Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Competition to Public Education

Holly Hatch
Melanie Lewis
Wiladean Thomas


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.


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
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
    misrepresent services
  • The goals of earning a profit and educating children may not always be
  • Politicians may award contracts to their political allies

Charter Schools

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 Development, 1995).

  • 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 schools (1993).

  • 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

Home Schooling

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 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 government downsizing 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, 1994).


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

1. Open 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.

3. Year-round 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 schools 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.

Political Strategies

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, or gifted.

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 in schools.

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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