(Guest Post by Daniel Bowen)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “school choice?”  For me, it’s spaghetti sauce.  Now, before you begin psychoanalyzing my mental association of education and Italian cuisine, let me explain.

The evolution of spaghetti sauce exemplifies the importance of variability in a marketplace.  Back in the 1980s, Prego hired Dr. Howard Moskowitz to find a sauce better than that of the sauce champion of the day, Ragu.  However, after extensive field research on consumer preferences, Moskowitz would ultimately fail to find the “Holy Grail of Sauces.”  Instead, he concluded that there was no perfect sauce.  Rather, diversity in tastes and preferences of consumers dictated the need for several “perfect sauces.”  (Malcolm Gladwell gives an extensive overview of Moskowitz’s research – found here).

While you would be hard-pressed to find an adversary to an increase in spaghetti sauce options (except maybe Ragu at the time), increasing school choice is much more contested.  Moskowitz’s research and arguments may focus on spaghetti sauce, but these can be applied to school options too.  Let’s look at three of the central arguments Moskowitz makes for spaghetti sauce variability and apply them to school choice:

1. Informing Consumers

Spaghetti Sauce: Moskowitz discovered that consumers liked variety if given proper information.  The majority of consumers aren’t product innovators or experts.  So, when Prego initially surveyed the public about what they wanted, they either didn’t know or simply reiterated the qualities of sauces they already consumed.  However, after experimenting with recipes and making people aware of different types of sauces, one in three consumers would ultimately prefer chunkier sauce. They just didn’t know this preference until they were made aware of and offered such a sauce.

Schools: Schools work the same way.  One of the great obstacles to an effective system of choice is providing information for choosers.  A parent may be familiar with the schools they went through, but they may not be aware of other options.  As a case and point, many first year D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) parents admit that they sent their children to schools without even making a visit to the school.  They just heard or presumed the school was good based on reputation.  Parents may unknowingly prefer single-sex education or greater emphasis on the fine arts.  They might just be unaware that such options exist.

2. Horizontal Segmentation

Spaghetti Sauce: Once the notion that other options exist, it becomes clear that consumers have a wide range of preferences.  Some consumers prefer a “garden fresh” sauce.  Others long for something spicier.  The key to satisfying a given consumer is not found in a singular, magical recipe.  Moskowitz found that a plurality of those surveyed preferred a chunkier sauce, but he warned Prego to not be simply satisfied with altering their main sauce.  Instead, he advocated that Prego would benefit more from casting a wider net to meet the needs of more consumers.

Schools: Once again, the same goes for schools. Some parents want religious instruction.  Others long for something spicier.  Different students have different needs.  Different parents have different preferences.  Simply tweaking one “recipe” does not suit the needs of the entire market.  Variability in both cases is the key to satisfying a diverse group of consumers.

3. Challenging the “Platonic Dish”

Spaghetti Sauce: The initial resistance to trying different sauce recipes stemmed from producers deferring to “experts.”  Spaghetti sauce chefs and their recipes, prior to Moskowitz, mostly stuck with tradition.  It was believed that there was a singular, best way to mass produce sauce and no one challenged the “experts.”  Moskowitz warned that this mentality would deter innovation and its byproducts.

Schools: Just like sauce producers, parents often defer to the “experts.”  Traditionally, with the exceptions of homeschoolers and private school attendees, parents would enroll their children in the neighborhood public school and this was held as the best way to mass educate students.  However, like sauce, strictly adhering to the “Platonic Dish” restricts our ability to innovate new and better ways to educate our nation’s students.

Moskowitz’s research would ultimately make Prego hundreds of millions of dollars from just their line of extra-chunky sauces.  And, if you need further evidence of Moskowitz’s impact, just spend a little extra time in the pasta aisle next time you frequent the grocery store.  Catholic schools have certainly demonstrated how catering to new tastes can spark innovation through the creation of new school formats found in Cristo Rey, the Notre Dame ACE Academies, Catholic School K-12 Virtual, the numerous single-sex schools provided, etc.  Hopefully, we will see the number of schooling options made available to parents become as expansive as our spaghetti sauce options.

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