Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Non-wealthy People and Choice

When it comes to school, the poor, the argument goes, should have the same choices that wealthier folks have. The ability to choose a neighborhood gives wealthier folks the ability to choose a school, so even folks who attend public school are making use of school choice, the argument goes.

Let's skip over the usually-ignored part of that argument, which suggests that the problems of school selection could be addressed via zoning. Break up the last bastions of redlining, and put low cost housing in every neighborhood, including the ritzy ones and voila! everyone can exercise real estate based choice. I wonder why we never talk about that solution.

Instead, the preferred solution is to set loose the power of the free market to provide the non-wealthy with all sorts of choicey alternatives, a rich buffet of options. Reformsters used to say that choicey competition would create excellence as well, but that's no longer part of the pitch. Choice need not promote excellence; it's enough for reformsters that choice promotes choice.

It doesn't matter; any way you frame it, you run up against the same problem-- choice will not accomplish what its fans say it will accomplish.

The problem is that the free market is not a friend of poor people.

Oh, it likes them when it comes to marketing. Note-- the unwealthy are not stupid and they are not lazy, but they are busy just trying to hold things together between jobs and families and too few resources. Just the mechanics of being a family with two or three jobs but just one car can make for a very busy week, People who are spending all their energy just to tread water don't have a lot of time to extensively research advertising and PR claims.

Add to that Greene's Law: The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. The market has a vested interest in making sure that consumers don't make informed choices, or at the very least, choices that are informed the way the marketeers want them to be informed.

So well-informed carefully-researched decisions uninfluenced by spin and puffery are not a very common thing in the marketplace.

But the free market is also not a friend of the non-wealthy because, well, they don't have much money. And that is important because of another True Thing about the market--

The market does not provide consumers with choices because it thinks those would be nice choices to have; the market provides the choices that businesses think they can make money providing.

My town has long needed some kind of youth facility, whether it be a youth-focused dance club or a specialized recreational facility. People have been saying it as long as I've lived here. We still don't have one. This is not because of any government regulations or state-sponsored monopoly or other market impediment. It's because no business thinks they can make money, as demonstrated by the two or three who have attempted it and then closed up shop because they couldn't make money doing it. We could talk about why they don't make money, but my point is that as much as we want it, as much as we would benefit from it, the free market is not providing it.

The free market is not Santa Claus. It does not provide goods and services because people need them or even deserve them.

Combine that truth with the lack of money in poorer communities, and you have a problem with the choice theory of action.

Can you name one kind of business that is providing poor communities with a rich buffet of choices. Maybe the fast food industry, but that encompasses a range of choices that go from A to B-- upscale restaurants are not in there tryin to enrich the choice list. Not supermarkets or other food providers; their absence from poor communities is why there's such a thing as a food desert. Auto dealers? Computer hardware stores? Dress shops?

Whatever the sector, what you find are a range of downscale choices with a business plan of catering to people without a lot of money.

There are businesses that specifically target such communities-- Walmart, and now Dollar General (five years ago there were none in my area-- now there's a DG roughly every ten miles on local roads) aim for the non-wealthy crowd, and again, that crowd is offered what Walmart execs figure they can pay for. Do wealthy people go shopping at Walmart in pursuit of top quality. Does Louis Vutton open shops in poor areas because those folks also deserve a chance to check out overpriced luxury luggage? No, because that's not how the free market works.

A school choice system will claim to circumnavigate this by using government money to pay for the schooling, thereby artificially inflating the wealth level of the families involved. It's almost like choice creates a new entitlement to send students to private school at public expense, but you'll never hear choice fans describe it that way because they are mostly conservatives and the "entitle--" word is verboten.

At any rate, that doesn't really help because in many states, the per pupil spending for education is already too little to really support a school, and then, anyone who's operating a free market business expects to keep some of that revenue as salaries or profit or, if they're part5icularly shady, fun vacations and a generally cushy lifestyle. So now there's really not a lot of money left to spend on the choice school. Some of the charters deal with this by hitting up parents and wealthy donors for some more cash. The vast majority of voucher schools are church related, so the church can help chip in. But a less wealthy community is limited in the ways it can help the charter business stay solvent.

Choice schools will make decisions based on business concerns. For instance, enrolling students who have special needs-- but special needs that are not expensive to deal with. Student performance is part of the marketing, so it becomes important to push out students whose performance will mess up the PR.

All of these considerations affect how charters approach doing business in not-so-wealthy communities. Advocates will point to some charters in those communities and say, "See? Charters are providing the same options as wealthy families have." And I could run on at greater length about why that's not true, but it's quicker to ask just how many wealthy families consider these charters as good a choice as any other they've considered and decide to send their children there. (And the answer is that occasionally that does happen-- and it's Step One in gentrifying a neighborhood by pushing the locals out.) Nobody is pulling their kids out of Phillips Exeter in order to enroll the child in Success Academy.

So what you end up with is many top educators or schools or just plain entrepreneurs saying, "Well, I'm not going to try to make money running a school in that neighborhood" and a few, maybe just one, saying, "Yeah, I think I can do this cheaply enough to make a buck at it." And some students will get a small choice, but not the choice they imagine, just the choice that "make a buck" company wants to offer. And choice fans will say, "Yes, but we got a better education to some of those students," and I will say, "By leaving everyone in a system that wastes a bunch of money that could have been used to educate folks."

The public education system is riddled with inequities as it stands. A choice system doesn't propose fixing that problem; it just promises to let a few more kids get in on the high side of the inequity, while making the low side worse off. In the meantime, choice turns out to mean "give businesses the choice of cashing in on the education racket" while providing little in the way of actual, legitimate choices for the non-wealthy.

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