Over at Econlog, both Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan weigh in on Brink Lindsey’s analysis of the obstacles facing lower-income Americans seeking a decent education. Both are skeptical of the prospects of school-choice reforms (or any reforms for that matter) with respect to improving the children’s educational outcomes. Arnold:
“I am somewhat pessimistic on competition in the school system as a panacea. I favor it, of course, but I suspect that the benefits would show up more in lower costs than in better outcomes.”
“In short, parents are correct to think that they can change their children. Their mistake is to suppose that the change will endure. Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents “mold,” we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure – and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away.”
In both case, I think the economists are too caught up in discussing the response of a particular metric as opposed to exploring the full breadth of the topic available. For instance, I think Floccian, commenting on Arnold’s post, hits the nail on the head:”We should not think that children can learn more in school but maybe they can learn more useful things.”
This reflects a dichotomy that I’ve noticed within libertarian discourse, you can either focus on the economic aspect of a given policy, or attempt to take on its moral foundations. Even though the two angles are more complimentary than anything, they rarely appear in the same conversation, and it seems the the economic perspective is the more dominant of the two. This is unfortunate, since, in my view, the logical foundations of individual natural rights are at least as robust as the predictions of material prosperity that flows from a free market. In the case of education, empowering children to discover what type of work they both enjoy and are good probably deserves a higher place than the current emphasis on improving their test-taking abilities.