Public school students would receive a higher quality education if they all had the option of taking the government money (local, state, federal) currently being spent on their own education and turning that money into vouchers that they could use towards covering the costs of any private school or public school of their choice (e.g. charter schools).
What do top US economists think of school vouchers?
I came across this interesting survey of economists, conducted 5 years back. Thanks to Prof. Dynarski's NYT column. Prof. Dynarski works on Charter Schools. Her research shows that Charter Schools in urban Massachusets have been beneficial and hence she is a passionate supporter of Charter Schools.
Coming to the survey, it's an initiative of University of Chicago. It asked some of the top US economists to vote on a set of public policies. All of this is in American context. The idea is to get a sense of economists' thinking on important public policy issues. The list of economists includes the likes of Daren Acemogulu (Why Nations Fail), Raj Chetty, Richard Thaler (Nudge), Angus Deaton (Nobel Laureate), Michael Greenstone, and so on.
One must note that this survey is not a survey of "education economists". It is a survey of economists on a wide range of issues. It means that the economists didn't necessarily vote only on their subject of expertise. So, you have environment experts sharing their opinion on school choice, health economists sharing their opinion on school choice and so on.
One of the questions in the survey was to vote on the following statement on school vouchers.
The respondents (economists) have to select one of the options (Strongly Agree - Agree - Uncertain - Disagree - Strongly Disagree - No opinion). It also asked to rate the confidence of their voting. It means that if I select "strongly agree" and I choose the confidence of my decision as 10, it means that I am absolutely sure of my opinion. It also asked to put in comments if any.
The result is that 36% of the top economists choose either Agree/Strongly Agree, supporting vouchers. If it is adjusted for the confidence of their choice, it goes up to 41%. Check this for complete results.
It looks like there is a considerable degree of skepticism about markets in economics (vouchers) among top economists. In contrast, 90%+ of them agree on markets for cab-sharing.
The good thing about the survey is that it also gave the option to explain the reasoning behind their voting. My reading of these comments is that majority of them (who chose both agree and disagree) seem to think that vouchers are good "on an average" but are concerned that it leaves behind some students, who might then find it difficult.
Some of the responses below.
Judith Chevalier: The kids whose parents don't pay attention or are poorly informed can be worse off. Otherwise agree.
Aaron Edlie: On the plus side, incentives are better under vouchers. On the negative side, decision making might be in the hands of those with less info.
Claudia Goldin: Many public school students would benefit but some with little choice might not. On net it would be beneficial and increase competition.
Nancy Stokey: It's the only way to break unions.
Richard Thaler: Hurray for charter schools but to go to full vouchers it is necessary to deal with possible unraveling if no schools want the bottom kids.
Anil Kashyap: Hard to know what the equilibrium will be, but so many kids are trapped now eventually most of them would have better choices.
Pinelopi Goldberg: Treating students as clients does not improve education. Evidence on voucher programs very mixed - no robust evidence of positive effects.
Janet Curie: More motivated and able students would take advantage of the vouchers, but the students left behind would likely be worse off.
Daren Acemogulu: Vouchers likely to improve things in short run given the awful state of US public schools. But we know little about their long run effects.
Angus Deaton: And what about the kids that don't take up the vouchers?
Richard Schmalensee: Many would of course benefit, but those in rural areas or with irresponsible parents wouldn't. Charters aren't magic.
David Autor: Maddeningly sweeping! Some students would benefit and the average effect might indeed be positive. But some students would surely be harmed.
Katherine Baicker: Those using vouchers would likely be better off, but others might be worse - need to consider system-level and distributional effects.
These are only some of the responses. Please check the results page for the complete list of comments. There are also other questions in the survey. You may want to check responses to those questions too.