School Choice and the Importance
of Parental Information
ONE OF THE CENTRAL BATTLEGROUNDS in the fight over school choice is information: Who has it? Who uses it? To what effect? In this chapter we review some of the relevant theories regarding how individuals gather and use information about politics, public goods, and schools. This sets the background for the analysis we present in the next chapter, where we explore how parents gather and use information about schools using data from our web site, DCSchoolSearch.com (described in chapter 5).
The arguments over choice have taken on many dimensions but, at their core, many rest on the link between choice and the (presumed) superiority of markets. Proponents of choice, whose contributions range from those of seminal economist Milton Friedman (1962) to the work of traditional education researchers such as Goldring and Shapira (1993), to the neoinstitutional work of political scientists Chubb and Moe (1990), have advanced strong normative arguments in favor of parent/consumer sovereignty. While coming from diverse perspectives, these works share the belief that by expanding the right to choose, parents and students will be more satisfied with the education they receive. Furthermore, the argument continues, under the pressure of consumer demand, schools will improve, boosting student performance and the overall quality of American education.
In response, others have argued that choice programs may not provide the efficiency gains assumed by supporters, and that choice may further erode an already inequitable education system (see, for example, Henig 1994; Smith and Meier 1995a). At the theoretical center of this debate is the reasoning of neoclassical microeconomics, market theory, and the efficacy of consumer choice. As we noted in chapter 1, asymmetries of information play a central role in this aspect of the debate over school choice. Here the debate centers on who has information about schools and how choice will affect the acquisition and use of information.
Even proponents of school choice recognize that the information requirements of fully formed competitive markets will likely not be met in the market for schools. Education is a difficult product to describe and people will continue to disagree about the outcomes by which to judge its quality: Is it test scores? Self-esteem? Graduation rates? Earnings? Socialization into democratic norms? The list goes on.