In honor of the death of Milton Friedman, I wanted to offer an argument for choice, albeit one that he would not have made. The discussion around choice usually centers on the equity/efficiency trade-off, with conservatives lauding the magic of the invisible hand, and liberals worried about the potential for educational markets to increase inequality. I’m in the middle (for public choice and charters, not for vouchers), and I don’t want to have that discussion today.
But there is another side to the choice debate that is under-appreciated, which is the way that choice can afford greater school-level autonomy by providing an accountability metric that is less centered on tests and more on parents. If teachers’ main complaint is that they are over-regulated from above, then choice can provide an opportunity to establish an educational identity at the school level, as teachers are accountable to parents rather than the state as a whole. It also provides for greater educational pluralism, which should be attractive to students, parents and teachers alike. This is the genius of charters, and it is frustrating that it has not been more widely embraced by exactly the people–teachers, principals, and the unions that represent them–who could benefit from the increased autonomy and discretion it could potentially afford. The debate around choice should not only be one of left vs. right, equity vs. markets, but also about centralized control and bureaucracy vs. professional discretion and autonomy. Call this approach “choice + professionalism,” and consider American higher education as the foremost example of how it might work. It just might be the antidote to the prevailing emphasis on top-down accountablity — too bad that no one other than Ted Sizer will stand up for it.