The charter school movement has caught on in Pennsylvania, and particularly in the Philadelphia region. In the Undergraduate Urban Research Colloquium that I organized and taught this spring, I learned from one of the student’s research projects that half of all charter schools in the state are in the city alone. There are a number of views on charter schools both positive and negative. I generally subscribe to the view of John Chubb and Terry Moe, who have advocated for choice in schooling. The analogy that they use is that choice and charters represent bottom up change, which alone is not enough, but coupled with top down change in regulations and policy, can make a big difference. The piece to read by the authors is called Choice Is a Panacea. (It is under copyright, the link shows a search where you may be able to find it through an institutional subscription).
I want to present an alternative view though. Albert O. Hirschman, an incredibly important and readable economist published Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States in 1970. In the book he presents three different responses to declines in quality. The two main responses are exit and voice. They are somewhat self explanatory – exit is when someone leaves or chooses to change to a different supplier. Voice is when someone speaks up to try to improve quality in whatever they are purchasing. If you use education as an example, it puts the idea of school choice on its head.
Through studies of state monopolies, Hirschman found those who were most likely to respond to quality were almost always those who were less responsive to price and willing to pay a premium for quality. The typical upper-middle income family of four in the school choice example are the people he is talking about if the theory is applied to school choice. These educational consumers were more likely to exit to a higher quality option, maybe in the suburbs, or maybe in a private school in the city. Classic economic theory would suggest that competition would raise the bar for city public schools by causing corrective action through competition. Instead he found that competition tended to lead to further decline in these institutions. He found that poor train service was tolerable because high end customers could use highways and private cars instead of the train. Instead of train service improving, it simply catered to a less demanding customer, who did not have the choice. His study of train service was abroad, but it sounds similar to the domestic transportation story.
So for schools, in the exit, voice, and loyalty theory, choice will likely not improve educational outcomes for those who remain in traditional public schools. (***As I write this, a general assumption is that charter schools are better than traditional public schools, partially because there is more demand for them than seats in a classroom. Whether charter schools, as a class, in general lead to better educational outcomes or learning has little support in the empirical research. The exemplary charters like KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Academy certainly do though. One potential reason that parents like charters over traditional public schools is they are smaller and perceived to be safer.***) A more broad, and some would say more pessimistic, view of the school choice strategy is that it isn’t about improving educational outcomes for the population of learners in a city, but more for providing an alternative for the high end customers. This makes the choice not about what school to attend, but what city or suburb to live in.
Given the decades long exodus of population from cities like Philadelphia, one can hardly fault programs like the Penn Alexander school. It is very small scale, and to some degree does help capture more property tax and wage tax for the city. The debate on what the school has done to the community is for a different discussion, but demand has been so high that last year some news began to leak that not all students in the catchment area would be admitted to the school.
The news, for many new residents who bought specially for the school, was obviously upsetting, but led to Hirschman’s second concept – voice. Voice is about becoming active and working to change the quality of something that you do not necessarily have an alternative for. Since many new families paid big money for housing in the catchment, they were not especially able to uproot and move somewhere else (given the downward trend in home prices) and became a captive, quality conscious consumer of public education. Coalitions of parents began to visit the neighborhood public elementary school started to hold meetings about how they could contribute to make the school as good as the Penn Alexander school. The West Philly Coalition For Neighborhood Schools became more active in efforts to improve the school, and from different news reports and discussion sites, it appears that confidence in these schools is building.
The simple answer to education reform in the exit, voice, and loyalty theory is to nationalize, or at least regionalize schools. Realistically this isn’t going to happen. Also, the situation with the captive parents around Penn Alexander is unique and difficult to replicate. The broad conclusion is to find ways to increase participation from the most quality conscious in order to help others.
The theory also gives a different perspective on whether or not charter schools, enhanced place based schools (like Penn Alexander) and even city wide magnet schools will improve educational opportunities for all. The theory suggests that choice limits broad based improvement, but our political system favors choice. Charters may end up being a way to for cities retain high income families, but the theory suggests that they must be coupled with targeted policies and new practices for neighborhood public schools as well.