‘Voice,’ not ‘choice,’ will make schools better

Supporters of school choice like to cite the logic of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – the idea that, if parents are free to select the best possible school for their children, the market will respond by improving the quality of education across the board.

The economist Albert O. Hirschman, profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker article, pointed out that economic systems aren’t always so simple and predictable.

In his best known book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” Hirschman contrasted “exit” and “voice” as the two primary ways that people deal with challenging situations. “Exit” means voting with your feet, taking your business somewhere else. “Voice” means staying put and trying to make things better.

“There is no denying where (Hirschman’s) heart lay,” Gladwell writes. It lay on the side of voice.

In the example of a public school or school system that should improve, “exit” means you leave for a private or charter school and “voice” means you work to make the public schools better. You join the PTO, volunteer, go to school board meetings, write letters to the newspaper, lobby the legislature, etc.

Hirschman, who died last December at 97, suggested schools won’t be motivated to improve if parents who might push for change are likely to exit instead. “The worst thing that ever happened to incompetent public-school districts,” Gladwell writes, “was the growth of private schools: they siphoned off the kind of parents who would otherwise have agitated more strongly for reform.”

Hirschman disagreed fundamentally with his fellow economist Milton Friedman, the godfather of the school voucher movement. (The Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which the economist and his wife established, is the intellectual center of voucher advocacy.).

“In the first place, Friedman considers withdrawal or exit as the ‘direct’ way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization,” Hirschman wrote. “A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them!

“Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to ‘cumbrous political channels,’” Hirschman added. “But what else is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels?”

Here’s another way of saying it: The contempt that school choice advocates commonly express for public schools is, at its root, contempt for democracy itself.


37 thoughts on “‘Voice,’ not ‘choice,’ will make schools better

  1. The “choice” argument is specious because how much choice do you really have when it comes to schools? How far are you willing to drive your child every school day to and from school? The choices one has are very, very limited because of geopgraphy unless one is willing to move, so there is no real market, so why are economic arguments involved at all?

    Unfortunately we are bombarded with many of these bogus arguments with no critical review.

    • All logistics aside, why do you have the authority to tell me how I have to educate my children? I don’t try to impose my will on you. Why must you use the force of the government to control my behavior? Whatever happened to individual liberty?

      • Do you believe that public schools serve a public good? Would you be content for Muslim schools to flourish in this country as long as you get the choice of where to educate your own children? I submit that education of children is a concern for all citizens because it is through education that we have created and maintained our culture and democracy.
        We have to drive on the government roads and use government police services, is that also control of behavior?
        Private schools choose their students, not the other way around. If our public K-12 institutions, free and open to all, collapse or are destroyed then our democracy is in trouble.

      • Julie, I don’t believe that any one person, or group of people, have the right to force and control the lives of others. If the gov’t were not involved in education and Muslim schools started popping up all over (which would never happen since the vast majority of the country wouldn’t attend them) I wouldn’t care. The “public” as you believe it is usually only a small, but vocal, minority. Currently, cities like Detroit are part of the “public” and those children and parents have not been well served.
        It’s a false premise to assume that because something is done by the gov’t that it can’t be done by the private sector. What makes the gov’t so uncorruptible and private businesses all greedy in your mind? Aren’t gov’t employees human and capable of the same greed? Again, look at Detroit. In fact, monopolies cannot exist without the force of gov’t to back them up.
        Schools are not “free”, by the way. They take their operating costs by force from production created by the private sector.
        The best thing that could happen for the advancement of education is to get the gov’t out of it altogether.

    • Actually, some wise communities create two or three different schools within a building. That’s one form of school choice.
      Another form of choice is to allow high school students to take courses either at their high school or at a community/technical college. And some of these institutions offer “on-line courses…another form of choice.
      These are not theoretical arguments. They are happening all over the US.

      • That’s hardly a choice Joe. My money is taken from me by force (if you don’t agree, try not paying your taxes). The government’s monopoly on education requires that I send my children to one of their schools, regardless of the school’s actual ability to teach. My options are, as I’m told by so my government worshipers, to move to a different district (same monopoly, btw), private school (will still have to pay for the public schools AND the private schools. Sadly, I can’t afford that.) Or, I can homeschool. Of course I would still have to pay for the public school monopolies that I didn’t use and I would now have the added hurdle of the overreaching CCSS (Common Core, which if you haven’t read are very frightening) that are infiltrating all education.

        I think that you and everyone should have the right to control their own children’s education. There is no one more in tune with their children than a parent.
        All I want is to be able to spend my money on my children’s education in the best way that I see. If I didn’t have to pay twice, maybe I could afford that private school, rather than just leaving that option to the wealthy. Why would you deny me that. What gives you that right?

        Why are so many people afraid to allow others freedom to live their lives as they wish? It’s really very sad.

    • The mistake you’re making is thinking of schools as they currently exist, i.e. a publicly financed and managed system. Suppose grocery stores were owned and operated in the same way as public schools. There would be a Trader Joes in one neighborhood, a Whole Foods in another, a 7-11 in another, and so on. In that world, yes, you would be restricted to buying groceries at the location nearest you; if you REALLY valued Whole Foods, maybe you would drive a ways to get there. But the reality is that we don’t operate the food industry like we operate schools. Therefore, we generally have a multitude of choices in each neighborhood, and (at least if you live in a relatively urban area), no one has to drive long distances to find stores that are acceptable.

      A competitive school system would operate the same way. Once school choice is introduced, and private providers have more of an incentive to cater to consumer needs, more choices will be made available. The reason that choices are unavailable now is that we don’t give consumers this choice. Why would private producers provide an option when consumers can’t take advantage of it? In a dynamic world, however, choices will emerge when parents are able to exercise choice.

      • Actually I don’t think that’s a very good analogy. There’s a lot of research on the lack of good food choices — what people call food deserts — in low-income areas.

      • It doesn’t have to be either voice or choice. Also, there can be several different schools in one building. This has been done in rural, suburban and urban communities.

      • So voice and choice. Joe, I’m flattered that you commented here. I want to start reading your column. Is there a way I can be notified when you publish one?

      • Thanks. I’ll send you my email address (rather than post it here) and ask that you add me to the list of people who get the column.

  2. Pingback: No, Jeb Bush, Schools are not Like Milk | Notes on a Theory...

  3. Pingback: ‘Voice,’ not ‘choice,’ will make schools better | School Matters ← NPE News Briefs

  4. Regarding “Voice, Not Choice,” some of Steve’s blog followers might be interested in recent post “Economist Hirschman’s Argument Against Private Schools and Vouchers” [Hake (2013)]. The abstract reads:

    ABSTRACT: Bernard Cleyet (2013) in his PhysLrnR post “Another
    argument against private schools and vouchers,” called attention to
    Malcolm Gladwell’s (2013) “New Yorker” review titled “The Gift of
    Doubt: Albert O. Hirschman and the power of failure” at
    http://nyr.kr/19Hj0e7. This is a review of Jeremy Adleman’s (2013)
    “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman”

    Hirschman’s argument against private schools and vouchers is
    contained in this passage from Gladwell (paraphrased; my CAPS):

    “Hirschman quoted the conservative economist Milton Friedman who
    argued that SCHOOL VOUCHERS SHOULD REPLACE THE CURRENT PUBLIC-SCHOOL SYSTEM, writing ‘Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending
    them to another.’

    Hirschman commented: ‘a near perfect example of the ECONOMIST’S BIAS
    IN FAVOR OF EXIT AND AGAINST VOICE: In the first place, Friedman
    considers withdrawal or exit as the ‘direct’ way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization. A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them! Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to ‘cumbrous political channels.’ But what else
    is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels?”

    To access the complete 8 kB post please click on http://yhoo.it/14G8T2j .


    Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University
    Links to Articles http://bit.ly/a6M5y0
    Blog: http://bit.ly/9yGsXh
    Twitter: http://bit.ly/juvd52

    “Even when our trust is heavily placed in them, reasoning and education cannot easily prove powerful enough to bring us actually to do anything, unless in addition we train our Soul by experience for the course on which we would set her; for if we do not, when the time comes for action she will undoubtedly find herself impeded.”
    – Michel de Montaigne (quoted by Adelman (2013) in his frontispiece)

    REFERENCES [URL’s shortened by http://bit.ly/ and accessed on 30 June 2013.]
    Hake, R.R. 2013. “Economist Hirschman’s Argument Against Private
    Schools and Vouchers,” online on the OPEN! Net-Gold archives at
    http://yhoo.it/14G8T2j. Post of 30 Jun 2013 07:04:51-0700 to AERA-L
    and Net-Gold. The abstract and link to the complete post are being
    distributed to various discussion lists and are also on my blog
    “Hake’sEdStuff” at http://bit.ly/158hAVk with a provision for

  5. In Boston, it seems that only the privileged families have a “choice”. They can enter the lottery hoping for one of the “quality schools” and if they don’t get the spot they want they can move to the suburbs, enroll in private school, or homeschool. The poorer families are stuck with whatever place they get in the lottery. I’d like to see the emphasis switched to all schools being quality schools rather than the illusion of choice and the panic of being lassoed to a “poor school.” And I think if the privileged families would put the money they’d spend on moving to the suburbs or enrolling in private school into the public school system instead that would be a good start.

    • Liam, the affluent always have had options, and always will. One key question is whether low and moderate income families will have options? Another key question is whether we will use the creativity of educators to create strong options. The Boston Public Schools has helped some local educators create the Pilot Schools – options within the district.
      Others, not satisfied with restrictions put on Pilot Schools, have created charters.
      Many low income families are using both kinds of options. Do you favor educational options only for wealthy families that can move to the suburbs or select exclusive private schools?

      • ” Do you favor educational options only for wealthy families that can move to the suburbs or select exclusive private schools?”

        Not sure how this can even ask this question if you read my comment where I noted that the concept of “school choice” is a false one that shafts the less privileged and helps perpetuate inequality in education. What we need is not an emphasis of a phony choice but real action to create and maintain quality schools for every child. And for it to work, one thing that needs to happen is that the privileged families need to buy into supporting public schools. Too often today the rich declare the public school system bad, refuse to let their children to attend (unless they get a lottery number for a quality school), and then advocate to cut taxes and bust unions. They declare that government is at fault for poor public schools, when they should point the finger at themselves first.

      • Yes, I read your comment. My 40 year career has been in inner cities, as a public school teacher, parent, PTA president and in other roles. As an educator, I also have concluded that there is no single best kind of school for all kids. Some do better in a more progressive Montessori or project based, some do better in more traditional schools.
        So we need options, along with other things, to help more young people succeed.

    • You realize that the families who move to the suburbs and the families who pay for private school are actually paying taxes, right? And that in the first case, their kids are actually attending public schools?

      Or did you mean you think it would be a good start if affluent families began paying the equivalent of private school tuition to the low quality public schools they’ve been fleeing? Would this be a voluntary contribution?

  6. Exactly. And when parents are led to believe that school choice is good, they are not typically told that they will have no voice at charter schools, since those schools are unregulated and undemocratic, so they lack governmental oversight and don’t have elected school boards but, rather, have appointed members who are often profiteers from outside the community. When parents are displeased at charters, they’re frequently told that they can take their child somewhere else, so lack of voice there, in the “free-market,” often means ONLY having the option of exiting.

    Since democracy is integral to education in public school districts that have not been taken over by mayors and states, in addition to the options mentioned, parents can run for a seat on their local school board. They can also demonstrate their displeasure with education policies by “exiting” in other ways, such as by opting their kids out of high-stakes testing. Another important way to “exit” Friedman’s neo-liberal plan to privatize education, which goes by the misnomer of school “reform” but is really all about shutting down public schools and turning them over to private charter operators, so profiteers can feast on public education funds, is to boycott the corporations that sponsor this bait and switch scam. That includes overstock.com whose CEO serves on the board of the Friedman Foundation.

    • Well, maybe if more charter schools were run by non-profits instead of for-profits you would have a voice.

      Charter schools are still public schools in Indiana. They have school boards and operate roughly like traditional public schools.

      My kids go to a charter school that is a non-profit. We are going the choice route. Nominally families need to put in 40 volunteer hours to get parents involved in the school’s community.

      However, with a rapid increase in the school’s enrollment and some other factors the strength of the community weakened. We are going to try to do things to fix this.

      A strong indicator of academic success is parental involvment. I would say most schools and kids fail because the parents dump their kids off at school and assume everything will just work.

      Even in the best school if parents aren’t involved with their kids education and their school’s community both will fail.

      Something as important as education can’t be left to for-profit organizations to run. They really only care about profit at the end of the day.

      • I agree that it is if the school is a non-profit or for-profit entity that can make a difference, although with new forms of business registrations, such as the B-corp and L3C, the lines between for profit and public good are blurring. As a for the public good company, and with limited options for business entity choice, then few options exist for new businesses unless they register outside the state.

        Their are many and a growing list of companies being formed that are traditional forms, yet operate for the good of all. In fact I recently met an individual who works for a company in New York whose mission statement actually includes Love! To classify all endeavors as for-profit or non-profit is to look at the world through a black-white perspective, often seen as republican-democratic, right-wrong, etc.

        If we are to take the perspective that our culture is changing and things aren’t in this more juvenile black-white thinking, then perhaps others will follow suit to see what the innovators and entrepreneurs are doing. Which is, by-the-way, the largest employer of the nations people… not the corporations.

        Along the lines of this discussion, is a “school corporation” a corporation or a non-profit or some other entity? And I’ll note that most parents who DO attempt to be involved in the schools are turned away and give up… I’ve heard this MANY times. Therefore to state that schools lack for parental involvement to improve is a blanket statement that is not accurate in all situations. And amongst all this discussion of money and testing, I wonder what happened to the goal of caring for each student as an individual to be instructed as to how to be a good citizen and trustworthy person serving others?

        When I see a test the looks at an entire person as a part of family and community as good teachers do, then I’ll give credence to these other issues. …it might be easier to move to Scandinavia than change schools and the society in which they exist. And yes, I know someone who did just this, and has no regrets.

  7. Silly question, but I don’t know how to take this post and send by email to school board…any suggestions?

  8. Pingback: Speaking of sheep and bad-ass wolves - ReTired Tucson Teacher

  9. As a former urban public school PTA President and an urban public school educator, I found that It does not have to be either choice or voice, it can be both. Sometimes educators pay more attention to families when the families have options.

    For example, a number of Minnesota high schools have established new collaborative courses with colleges and universities. This is happening in part because high school students may enroll in college and university courses on college campuses, with state funds following them.
    Some school districts have established a Montessori or Core Knowledge school or school within school in response to parent requests in part because they know families could go elsewhere.
    We found a district middle school was more willing to discuss increasing challenge in some classes in part because the administration and faculty knew that we (and other families) had other options.

    Voice and choice can compliment eachother.

  10. Ugh. I have almost no natural affinity for libertarianism, but arguments like this just push people like me right into their camp.

    It feels like you want to take my kid hostage so that you can count on me to join the PTO and lobby in a particular way. It feels like you think my family can be useful in your long campaign. It feels like you see no problem with structuring the law to push my kid into a dropout factory, using him as cannon fodder in a war on inequality that you can’t hope to win in this lifetime. And yeah, in theory, I guess it makes sense: if you get enough cannon fodder, you eventually have an army. But I will fight tooth and nail not to have my kid in your army, because my responsibility is to him, not to some notion of superb and equitable public education in the abstract. I will not sacrifice him for your crusade, and I would be a bad parent if I did.

    And I’m the guy who’s actually willing to pay more taxes to fund better public schools! And I’m the guy who went to public schools myself! I like public schools!

  11. As with another comment, why involve the economic argument when often parents are just looking for the best fit for their child? My kids have been public, private, home and charter schooled. I’ve been a resource for place-based education for teachers, and have been a substitute teacher in public schools. I worked to change things, and the ability to do so was so very limited, even with groups of parents, that it seems like time wasted.

    As I compare my advocacy efforts in my local city government to that of my local public school system, I find that the public schools are cemented into certain views and ways of doing things mandated from the top-down with any input from parents deemed not worthy of consideration. In my perception I can easily compare the rigidness of public school thought to that of the U.S. healthcare system – where doctors have only about 2 weeks of nutrition education when so much of the general population needs proper nutritional guidance for health problems such diabetes. The schools are no different with the “one-size-fits-all” attitude and then labels everyone else.

    If the public schools respected and acted upon the various differences in both emotional and learning needs (not to mention dietary and exercise for optimal brain functioning and encouraging creativity and thinking rather than getting a “right” answer) as well as responding to their local community/family needs, then many people, like myself, would be more amenable to public schools.

    When public schools allow a student to work towards strengths (whether arts/music/design or math/science/tech) and respond to community and familiar needs rather than the higher goals of state mandates for testing, or if we change our cultural perception of education and teachers through pay and respect that is seen in Scandinavian schools, then we’ll see happier kids, parents, teachers and entire communities.

  12. Pingback: Five Biggest Lies by School Choice Advocates | Restore Reason

  13. In follow-up to my previous comments is this video from the Harvard Askwith Forums on Education, with visiting Professor Pasi Sahlberg giving a background on the changes that occurred to bring about such international school rankings, and happiness ratings of the last few years: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeMM-hL0KFY

    Additionally, this for high school students from psychologist Jeremy Dean on later start times for teens: http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/01/later-school-start-times-improve-sleep-and-daytime-functioning-in-adolescents.php

  14. Pingback: Public schools and investing in all our children | School Matters

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