The School-Choice Choices.


In the United States today, most high school graduates are not ready for the challenges of the modern world or higher education. Their subpar skills pose a major threat to the vitality of our economy. In 1983, a presidential commission on education found the nation "at risk." In 1992, Congress declared that "the current achievement levels of students in the United States are far below those that might indicate competency in challenging subject matters in core content areas" (Goals 2000: Educate America Act, 112). In March 1996, the Second National Education Summit emphatically made that point again. Recent polls indicate that, according to Americans, elementary and secondary education is the most important political issue (1998, 30, citing the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University Survey).

Many people attribute the poor educational outcomes to the political prescription of education practices and the absence of market forces that results from the exclusive access of public schools to tax dollars. "Politics permeates the educational system" (Wong 1996), determining the curriculum, textbooks, teaching credentials, instructional practices (sometimes prescribed in considerable detail), and attendance zones. Most children must attend a particular public school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 80 percent of children in kindergarten through high school (K-12) attend their assigned public school. Yet so-called public schools are less public than other government-funded services such as hospitals, roads, parks, libraries, parking lots, even golf courses and marinas that are open to anyone willing to pay user fees (Center 1970, Gatto 1992).

Many analysts and officials have argued for more parental choice (for example, Chubb and Moe 1990, Coons and Sugarman 1991, Center 1970, Lieberman 1993, Walberg and Bast 1993, and West 1994). Others have argued against it (for example, Texas 1994, Smith and Meier 1995, and Henig 1994). But only two of the choice options have received extensive consideration: public-school choice, which provides for open enrollment among public schools, and private-school choice, under which taxpayers help parents pay private-school tuition (Beare and Boyd 1993, Bierlein 1993, Boaz 1991, Clune and Witte 1990, Cobb 1992, Center 1970, Texas 1994, Henig 1994, Wells and Biegel 1993, Witte and Rigdon 1993).

A number of studies exemplify the narrow focus of the school-choice controversy. The Center for the Study of Public Policy noted that a reformed education system did not have to favor public schools, but nonetheless it considered only policy options that did so (Center 1970, 26). J. F. Witte and M. E. Rigdon (1993) observed that a proposal by J. E. Chubb and T. M. Moe (1990) maximized consumer choice and school autonomy, even though under that proposal government officials would "orchestrate and oversee the choice process," imposing price controls and controlling who would operate new schools. "Saving Our Schools," an article published in Business Week (1992), characterized private-school choice as being "at one extreme," and D. P. Doyle called it "a fundamental transformation" (1992). H. J. Walberg and J. L. Bast admitted that private-school choice made only limited use of market forces, yet they described it as "comprehensive educational choice" (1993). The narrow focus has persisted at the highest levels. For example, it dominated a February 17, 1997, meeting in the Utah governor's office ("Free to Choose," 1997). In addition, political defeats such as that of California Proposition 174 apparently have convinced choice advocates that too much choice, rather than too little choice (or poor political strategy), caused the defeat. The political setbacks of private-school choice have reinforced narrow-minded views about parental choice.

The narrow focus is unnecessary and dangerous. Payment by users is enforceable, so education is not a classic public good such as national defense that only the government can provide. Businesses can supply education. Regulations and subsidies can deal with spillover and equity issues (Lott 1987, West 1994). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that "states didn't have to provide public education" (Lieberman 1993, 000). There are no legal or practical reasons why the public debate should not include child-centered public funding and outright (consumer-funded) privatization, and there are many reasons why the debate should include those options.

Child-centered public funding was almost completely ignored between the time Milton Friedman first proposed it in 1955 and its resurfacing in 1997 in a proposal by William Allen and Eugenia Toma ("Scrap Public Schools" 1997). The Allen-Toma proposal was based on a 1996 study ordered by the governor of Michigan, John Engler. The Michigan study concluded that the government's operation of schools insulated from competition was the biggest source of educational inefficiency. Child-centered public funding uses tax revenues as a large source of education funding, but under this scheme all schools must compete for funds. Hence, the focus shifts from supporting a "system" to satisfying parents with educational outcomes. Except for the budget of the agency that disburses public funds and performs oversight functions, all of the tax dollars earmarked for education reach individual schools through parents' choices. Parents who prefer their current public school can continue to send their children there, but they would receive the same amount of taxpayer support if they transfer their child to a private school.

With outright privatization, parents pay school fees from their disposable income. Fees and donations fund K-12 education. Outright privatization has received more attention (most recently from Coulson 1999) than child-centered funding, but it is rarely mentioned and has never been considered seriously in recent debates. Until well into the nineteenth century, however, primary education in the United States was largely funded in this way. As late as the 1830s, the education of low-income students was supported by philanthropy and charity. "Free" schools were set up, or the tuition of poor students enrolled at private schools was paid for by donations. Literacy rates were high, and the "free" schools were usually good (Blumenfeld 1981, Coulson 1999). Nineteenth-century England experienced similar developments (West 1994). Still, despite periodic, sometimes detailed reviews (Blumenfeld 1981, Coulson 1999, Lee and Sexton 1992, Richman 1994, Rothbard 1994, Rockwell 1992, and West 1994), the track record of consumer-supported private schooling is not well known. The widely held beliefs about the disadvantages of outright privatization deserve reexamination, given its major advantages.

Child-based funding and outright privatization are less vulnerable to most of the typical criticisms of public and private-choice proposals. For example, the most politically potent criticism of private-school choice has been the alleged impact on the children who stay in the public schools (Henig 1994, Greider 1992). But such allegations have long-term relevance only if some children have to stay there. With outright privatization there are no public schools. With child-centered public funding, children receive the same level of public support no matter which school their parents choose, so no one has to stay in a public school indefinitely. If the public schools are not choiceworthy, child-centered public funding will cause private schools to replace them gradually.

The Comparison Factors

The factors that dominate the parental-choice debate, and the ones I use here to evaluate the four proposals, are: competition, access to instruction, socialization to a common culture, stability of reforms, and formalization of educational practices. Comparisons with reference to these factors shift the debate toward consideration of the importance and desirable direction of change of each factor. Using the traditional, more subjective evaluation factors--efficiency, equity, and freedom--would bog us down in controversies over measurement, definition, and methods of implementation.


Although choice advocates chronically overlook key elements of competitive markets, they tout competition as the key to improvement in the school system. The main elements of market competition are numerous independent competitors, opportunities to compete (access to resources and the ability to start new schools), and incentives (what competitors gain or lose) to compete for education consumers.

Access to Instruction

Access has two key parts: affordability and availability. Affordability depends on family income and on taxpayer and charitable funding. Availability depends on proximity and on opportunities and incentives for product differentiation, including educators' abilities to customize services and adapt to new information.

Socialization to a Common Culture

This factor evaluates the degree to which children reach adulthood aware of their rights and responsibilities in a republic (Wise and Darling-Hammond 1984). Part of socialization is exposure to a mix of children representative of the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of their region.

Stability of Reforms

Reforms may undermine the political or economic support for key elements of their likely outcomes. A reform that causes some groups to benefit at the expense of others or that fails to yield broad-based academic gains will probably be politically unstable.

Formalization of Educational Practices

Formalization of curriculum, textbooks, teaching methods, and so forth means that rules, especially those that school-based educators cannot readily influence, constrain education policymaking and prescribe the behavior of teachers (Fossedal 1996).

Evaluations of the Choice Options

Presently, with few exceptions, parents have school choices only if they can pay private-school...

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