How school choice can benefit teachers

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.

Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.

The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.

How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.

Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.

Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.

Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.

Trump’s Inauguration: Ageing Pains


Vincent has discussed the relative age of US presidents. There is something to be said about the age of electorates.

I was living in the United Kingdom when we voted for Brexit (I was a soft remainer). I was living in the United States when Trump won the election. So I can’t help but feel that Trump’s inauguration is part of a generalised nationalist turn that, ironically, transcends national borders. Why is this nationalist turn happening? And why has it wrong-footed pollsters and political scientists more than once now?

We are repeatedly, and correctly, warned not to over-interpret individual events as somehow determined by given factors. Both the Brexit vote and the presidential election were close, with Trump taking the electoral college without the popular vote. One domino that didn’t fall last year was the Austrian presidency that, after a close call, went to a Green rather than a Nationalist. So whatever explanation we are looking for has to be a tendency that’s slightly shifted the odds in favour of nationalist politicians without the experts being able to anticipate it in advance.

Some suggest that this resurgent economic nationalism is an inevitable outcome of the overreach of trade liberalisation that has undermined national self-determination and humiliated local cultures. Others argue that the real cause is growing income and wealth inequality. I think a potentially more straightforward factor is demography. The electorate is simply older than it used to be.

There are a few reasons why this explanation may work better than the more popular ones. The ageing electorate is almost unprecedented in history. This could make it harder for political scientists to predict its impact on elections. Surveys might be able to tell us how older people vote as individuals without being able to work out how older people surrounded, in addition, by lots of older peers will behave.

Countries like Italy and Japan were somewhat ahead of us on this demographic transition. And perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Italy repeatedly elected a mini-Trump, Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister, while continuing to support the elderly at the expense of opportunities for the young. Meanwhile, Japan has always been more ethno-nationalist than other developed economies and in some ways has grown more politically reactionary in recent decades.

This explanation chimes with the fact that Trump voters were not typically economically disadvantaged. They were older and less educated but typically economically secure. Age was also a big factor explaining support for Brexit. At the same time, an ageing population presents real economic challenges that translate into politically salient problems. Demography is probably responsible for a great deal of the sustained drop in real interest rates, precisely the sort of thing that worries ageing savers with slowly growing pension pots.

Trump wants to boost infrastructure, construction and manufacturing. But these sectors do best with young and growing populations, where families want new and bigger houses and offices, roads to connect them and cars to drive to and from them. What happens when everyone already has a great deal of material goods and a country hasn’t got as many young adults to demand new stuff? Inevitably, an economy’s trend growth declines and may even contract, leaving investors with fewer places to get a good return.

What could this mean about the future? On the one hand, this could be quite a pessimistic explanation. There is very little that can be done in the short or medium term about the demographics of an electorate. So we might just be in for a more reactionary period. The vote is not about strength of belief, just the sheer numbers nudged in that direction, and that is what age can do.

On the other, this could be an optimistic hypothesis. The situation we find ourselves in is a side-effect of two generally attractive outcomes: people living much longer, and lower fertility thanks to women becoming more educated. The balance between the young and the elderly might eventually improve once the demographic bulge of the baby boomers has passed into history (this depends critically on whether institutions permit new family formation). In addition, tomorrow’s elderly are not the same as today’s elderly. They will probably be more educated, less nationalist and possibly less subject to cognitive decline than the current generation. They are less likely to be impressed by a bad sales pitch.

Fight for your economic right to party


Two months ago, London’s iconic Fabric nightclub was shut-down by Islington Council on the dubious grounds that it had failed to adequately search club-goers for drugs. Fabric, a sprawling multi-level concrete venue, is dear to the heart of many Londoners. Its dramatic closure came as a shock. David Nutt blamed our hypocritical drug laws, while others spied conspiracies to turn the venue over to housing developers. In response to the public outcry, this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has appointed Amy Lamé as ‘night tzar’ (some use the even grander title Night Mayor) with the task of reviving London’s nightlife and especially trying to save venues like Fabric.

Tzars sound great in theory but tend to fail in practice. They are meant to break-up bureaucratic silos and join-up policymaking so that it conforms to a grand plan in a particular policy area. Rather than following rules regardless of outcomes, they have an outcome that the executive asks them to pursue remorselessly. However, I argue that this is precisely the opposite of what you want if your goal is a sustainable, thriving night-life culture. London night-life has suffered because of its politicization, not from a lack of it. The answer is strong rights for entrepreneurs to provide entertainment to willing consumers. This means reforming of government powers to license venues and prohibit development on arbitrary grounds. While ending drug prohibition is of deep importance, here the drug-use excuse was the face of a more pernicious power that local governments have to shut down successful businesses on arbitrary grounds.

In the United Kingdom, land development and property-use decisions have essentially been nationalized since 1947. While building still takes place, it only happens following detailed, expensive consultation with local planning authorities with significant input from local residents. As a result, the supply of building amenities has become unmoored from demand. The most noticeable impact has been rising house prices and rents in areas where the economy is growing. This is a boon to landlords lucky enough to own property in areas of high demand. But it causes those without property to suffer significantly higher living costs. It has led to bizarre developments such as it being easier to open a new golf course in the South-East than to start a new housing development.

While the majority of people feel the strain primarily through higher rents, less visible is the impact on businesses who are equally constrained by planning laws. They struggle to find suitable buildings for their commercial activities. Competitors and local residents can use the planning process to block new construction or changes to lawful uses for particular venues. Businesses lack legitimate expectations about where they will be allowed to expand. Those that do succeed need to invest heavily in lobbying and legal support. The result is that people end up travelling further to get to shops and to their places of work.

Club venues face a number of additional biases in this process. Local officials are more likely to be blamed for noise and crime associated with clubs but not praised for their fun and economic benefits. This fosters risk-aversion amongst local policymakers. At the same time, club-goers may outnumber local residents but most are not able to vote in local council elections. Residents might well have originally moved into a central London location precisely to experience fun, exciting nightlife. But once there, perhaps especially as they get a little older, their priorities change. They realize that they may want to live in an exciting city, but just so long as their particular neighborhood is a little less exciting. Rather than move to a quieter area, they express their preferences through the political process and demand that venues that have been around a lot longer than they have be closed.

Unfortunately, if too many residents in the city come to the same conclusion, you end up shutting down historic clubs on the slightest pretext. When it comes to hosting unlawful activities, businesses can be presumed guilty, with no secure way of ever proving their innocence.

In this context, having a tzar is an understandable response as a counter-balance to the call of the NIMBYs. But it doesn’t solve the core problem which is a system that cannot adequately represent revelers but augments complaints. The tzar can champion venues but will be silenced once these entrenched interests turn up the noise. Instead, we need a system that recognizes the presumptive right of businesses to market entertainment to willing consumers. Only provable nuisance should be cause to fine or eventually close venues. Once established, entertainment venues should not have to regularly prove their social worth to a licensing committee (the fact that they have willing customers is sufficient warrant for that).

Most importantly, complaints from recent arrivals against historic venues that have always hosted loud parties should be discounted. This works in a fashion in Tokyo, where mixed development is widely permitted (no one stops people from taking up residence in an otherwise commercial district) but without any assumption that those residents can then alter the make-up of their community through the political process.