School Choice Comes With Hidden Price Tag

The NZ Herald ran an opinion piece featuring Briar Lipson’s analysis of The Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce in the New Zealand Herald. This analysis was sadly skin deep.

It is easy to caricature the proposed reform as removing school choice from parents and supplanting it with bureaucratic control. However, this overlooks the big hidden price tag that school choice has delivered. 

For starters there was no analysis of whether we might end up with fewer bureaucrats overall if some back office functions could be more efficiently shared between schools. As an example, currently every school (even one with 20 students) pays for an auditor to go over their accounts every year. That is hardly value for money. Nor was there any discussion of whether public schools should be spending taxpayer money advertising to attract more students.

Yet these issues are dwarfed by the elephant in the room of school choice: the fact that it hurts the poor. This has been the result of school choice whenever it has been tried anywhere in the world.

Let’s make sure we are all on the same page. The aim of the education system is to help everyone achieve their potential. Some people have learning difficulties, and this is more likely for students from poorer households. An education system should invest more in these people to ensure they have a fair go.

Our education system doesn’t do this. Compared to other countries, our education system does very little to close the gap in attainment between rich and poor. Basically, we put the same amount of resource into students from poor households as we do for those from middle class ones. The result is that poor students turn up to school roughly 2 years behind richer students, and that gap never closes.

School choice is a major driver of this. Since introducing choice, all the middle and upper class parents have exercised that choice and moved to “good schools”. These “good schools” aren’t actually the schools that help students the most, rather the ones that the other middle and upper class families attend. The result is that students from poor households have been ghettoized into low decile schools.

But we fix this with extra money through the decile system! Yeah, nah. The extra money given by the decile system is more than outweighed by the extra resources middle and upper class parents bring to a school. That isn’t just more money through fees and fundraising but extra help in class and skills around the Board of Trustees table.

There is a way to fix this and keep school choice, but it isn’t cheap. It requires spending a lot more money on schooling disadvantaged pupils. The Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce suggested that current decile funding needs to be doubled to ensure schools have the resources to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is a another way to lift the achievement of poor students up to their well-off peers. It doesn’t cost any money. It doesn’t reduce the achievement of the students from richer backgrounds at all. It is called removing school choice.

Here’s the thing: students don’t just learn from teachers. They learn from each other. They learn from the role models they see in their class every day, including other students and their parents. If their classmates can do something, they start to believe they can do it too.

This is why streaming is so damaging for the students at the bottom of the heap. Once a student is labelled by a school or a teacher as “dumb”, they will tend to live up to that expectation. And if you lump all those students together all you have is a recipe for discipline problems.

If we want all our students to have a fair start in life, then the cheapest way we can do that is by making our classrooms look like our society. Is that too much to ask? Sadly it doesn’t happen through school choice.

So there is the real choice being put forward by the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce - either we wind back school choice or we spend a lot more money on educating students from poor households. They have recommended doing a bit of both.  I do agree with Briar that you should comment on the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce recommendations. And when you do, please think about how we get the best out of all our young people, not just your own child.