Competition to Public Education
As early as the 1960's, conservative economist Milton Friedman advocated school choice
plans as a challenge to what he called the "monopoly of public schools" (1962).
The 1983 Nation at Risk
report described a "rising tide of mediocrity in public schools" (National Commission on
Excellence in Education, 1983). Since this time, dissatisfaction with the public schools has grown. This dissatisfaction, combined
with a growing conservative free market political climate, has fueled an explosion
of privatization schemes to challenge the public schools. In the 1990's, privatization
and choice options abound. Public educators must adjust to the new climate of competition
for students and funds.
The concept of universal public education for all students in the United States was
popularized by Horace Mann in an 1847 report which called for a "common school" as
the "foundation on which republican government can securely rest"(National Coalition
for Public Education, 1991). Universal compulsory education legislation came through
each state between 1852 and 1914. Compulsory and univerals schools originated
in response to child labor laws and to provide a process of Americanization for the
rising tide of immigrants. The proponents of universal public education emphasized the role
of the public schools in creating a common set of values, language, and experience
out of the disparate cultures, religions, and classes that make up the country (National Coalition for Public Education, 1991).
While private and parochial schools remained popular, particularly in the Northeast
and Louisiana, only minor challenges to the universal public school concept arose
prior to the Brown v. Board of Education
case. After this case, many white families, resistant to the resultant massive federal
desegregation orders, established private religious schools; others enrolled their
children in independent and parochial schools. The widespread public support for
"the common school" began to erode.
PRIVATE CHOICE OPTIONS
Even a cursory review of the literature reveals that school choice means different
things to different people. In the following sections, this report reviews four
common privatatization choice options: contract services, charter schools, vouchers,
and home schooling. Their pros and cons as described by proponents and critics of each
option will be presented.
Contract services spans the divide between public and private education. Districts
contract for services from private vendors, most often for food services or management.
Private management of public schools started with urban schools in fiscal and educational trouble. Companies such as Educational Alternatives Inc., a for-profit organization,
recently contracted with Baltimore and Hartford to provide educational programming
and to manage entire schools.
- Private corporations infuse new capital into schools
- Private companies claim reduced operating costs
- Contracts are performance-based and cancelable, increasing accountability
- Private companies may reduce salaries of teachers and classified staff
- To secure contracts, companies may underestimate costs and
- The goals of earning a profit and educating children may not always be
- Politicians may award contracts to their political allies
Charter school proposals and laws vary. Under most laws, charter schools
are exempt from many of the rules which other public schools must follow
such as teacher tenure, length of the school day, curriculum, and hiring
and certification of staff. Charter schools may be founded by parents,
teachers, community groups, businesses, and other organizations. They
must gain the approval of a sponsor, which may be the local school board,
a university, or a state school board (Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development, 1995). Minnesota, the first state to pass a
charter law in 1991, is currently one of eighteen states with charters. A
recent survey of 234 charter schools by the Education
Commission of the States found that these
schools typically educate about 300 students, draw from a cross-section of
the student population, and that half of these schools were designed to
serve "at-risk" students (Association for Supervision and Curriculum
- Freedom to innovate and run a school to meet certain "market" needs
- Challenges the "monopoly" of the public schools providing incentive for innovation
across the system
- Involves parents in setting up the school, thus facilitating extensive parental involvement
- Bypasses cumbersome and outmoded regulations
- Paves the way towards total privatization and vouchers
- Weakens collective bargaining contracts
- Siphons off energy to change cumbersome regulations in all public schools
- Difficulty getting capital funds, as charter schools cannot post construction bonds
Conservative economist Milton Friedman, in his book Capitalism and Freedom,
proposed that the government issue vouchers to all families with children for use
in the public or private school of their choice aimed to create a "free market" for
educational services (1962). The most current radical proposals call for the state
government to issue each family a check or voucher representing the government's per-student
educational expenditure. Families would then be free to choose any school for their
children and could add to the value of the voucher from their own financial resources.
The diversity of the voucher programs reflects the wide range of political views of
those supporting private school choice plans. According to Wells, when considering
vouchers, the issues fall under three main themes: (a) public versus private schools--the critical differences in mission, governance, quality and effectiveness of public
and private schools, (b) resource and equity issues the question of how public education
money will be redistributed under voucher or tax credit plans, and (c) constitutional issues--the church-state debate, reflecting use of public money for religious
- Provides complete freedom of choice to attend schools
- Provides an alternative to traditional public education
- Gives all families funds to attend a private school if they desire
- All schools must respond to customers or lose enrollment
- Eliminates the socialization for a democracy of the "universal public school"
- Allocates funding that is insufficient to pay for the total cost of private schools
- Takes away funds from public schools, thus exacerbating inequities
- Provides public funds to religious schools
- Selective private school admissions criteria may limit attendance opportunities
A third alternative to public education is home schooling. Home schools are increasing
rapidly, with current estimates of 800,000 children enrolled (Brockett, 1995). This choice option gained popularity and legitimacy in the early 1980's. Historically,
parents who taught their children at home were fined or jailed for not obeying state
compulsory attendance laws. However, the courts have generally supported these parents' right to home school.
Additional surveys show that home schooling is mainly utilized by white, middle-class
parents, who are in their thirties, and who can afford to have one parent stay at
home. These individuals typically have strong religious convictions, are politically
conservative, and have little confidence in social institutions (Mayberry, 1995).
Home school advocates claim that public schools are too bureaucratic, are not safe,
and teach values that are incompatible to the family.
- Provides individualized instruction
- Allows parents to control the delivery of their child's education
- Gives parents more control over the curriculum
- Provides a learning environment sheltered from pereceived negative peer influences
and violence of public schools, free of violence
- Isolates the student from the peer group at school, thus potentially hindering
social skill development
- Not a viable option for families with limited financial resources
- Quality of teaching is not assured due to untrained teachers
- Lack of extracurricular activities
FORCES SUPPORTING AND OPPOSING COMPETITION
privatization are those individuals or organizations
that believe that only market competition will provide the impetus needed to improve
public schools. Families seeking a specific type of school, such as a school with
a religious or special education focus like Montessori, often support privatization alternatives.
Increasingly, minority families are seeking alternatives outside of the public school
arena. They desire educational environments which reinforce students'
cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Politicians who support
advocate vouchers and other privatization options. Finally, those who seek to separate
their children from "distracting influences" in the public schools look to home schooling
or private school options.
Professional associations and unions representing public school educators lead the
forces in opposition to privatization. Groups such as the National Education Association
view privatization as an attempt to undermine collective bargaining agreements and to lower wages in the public sector, further degrading attempts to professionalize
teaching. They argue that if the legislation and regulations which apply to public
schools are as debilitating to innovation as privatization advocates claim, then
why not eliminate or change the regulations? They argue that allowing charter schools to
bypass certification requirements for staff and other education laws will begin to
erode hard-won regulations put in place to protect the rights of special education
and minority students within the schools. Many equity advocates who view public schools
as essential to the effective functioning of a democracy criticize privatization
and some public choice magnets as dangerous. They maintain that privatization will
further stratify the school system, leaving the poorest and least able students in the public
schools. They contend that providing alternatives to public education only meets
the needs of families with the resources and knowledge to access the system and to
supplement vouchers with their own funds.
As of August 1995, twenty-one states across the nation had a total of 250
charter schools. While
charters are growing more quickly than
vouchers, Wisconsin is one state which has embraced the use of vouchers. Under the
Milwaukee plan, during the 1993-94 school year, there were 742 low-income students
using vouchers. States with charter and voucher legistlation initiatives are growing.
1995 Gallup polls show that public support for home schooling is high (Lines, 1995). By the year 2000, approximately 2% of school-age children in America will be home
schooled (Mayberry, 1995). Advocates of all types of choice claim that competition will assist in improving
student performance, at the same time unleashing creativity, autonomy, and accountability
in the public schools.
If the current movement continues, by the year 2000 there will be an abundance of
competitors within the educational arena providing opportunities based upon the ability
to pay. Dr. Donald Stedman, Dean of the School of Education at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asserts that school choice will converge into four main
groups (1994). First, he predicts that 50% of all students will attend traditional
public schools. The majority of these students will come from poor families. African-American, Hispanic, or Asian-American groups, those from single parent homes, those
with special handicapping conditions, or those with learning and behavioral disabilities
will represent the majority population in these schools. Second, Stedman predicts
20% of students will be educated through home schooling. Third, an additional 20%
will attend charter schools. The remaining 10% of students will participate in the
fourth type of school system, "residential prep schools", funded by vouchers (Stedman,
IMPLICATIONS OF COMPETITION AND SCHOOL CHOICE
The growth of various choice options over the last fifteen years presents serious
implications for public education. First, the fact that there are alternatives in
a once non-competitive educational marketplace suggests that public schools no longer
have dominion. In the past, compulsory attendance laws forced the majority of students
to attend public schools. Since there were few alternatives, students went to public
schools by default. The situation now is drastically different. With increased
alternatives in the education marketplace, schools must now compete for customers. These
customers demand accountability and quality in education. If public schools cannot
offer this, then customers will seek other educational institutions which will.
A second implication of increased private options in the educational system is that
there will be a reduction in resources for public schools. Families of high socioeconomic
standing, who often provide public schools with extra resources, can afford alternatives to public education. If these parents are dissatisfied with public schools,
they may react by withdrawing their children and financial support. It is unlikely
that the per pupil expenditure will rise under these circumstances. Typically strong
parent organizations such as the PTA, band boosters, and athletic boosters will lose
participants and funding.
A third implication is that the quality of education for students in public schools
will likely suffer. To improve public education, financial resources must be allocated
to public schools. If choice options enter the educational system, then the public's commitment to improving the existing public educational structure withers. Reform
efforts will be scattered and will not succeed in improving the quality of education
for an increasingly impoverished public school student population. Greater numbers
of these students will require special education, putting additional financial strain
on an already shrinking budget.
A fourth implication of competition and privatization will be less job security for
public school employees. Salaries, benefits, and tenure may be reduced as public
schools compete with non-unionized private institutions. Lack of job security and
continued low salaries deter the most talented graduates from choosing a career in education,
furthering the "brain drain" in education. On the other hand, charters, vouchers
and home schooling may provide job and entrepreneurial opportunties for teachers,
including teacher-run schools.
A fifth implication of competition will be the demise of the universal common school.
The recent movement in public schools towards desegregation, special education inclusion,
and reduction in tracking by ability has brought together diverse students for the
same educational experiences. With competitions' "market niche approach" students of all backgrounds will no longer
study a common curriculum together in public schools. The resulting fragmented,
divergent, and often unequal educational experiences may serve to further divide
the country along race, religious, and economic lines.
Public schools must react to market competition in three ways. First, they need to
offer alternatives within the current public education system. Second, they should
marketing their services in a competitive environment. Finally, schools need to mobilize support in the political arena.
Alternatives within the public education system
enrollment allows students to attend any public
school regardless of its location. Students can decide which school they want to
attend in spite of geographical boundaries. According to Chubb and Moe, "the most
promising choice systems now in operation are those that have moved toward the elimination
of fixed jurisdictions and assignments. Carried to their full extent, such systems
make every school a school of choice" (1990).
2. Magnet school plans
are a policy option pursued by many
districts seeking to avoid mandatory assignments of students and "forced busing."
In magnet school plans, the district chooses a specific, attractive program focus
designed to draw students from all attendance areas in the district. Magnet schools work
to produce a desegregated school through voluntary assignments. The foci of magnet
programs vary in what is offered, ranging from gifted and talent magnets to magnet
schools with an emphasis on the arts.
plans are another
option for public schools. The initial impetus for year-round education was the rapid expansion of student enrollment
and overcrowded facilities. The year-round calendar provides positive incentives
for students as well as staff. It is a way to end the "academic atrophy" which occurs after long vacations and to eliminate teacher/student burnout. In addition, the
need for review is lessened because of the design of the year-round schedule. Year-round
schools continue to gain popularity as an alternative to traditional schools.
Since monopolies die slowly, the current system of public education has not yet become obsolete (Doyle, 1992).
The survival of public education may depend upon its reaction to the growing competition.
It can remain stagnant and follow a path towards obsolescence, or it can react to the challenges presented by its competitors. It is the job of public education to
out distance the competition (Doyle, 1992). Marketing the strengths of public schools
is one way in which public education can compete with alternative forms of schooling.
Due to competition within the educational market, public schools need to advertise their services. Schools must convince consumers that
public education is the best environment for learning. Districts should strive to
market themselves through various mediums. Television, radio, and newspaper are
effective ways of reaching the public. In addition, schools need to utilize the popularity
of advertising on the Internet. Currently, choice activists advertise their services
on the Internet. For example, home
have Web pages which describe what they do and how others can find support in their
choice medium. Public schools can react by following the lead of
Chico Junior High School
in California which has its own Web page detailing the accomplishments of its students.
Through advertisements public schools can portray themselves as organizations which
cater to the public's desire for quality and convince the consumer that public schools can and do provide a quality education. Schools need to make statements like:
100% of our teachers are certified, and have 5 to 20 years of experience.
We tailor our program to the needs of individualized students, including bilingual,
special needs, and academically gifted.
Public education is crucial to effective participation in American democracy.
Our school provides access to the most current curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
In addition, marketing specific themes or models for schools , such as Montessori,
the Comer School Development Model, Arts or Science Magnets or Accelerated Schools
proves attractive to families.
Advocates of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of privatization are on the
political offensive. They utilize the popular negativity towards the public schools
to fuel referendum campaigns, legislative initiatives, and the establishment of charter schools. Public school advocates need to mobilize an effective coalition to respond
to the claims made for privatization. In addition, public schools must provide
effective avenues for families to be involved in school planning and to have choices
within the public system. This attempt will neutralize the impetus for vouchers and
charter schools. According to public perception surveys, most families still prefer
the idea of public education, but want more quality, options, and control of the
public education provided to their children (Public Agenda, 1995).
The experience of public campaigns that effectively countered voucher initiatives
provide lessons for political strategies. In California, public service announcements,
voter registration of low-income families, and mobilization of the members' of public employee organizations helped defeat a voucher referendum by a two-to-one margin
in 1993. As described in the Congressional Quarterly Researcher, the financial factor
was decisive in the referendum's defeat (1994). Providing the 540,000 California students currently enrolled in private schools
with the $2,600 per person voucher would rob public schools of $1.3 billion; however,
it would not begin to cover the average private school tuition of $6,300 per student
at private schools.
In addition, public school systems need to be proactive and respond to the concerns
of parents regarding the quality, safety, and options within the schools. Public
information campaigns should include student achievement data from a variety of sources,
highlight effective programs in the local schools, and feature quality student work
and projects to counterbalance the sole emphasis on standardized test scores as a
measure of quality. Invitations extended to families and citizens to shadow a student
for a day can dispel negative perceptions about the schools. Providing meaningful avenues
for families and community members to be involved in school planning and program
design will open up the public schools to increased commitment. Emphasizing open
and varied communication by school personnel will build bridges among schools, families,
and community members.
Satisfaction surveys and focus groups of parents can provide feedback to the school
system on how well it is meeting the needs of customers and allow for mid-course
corrections and rapid response to problem areas. Positive changes in the survey
data can fuel positive media coverage and create the perceptual changes needed to rebuild the
confidence in the public schools.
Commitment to all children in the United States, via the public school system, is
a common belief in this democratic society. The public schools are the cornerstone
of this nation, as the system works to educate and socialize the country's children.
Although public schools are facing serious problems, there are significant education
reform initiatives occurring throughout the nation. Too often, citizens hear only
about the negatives and seldom have time to seek out the many good things that are
happening in public schools. Misleading comparisons, statistics, and test scores misinform
the public, denigrate the public schools, and support agendas seeking to dismantle
the public school system.
Privatization groups would have one believe that this is an issue of quality. To
the contrary, it is an issue of economic survival for these very special interests,
and if that survival comes at the expense of public schools, so be it. They offer
no proof that this competition will spur public schools to greater heights. Schools do
not deal with assembly lines. They deal with the minds of young people who are affected
by every aspect of our society. The problem is not that public schools cannot compete; they simply field a different team. Public schools must cater to all needs-- disadvantaged,
physically and mentally challenged, unmotivated--not just the motivated, affluent,
In a time of rising reaction to shared public responsibility for the health, education
and well-being of the poorest citizens, public education as a right for all is being
sharply challenged. The challenge is masked, however, in the language of choice
for all families. Advocates of all types of choice claim that competition will assist
in improving this performance, while unleashing creativity, autonomy, and accountability
Public educators cannot return to the days of the monopoly of the system. Proactive
responses to the changing concerns of the public and to counter negative perceptions
will provide the avenue for the long-term survival and growth of public schools.
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