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.