Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

The Implications of School Choice

Rob Matheson


P. Kayren McKnight

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

What is the Issue?

During the last twenty years, parents have increasingly demanded more options in public pre-college education (OāNeil, 1996). According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (1995), approximately fifteen percent of low- and high-income parents choose alternative public or private schools over their neighborhood school. Despite rising enthusiasm for school choice, it is still not clear if students are making educational gains in these alternative learning environments. Why do parents even consider school choice options in the first place when the educational outcomes, which one assumes to be the primary interest to parents, are not readily apparent (Fuller, 1996)? What are the political pressures driving the demand for more school choice options? What are the implications for public education if school choice is the dominant method of determining school enrollments? Are there strategies that educational leaders should consider to ensure school choice enhances education for all children?

The three major types of choice options are magnet schools, charter schools and voucher programs. Magnet schools were created in 1976 as a voluntary component of mandated desegregation. Students were offered specialized curricula within the core curriculum of the local school district to attend schools primarily located in urban school districts (Checkley, 1997). Magnet schools also typically receive extra monetary resources compared to traditional public schools (Davenport and Moore, 1988).

Charter schools are public schools governed by a charter (contract) with the local or state school board. In exchange for reduced bureaucratic regulations and increased program freedom, the charter school is responsible for proving increased academic achievement in a specified area within a three- to five-year time frame. Funding for charter schools is calculated by multiplying the number of students by either the average state or local district per-pupil allocation (Nathan, 1996).

Voucher programs are the most controversial of the three choice options. In a voucher system, parents receive public funding for their children to attend private, parochial or public school. The school may or may not accept them, and the school may also charge additional tuition above and beyond the voucher amount. Even though voucher programs offer school choice, there is no accountability for documenting increased student achievement (Nathan, 1996).


School choice is hardly a new idea. Our nation has always struggled to balance equality, efficiency and liberty. Public concern for values shifts periodically in a wide variety of public policies and programs. The intellectual roots of the current debate on educational choice began with Thomas Paine and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century. A variety of conservatives, liberals and radicals continued to debate and write about school choice into the twentieth century (Elmore 1987). In the early 1960ās, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act as a post-Sputnik reaction that emphasized school efficiency. In 1962, Milton Friedman proposed a system of publicly financed educational vouchers, although it did not receive much attention within the political arena at that time. The 1964 Civil Rights Act initiated school programs to address desegregation and equality. There followed a stormy era of equality as the focus of educational reform. In 1970, Friedmanās voucher ideas were adopted by the Nixon administration. A proposal was made by the Center for the Study of Public Policy to create a demonstration voucher project in Alum Rock, California (Elmore 1987). The 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) brought another short wave of concern for equality.

Economic crises tend to bring about demands for greater efficiency, productivity, quality or even privatization (Kerchner and Boyd, 1987). The oil producing export countries (OPEC) oil embargo in the mid-1970ās caused a world wide economic recession that increased economic competition between industrialized nations. Following the embargo, the 1982 Coleman Study (now refuted) claimed that private schools improved achievement, and A Nation at Risk in 1983 fueled the perception of a failing public school system. As a result, a wave of school reforms moved across the nation, calling for higher standards and privatization. Politicians campaigned as education governors, using the theme good education equals economic success. The 1987 meeting of the National Governors Association was opened by Thomas Keanās statement that educational reform is intensely competitive, and states that succeed will do better economically (Kerchner and Boyd, 1987). The pursuit of excellence and efficiency replaced equality as the leading goal of American schooling again.

From his position in the bully pulpit, President Reagan pushed for states to take the lead in educational reform. Minnesota passed the first inter-district school choice law in 1988 and set off a chain reaction. In 1990, Wisconsin passed a voucher proposal that provided private school scholarships to low income students. Minnesota passed the first charter school law the following year. Between 1991 and 1997, over twenty-five states passed charter school legislation and twenty other states have considered charter schools. In 1995 Ohio introduced limited voucher plans and Wisconsin expanded its voucher plan (Center for Educational Reform, 1996). The movement for school choice has gained considerable momentum in the last five years, though there is disagreement as to the impetus starting the movement and the forces driving it.

Forces driving the issue

Each generation tends to demand more from schools than its predecessors did. This makes the public, especially the highly educated upper middle class, increasingly conscious of and unwilling to accept mediocre schooling services (Kerchner and Boyd, 1987). Whether the push for school choice is driven by economic and political forces, or by parents and educators, depends on whom you ask.

Tom Watkins, director of the Detroit Center for Charter schools, says that charter school advocates are

    1. zealots who believe private is better than public
    2. entrepreneurs who see money to be made or
    3. reformers who want to expand public school options and provide "creative tension" that they believe will improve all schools.

While the eloquence about choice may come from the last group, most of the money and political influence comes from the first two (Molnar, 1996).

The champions for school choice are often those who have experienced public school system failure. Governor Rudy Perpich of Minnesota supported school choice legislation in Minnesota several times before its passage after St. Paul, Minnesota schools denied his choice of placement for his children (Mazzoni, 1991). Polly Williams of Milwaukee unsuccessfully worked to pass legislation for autonomy of North Milwaukee public schools. Her concern for minority students who were failing led her to persevere, and she proposed the parent choice voucher plan in Milwaukee that eventually passed. (McGroarty, 1996).

According to Nathan and Power (1996), legislators who proposed charter legislation viewed charter schools as an alternative to, rather than a prelude to, voucher programs. They cited the following reasons for their charter school proposals:

    • To help youngsters who have not succeeded in existing schools
    • To provide opportunity for educational entrepreneurs
    • To expand the range of schools available
    • To increase student achievement
    • To pressure the exiting system to improve.

There has been wide spread failure in the educational establishment, including legislative education committees, to appreciate how the politics of excellence and competition promote demands for choice (Kerchner and Boyd, 1987). Educators, parents, the business community and legislators may see the need for excellence, take up the flag of Goals 2000, or even see competition as a means of improvement, but no one wants their child, race or ethnic group to be at the bottom of the competition. If efficiency and liberty are the dominant forces driving the politics of education, as they seem to be currently, then choice takes on a new character. Proponents of choice can connect their support for market mechanisms to consumer preference and higher achievement. Vouchers, charter schools and tax credits may fair poorly by equality criteria, but they provide alternative means of looking for educational excellence (Kerchner and Boyd, 1987).

An inadvertent political force driving school choice is the maintenance of the status quo. According to the Center for Educational Reform (1996), opponents of school choice who do not win local or state legislative battles may dilute the impact by promoting weak legislation that restricts charter school operations. Of the twenty-five states with charter laws, thirteen grant little autonomy. Georgia, Hawaii, New Mexico and Kansas have seventeen charter schools between them, despite laws that have been on the books for two to three years (Dale, 1995).

Since parents and teachers are two of the major driving forces behind the school choice movement, it is helpful to recognize the frustrations that each group has recently vocalized. In a recent Public Agenda Foundation study, sixty-one percent of parents said that academic standards were too low, and their children were not developing strong skills (Johnson and Immerwahr, 1994). Friedman (1990) and Nathan (1989) both reveal the frustrations of teachers who have tried to be innovative, only to encounter bureaucratic systems unwilling to listen to new, promising ideas. Many parents and teachers believe that there are better ways to educate students, and they are using school choice as a method for putting their positive energies to work.

School choice advocates desire to maximize the good characteristics of traditional schools, otherwise there would be no interest in choice options. According to Wolk (1997), characteristics of a good school or system include

  • high standards and corresponding assessments for English, math, science and history
  • safe, orderly, well-maintained, and adequately equipped schools where teachers play the central role in determining how children learn
  • concentrating the spending of adequate, equitable amounts of money on teaching and learning
  • establishing higher levels of expectations, compensation and support for teachers, who are then more likely to be committed to teaching to higher standards
  • asessment that is based on all students reaching high levels of student performance.

Many parents and educators support expanding school choice. According to OāNeil (1996), parents know the needs and values of their children, so they are better enabled to participate in and choose the proper schooling environment. Garber (1995) states that school choice will enhance competition between schools to create better, more diverse learning opportunities, with the emphasis on the student who is "served" rather than one who is providing the service.

New programs sometimes produce higher achievement, regardless of the long-term value of the program, because new programs attract an educationally advantaged group-those who value education enough to choose (Bredo, 1987). One of the major underlying arguments for increased choice is that parents are more likely to be satisfied with a school they have chosen, and are more likely to support their childās learning environment (Elmore, 1987). Research in the 1960ās and 70ās suggested that desegregation boosted achievement scores. Later research found the connection inconsistent (Bredo, 1987). Teachers in the Alum Rock voucher experiment initially expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the system, but their support sharply declined over time (Elmore, 1987). Conclusive evidence that voucher or magnet programs produce differences in student achievement is currently being debated. Some research indicates that geographic proximity, rather than curriculum content, is the major determinate of parent choice (Elmore, 1987 and Mulholland, 1996).

Where is the issue going?

Public school choice presents a conflict between the right of a parent to choose the best education for their children with the need for a democratic society to provide an equitable, high level education for all American students. Maintaining equity between traditional and choice schools, as the wave of school choice reform washes over, is a major task of public education in America. Bredo (1987) questions whether we can reinvigorate educational institutions without constraining them to such a degree that they become merely an arm of the state, or loosening them so much that they dissolve into a babble of privatized concerns. In addition, educators and policy makers are challenged to include the voices of non-parents as parents seek to control their childrenās educational environment.

Educational choices differ from those idealized in the economic theory of pure competition. Schooling is as much preparation for the future as for the present. Ignorance has long range consequences, so choosing a school is more like choosing a spouse than a loaf of bread (Bredo, 1987). The consequences are also not limited to the individuals or families making the choice. Molnar (1996) is concerned that charter schools, vouchers and privatization are premised on the assumption that our society can be held together solely by self-interested pursuit of our individual purposes. The debate over school choice is not simply between market-based reform and the educational status quo, according to Tyack (1992). The fundamental questions concern whether democratic ideas of common good can survive the onslaught of the market mentality that threatens to turn every human relationship into a commercial transaction.

If success in school is defined by individual competition, getting ahead of others in the percentile ranking, then there are obvious conflicts between individual and collective success. Goals need to be re-conceptualized in a more sensible light that considers their interaction with other goals (Bredo, 1987). Balance of the values is important to the common good. Much of the beneficial effects of schooling derive from associations between students and teachers, rather than individual consumption. That benefit is lost if individual groups separate themselves out so as not to be last in the competition, or cited as a drag to a school in the competition.

Our nation realizes certain collective benefits educationally because we limit our individual choices for the common good. The concepts of equity (or fairness) and equality (of minimum academic standards and school funding) should continue to be a focus of education reform. As a result, American citizens hope to live in a stable democracy populated by literate voters and a highly skilled work force. The ongoing success of magnet schools and potential of charter schools will be significant factors in the direction of American public education in the 21st century.

Implications for U.S. Public Education

U.S. public education is at another critical turning point. Public perception of schools, political pressures resulting from interest group agenda and the realities of a changing job market are all contributing to a climate of increased school choice. Parents are more knowledgeable, vocal and insistent about increasing their voice in the development and implementation of choice options.

The implications of unrestricted school choice are unacceptable to educators who view school choice as an opportunity to improve public education. Hawley (1996) presents a troubling array of consequences that may result if unrestricted school choice occurs:

    • School choice will reduce the opportunities for students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds to interact and learn from each other. Choice will fragment student populations into homogenous groups, which does not reflect the heterogeneity of the real world.
    • Choice will decrease the number of public school students, eroding support for public school funding through decreased per-pupil allocations or parents who would probably not support tax initiatives aimed at bolstering all public schools. Decreased funding would especially affect children with special needs who require significant revenue expenditures.
    • The cost of private schooling may increase because if private schools have access to public monies (vouchers), then they will raise tuition. That is the way the market works.
    • Studies have shown that parents do not possess high academic expectations compared to educators and civic leaders. A consequence of school choice will concentrate achievement-oriented parents, leaving the traditional schools with relatively unmotivated parents.

Widening choice only works when choice is symmetrical. Allowing unique opportunities for choice schools, and not allowing corresponding broader choices of students and curriculum by traditional schools, immediately debilitates the ability of existing schools to solve problems (Kerchner and Boyd, 1987). It is under these circumstances that public schools will become dumping grounds for the least motivated and able students.

To insinuate that schools that have inadequate resources will improve to keep students is insulting to educators struggling with few resources. Educational productivity research proves that money does matter, contrary to assertions by some educational reformers and politicians. Inputs that directly affect teacher quality, current materials and teacher support equipment can and do raise student achievement (Kazal, 1993). Spending money per se will not guarantee better quality schools for students, but spending money on areas that we know affects student achievement can raise educational outcomes. Charter schools in particular may provide some interesting results in the efficiency of per pupil dollars spent.

There are significant choices that educators and legislators must make to balance equality and efficiency. It is possible to teach a homogeneous group more efficiently than a diverse group, but the positive effects of association are lost. It costs more to promote achievement across a diverse group of students, but the benefits to the common good of the nation are much greater.

What should educational leaders do to prepare for this issue?

There are several high quality educational environments throughout the country that educators can adopt or model (Berliner, 1993). School choice may provide public educational leaders with unique opportunities to solve some of the problems of underachieving schools or systems because of the linkages between educational creativity and accountability. Educational leaders should include the following recommendations as they consider school choice issues.

    1. Many discussions about school choice center around the idea that public schools are failing. This is incorrect. The American K-12 education system is doing remarkably well, despite the fact that many students who attend public schools face significant problems related to parental income, health care, violence, and a lack of youth programs (Berliner, 1993). This fact needs to be heard at the local, state and national levels.
    2. School choice discussions should focus on the value of increasing student achievement, innovation, creativity, and ownership without damaging the functional level of traditional public schools.
    3. Educators and legislators should de-emphasize competition between students and schools and promote excellence as a common good in balance with equality so choice does not create segregated schools.
    4. States should equalize per student academic funding. Some schools, due to location and building state, must put money into areas that have no effect on student achievement, such as security guards, metal detectors and building repairs.
    5. Choice needs to be symmetrical so that existing and choice schools have similar opportunities to respond to student needs.
    6. Establish and increase the exchange of ideas between all schools.


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