents capable of choosing good schools? Although that’s the root question behind school choice in one way, in another way it’s the wrong question to ask. If we want school choice to succeed, and if we want to fend off political challenges to school choice policy, we should instead be asking: What do parents need in order to choose good schools? The answer is not just “school choice.” But it also is not “school choice with tons of super-helpful government interference.” It’s school choice with something else—something government can’t provide, but others can.

This worry that parents can’t choose good schools used to be confined to defenders of the government school monopoly. Give parents a choice, they would say, and they’ll send their students to worse schools. Meanwhile, education reformers of all stripes, even if they weren’t particularly friendly to school choice policy, at least understood themselves to be pro-parent. They didn’t want to take a stand that would imply parental incompetence.

Those days are over. Now, we’re far more likely to hear this complaint from people who call themselves reformers—not only those whose reform of choice is tightened federal control, but even some of those who support school choice, like the Fordham Institute. “I support school choice, but…” has become a more common phrase. And what comes after the “but” is some variation of “we need to make sure parents choose good schools!”

The teacher and staff unions, by contrast, have started positioning themselves with much more pro-parent rhetoric than they used to. Their arguments against choice these days turn on other myths. They talk about how choice “drains money” from public schools (it doesn’t), it increases segregation (it actually decreases segregation), and it will allow fringe groups to create “hate schools” (in 25 years this hasn’t happened; choice increases students’ levels of respect for the rights of others). The one thing you rarely hear from them these days is that ordinary parents can’t be trusted.

There are several reasons for these changes. One is the collapse of the school monopoly’s credibility. As opportunities for reform increase, reformers find themselves more and more in situations where they disagree with each other and have to fight each other to see whose idea of reform (top-down or bottom-up) will win the day. Meanwhile, the unions are forced to retreat and seek new allies. They can’t scorn parents any longer; they need the votes.

A more important reason is the greatly increased political success and attractiveness of school choice itself. For at least a generation, education reform has moved in cycles. It will be very hot, and lots of new legislation will pass; then public attention will pass to other issues for a while, until the next cycle begins. And during each high point over the past 20 years, school choice has gained more political strength. There are now 59 private school choice programs in 28 states plus Washington, D.C., serving hundreds of thousands of students.

This has brought school choice new allies—allies who aren’t yet completely comfortable with the idea. They see that other reform strategies fail while choice succeeds, and they see that parents and voters are increasingly supportive of the idea. They see that the unions’ predictions of doom and catastrophe have not come true. But they still worry. Is it really safe to take our hands off the wheel and let parents be in charge?

It has also meant that the limitations of school choice in its current form are becoming more visible. Existing programs are badly limited and hindered by many unreasonable regulations. This has made it difficult to attract educational entrepreneurs who create radically reformed schools; unfortunately, the programs we have now mostly just transfer students from public schools to existing private schools, which are marginally but not radically better. The correct response is to push on towards universal choice in order to attract more entrepreneurial schools, but many people see the moderate results and think that more controls are needed to improve quality.

Existing school-choice programs are badly limited and hindered by many unreasonable regulations. This has made it difficult to attract educational entrepreneurs.

But the most important reason we are hearing more concerns about parental ability to make good choices is something economists call “the information problem.” This is a problem people encounter when they have the opportunity to make a choice. As more and more parents are getting the opportunity to choose schools, they are encountering the information problem, and something is needed—something that public policy, including school choice policy, can’t provide—to help them.

The information problem works like this: Suppose you want to buy a car. You want to make an informed choice, right? So you go out and get information—you read reviews, you talk to knowledgeable people. But at what point do you have enough information? How do you make an informed and rational choice about when to stop gathering information and make your purchase? Well, apparently you need to go gather information about how much information you need to gather. You might go to some wise people and ask how much information they typically gather before making a purchase like this. And then you realize you have a new problem—at what point do you stop gathering information about how much information you need to gather? So you have to go get a third layer of information. And then …

Human beings do not make decisions the way computers do. We can fully explain how computers make decisions—because, of course, we built them. We cannot fully explain how human beings make decisions. Individual consciousness and will, moral agency and responsibility, the interdependence of personal identities, the intangible reality of community—so many permanent mysteries.

Attempts to “solve” the information problem through government control—such as requiring schools to take state tests or submit to government grading schemes—are bound to fail. State tests don’t actually measure the outcomes most parents (rightly) care about most; in fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that no standardized test does. Counter-intuitive as it seems, schools with higher achievement test score gains often have worse dropout rates and delinquency.

And of course we know that even if the tools for measurement did do what we want them to do, the bureaucrats who do the measuring would still have their own agendas. Just this summer, the editorial board of The Oklahoman called out Oklahoma’s public schools on their dishonest graduation rate reporting. That’s not a new phenomenon; public school systems have always bent over backward to manipulate data and keep parents in the dark. Why would that change now?

The information problem can’t be “solved,” least of all by technocratic state control; it is inherent to the mystery of human decision-making. But that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore it. In fact, parents do need information to make good choices. And two centuries of government monopoly have prevented the emergence of the normal processes for getting people information.

When people buy a car, do they just give up on getting well informed because of the information problem? No, they make decisions in community. A lot of that is informal—talking to your uncle who is a car guy—but a lot of it isn’t. A vast array of individuals and non-governmental institutions invest their time in helping people make good car purchases, partly because car buyers value that information and are willing to pay for it, and partly because a lot of people just enjoy talking about cars.

Similar systems are just starting to emerge for school choice. By now, most parents have heard of Great Schools. They ought to have heard of the Global Report Card and School Grades. But these tools are very limited; we need more.

The best system—which philanthropists could catalyze fairly easily if they wanted, and for a lot less money than they’re now wasting on federal education strategies—would work on a more local basis. In each major metro area, start bringing together education data experts and community leaders like pastors, activists, and businesspeople. The data experts help the community leaders understand how measurements work (and their limitations), and the community leaders identify the most important school characteristics to measure. Over time, privately run evaluation systems could emerge—similar to existing systems like Great Schools, but drawing on local knowledge and with multifaceted tools for measuring school quality.

Parents could trust these systems to give them good information, unlike the government bureaucracy, which has such a long track record of measuring the wrong things and deceiving them. And school choice would ensure that the final decision rested in the parents’ hands. Tighter regulation does a lot more to force good schools out of school choice programs than it does to force out bad schools. Better information, not tighter regulation, is the best way to let parents improve school quality.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway Books, 2014). He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.