12/08/2011 01:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

The (Keynesian) Economics of School Choice

In the halls of Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, a debate is raging over which set of economic proposals to pursue in order to rebuild the national economy. At the same time, K-12 education reformers are engaged in their own frantic search for the right recipe(s) that can unlock the full power of teaching and learning. But rarely do we acknowledge that one individual stands, improbably, at the center of both debates -- John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes' influence on economic thinking is well established: ever since 1936, when he first argued the economy was driven not by prices but by "effective demand," we've been in a continual debate over whether outside agencies (like, say, the government) are required to intervene during times of crisis. By contrast, Keynes' influence on education thinking remains largely invisible -- yet most urban school districts across America are being recast in the image of his core theories, particularly the notion that providing more choice in schooling will empower urban parents to drive demand and, in so doing, unleash a series of tailwinds that can transform public education.

Regardless of how one feels about the move toward greater school choice, it is almost surely here to stay. Consequently, as more and more parents encounter the inchoate marketplace of public school options for their children, we should stop asking ourselves whether school choice is "good" or "bad", and start asking a different question instead: In what ways can urban parents' newfound power as education consumers engender more schools capable of giving more young people the skills and self-confidence they need to become active, visible contributors to the public good -- a public good that, amidst the din of the ongoing battle between our intermixed democratic and capitalistic ideals, still seeks to fulfill our founding spirit of E Pluribus Unum -- out of many, one?

That's a big question, and I think it's possible for us to answer it -- but only if we understand the extent to which urban parents can actually drive "effective demand" in ways that improve learning environments, increase equity, and ultimately serve their own and the larger community's interests.

I know of what I speak, because I'm the parent of a two-year-old in Washington, DC. Most of my closest friends are also DC residents, and also the parents of children about to enter formal schooling. All of us are spending a lot of time thinking about where to send our kids, and all of us are well-educated and motivated to make the right choices: in short, we are the low-hanging fruit in an idealized marketplace in which knowledgeable parents can drive demand.

But there's a problem: most of the resources that exist today to edify my friends and neighbors are still reflective of the myopic notion that schools can be meaningfully ranked according to a single measure -- test scores. To make matters worse, whereas in theory all families in DC have the same chance to get into the same set of schools, the reality is that most middle-class families will have more of a particularly precious resource than their lower-class compatriots: the time it will take to evaluate and assess which schools are the best fit for their child.

As an example, look at Great Schools, the wildly successful organization that serves as "the country's leading source of information on school performance." Great Schools receives more than 37 million unique web visitors a year, and it supports parent outreach and education programs in three cities - including here in DC. In a world where parents are feeling overwhelmed and under-informed, Great Schools is the closest thing to a one-stop-shop out there.

The good news is that Great Schools is filled with great information that will be helpful to the most motivated parents -- from individual school data to concrete recommendations about ways to stay connected to their school; build new play structures; start a school library; or identify the attributes of a great principal. The bad news is that the main factor fueling Great Schools' growth is its school ratings system, and as of today, each school's 10-point score is still determined by a single measure -- "its performance on state standardized tests."

The appeal of such a simple recipe is clear; it's equally clear that such a formula will never drive effective demand. Instead, this sort of rating system is feeding a different beast. Keynes had a name for that, too -- he called it our "animal spirits," and warned that, absent a holistic picture of any given situation, these spirits can lead us "to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation." When that happens, Keynes cautioned, "enterprise will fade and die," and where "effective demand is deficient not only is the public scandal of wasted resources intolerable, but the individual enterpriser who seeks to bring these resources into action is operating with the odds loaded against him."

In other words, parents and policymakers need to be guided by more than their animal urges for simple answers to complex problems, and schools need to be evaluated by more than one criterion. As Keynes first suggested, 75 years ago, "it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom."

The same sort of recipe can apply to school choice -- but only if we prevent ourselves from seeing choice itself as the panacea; it is freedom and efficiency that we need. And until our individual freedom to choose is matched by our collective capacity to better understand what powerful learning looks like -- and requires -- any future efforts to help parents drive demand are likely to remain as elusive as all the current efforts to get many of those same parents back to work.