Monday, June 27, 2011

Efficiency in Schools, how to measure it?

Michael Bindas (State needs private schools to boost quality education, June 26) performs something of a sleight of hand in order to support vouchers and parental choice programs for schools.  He asserts that the state’s constitutional duty to provide a system of public education is subordinate to the requirement that the state amply provide for the education of all children.  He apparently draws this conclusion from the fact that the “amply provide” clause comes in Section 9, Article 1 of the state constitution, while the “public system” language follows in Article 2.  
By disconnecting the two provisions and subordinating the idea of a public system, Mr. Bindas can then argue that state money could, and should, be directed toward private schools, especially by way of vouchers.  And why not, private schools provide education for “children with special needs, juvenile inmates and academically at-risk students,” according to Bindas.  But this one’s a headscratcher.  Private schools are notorious for--in richly euphemistic words--‘counseling out’ low performing or difficult students.   Unless they are created specifically to serve such special needs populations, private schools typically have almost none of these kinds of students.
This odd claim does not discredit, however, an argument that improved efficiency, by way of increased competition, would be helpful.  I suggest, though, that we take care with our application of economic reasoning in the question of education, for providing education services is not the same as, say, macaroni production and distribution.  
The buying and selling of goods and services in a market are discrete processes that, though they may be repeated, are fundamentally independent of other purchases. Further, goods like macaroni are not sentient beings with parents who want particular outcomes from the continuous (not discrete) production process. To put it another way, consumer goods purchases are of much lower consequence than educational processes. To wit, switching schools--even in an environment of high school choice--could never be anywhere as easy as an 89-cent macaroni purchase.
Perhaps, though, this inflexibility of movement reflects the problem--lack of options in school choice--that a more robust market in education could solve.  Then again, perhaps it merely reflects the economies of scale problem. Achieving economies of scale means maximizing on the efficiency that comes from production in larger volumes. This side of the economic analysis is often neglected by the advocates education competition because it takes more account of the reality that a capital and labor intensive activity like community-wide education becomes more efficient when done on a larger scale. Lots of variety in schools (and therefore small schools) means smaller scale and reduced efficiency. In other words, two different strains of economic logic actually work at cross purposes in this case. It would be great to have innumerably different types of schools--and it would be cost-ineffective.  Tacoma is, at this moment, closing schools and agglomerating students in order to cut costs by improving on economies of scale.
We need to take care with applying economic reasoning to education production for another reason. Namely, we lack a good metric for 'efficiency' in education.  Economists let prices do a great deal of both the practical communicating and theoretical measuring in their ideas and prescriptions, but pricing of education production is difficult because 'test score outcomes' are not easily monetized, so the correlation between test scores and profit (the monetary measure reflecting gains in efficiency) is merely arbitrary.  So, when Mr. Bindas employs the ‘higher test score at lower cost’ measurement he may be describing an efficiency measure, but he also invokes the risk of incentivizing educators to focus primarily on the test and de-emphasize other non-tested educational goals and material.
This is not to say that the idea of greater competition and wider variety wouldn't be a good thing. And I have no doubt that vouchers, charters or scholarship programs would generate changes in education.  Some changes will be for the better, some not.  Organizational change always has this dual reality.
In the end, then, Bindas’ argument sounds more like one about desires and preferences to have authority over one’s own (children’s) education.  That’s a fair enough long as we accurately count the costs.

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