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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Coming Around on School Choice

Opponents of school choice used to argue that it wouldencourage cruel competition. That prediction has failedto materialize. Instead, we see that choice createsopportunity, especially for disadvantaged students.

Want to stir things up at your next meeting ofprofessional educators? Just mention “schoolchoice.” Better yet, bringup the topic of vouchers, now referred toas the “V word” even among the most ardentadvocates. It is difficult to have a reasoneddiscussion about vouchers (or choice)without setting off loud voices, angryaccusations, and dreadful predictions fromboth sides. Opponents argue that voucherswill bring about an end to public schools;supporters contend that a lack of adequatechoice might well do the same. Surelymuch is at stake—if not the end of publiceducation, then at least a redefinition ofwhat public education means to parents,students, and educators.
I first heard about vouchers 24 yearsago. Fresh out of graduate school, I hadtaken a job as an aide to the incomingchancellor of the New York City publicschool system. The idea didn't pack muchof a punch then. Our collective response atthe time was one of suspicion and wonder.We knew that most of those whosupported vouchers were down on publiceducation and committed to an agenda thatwould divert resources from the publicschools. We treated the voucher issue as adistraction from the more immediateproblems we had to handle, like balancing abudget in the face of retrenchment,teaching basic skills to 1.1 millionstudents, and dodging the political arrowsthat inevitably get aimed at school chiefsin large urban centers.
In 1978, the New York City schoolbudget topped $3 billion, the statehad just launched a new program ofcompetency-based testing, and politicalminefields preceded every step the newschool chief dared to take. Not much haschanged since then except for the budget,which now, with the same number ofstudents, exceeds $12 billion. The StateEducation Department is implementing anew competency-based testing programdesigned to raise academic standards,complemented by local initiatives. Studentperformance still lags abysmally. Only22.8 percent of all 8th graders achievedpassing grades on the most recent state testin math; in reading the pass rate was 33.1percent (Goodnough, 2001).
Trying to make sense of the situationafter several years of service in thechancellor's office, I wrote in 1983 that thefundamental political dilemma in urbaneducation is a dichotomy betweenconstituents and clients, each withdifferent interests (Viteritti, 1983). On oneside of the divide are those influentialgroups to whom school leaders arepolitically accountable; on the other are theparents of children whom schools aresupposed to serve, who lack the clout tomake the system respond to their needs.My initial observation was confirmed inlater experiences that I had while workingclosely with school superintendents inBoston and San Francisco. It remains valid today inbig-city school systems across the country.Proponents of school choice believe that itcan alter the balance of power betweenthose who govern public schools and thosewhose children attend them.

A Changing Dialogue

The conversation about choice is evolving.When economist Milton Friedman firstproposed vouchers 50 years ago, hecondemned public education in the UnitedStates as a failure. He argued thatcompetition created by vouchers would forcefailing schools to close. Hepredicted that better-runprivate schools would replacepublic schools in amarketplace that would have littletolerance for academic failure.
Voucher opponentscontended that vouchers wouldprompt an exodus from publicschools, basing their thesis onseveral incriminatingassumptions: that most parents aredissatisfied with publicschools, that parents wouldprefer to send their children toprivate schools, and thatparents send their children topublic schools only for lack ofa better choice.
Many opponents alsopredicted that a program ofuniversal vouchers would havea disparate outcome,benefitting more aggressive andbetter-informed middle-classfamilies who would takeadvantage of the opportunity,while leaving poor children behind in theworst public schools.
There is some evidence to support suchclaims, dating back to choice and magnetprograms that were created to promoteracial integration in the 1980s and 1990s(Fuller & Elmore, 1996). There is also alegal question as to whether providingstudents with public funding to attendreligious schools violates the establishmentclause of the First Amendment to the U.S.Constitution. This question should beresolved this spring when the U.S.Supreme Court rules on theconstitutionality of the Ohio voucher program.Previous rulings by the Court suggest thatit will approve the program, but whether itwill do so remains to be seen (Viteritti,1999).
The Ohio program, which began in1995, and a similar initiative adopted inWisconsin in 1990 signal how much thevoucher debate has evolved. Rather thanprovide vouchers for all students, theytarget low-income students—serving4,000 in Cleveland and 10,000 inMilwaukee. Another program in Floridatargets students who attend chronicallyfailing schools, but only a few dozenstudents are affected. Broad politicalcoalitions composed of African Americanparents, white liberals, urban Democrats,and business leaders, as well asmarket-oriented conservatives and Republicans,supported the laws that brought aboutthese programs.
For such advocates, a voucher is less aninstrument for market discipline and morea means for enhancing educationopportunity and equity (Viteritti, 1999). They seechoice as a way for poor students toescape low-performing, inner-city schools.As they understand it, most middle-classparents in the United States already enjoychoice. Better-off families exercise choiceby moving to high-priced communitiesthat have good public schools or by usingtheir own money to pay for tuition atprivate schools. Public voucher programsdesigned to aid economically andeducationally disadvantaged students help levelthe playing field.
The Black Alliance for EducationalOptions, whose chairman of the board isformer Milwaukee Superintendent ofSchools Howard Fuller, demands choice inthe name of social justice. Its logic is hardto refute. National test scores indicate thatthe average African American 12th graderis four years behind his or her white peerin academic achievement (National Centerfor Education Statistics, 2001). It is thisstubborn learning gap—not publicschools—that most contemporary choiceadvocates want to eliminate.
Most support charter schools—publicschools that operate outside the legaljurisdiction of the local school district. Since1991, 37 states and the District ofColumbia have passed charter school laws.With 2,100 such schools in operation,public charter schools represent the bulkof opportunities advanced under the choicebanner. When properly designed, charterlaws grant school-based personnel theautonomy that they need to operateeffectively, free from the usual bureaucraticconstraints that hamper professionaljudgment. In a recent Public Agenda survey, 9of 10 public school administrators reportedthat they lacked the managerial discretionto do their jobs properly. By devolvingpower to the school, charter laws enhancelocal authority (2001).
Beyond the public voucher and charterschool initiatives now in existence,approximately 60,000 poor studentsaround the country receive private tuitionscholarships to attend nonpublic schools.Conceived as an abstract idea 50 yearsago, choice is now a growing reality. Thevarious programs implemented haveprovided researchers with a rich empiricalbase for assessing its merits. The evidenceon these programs, although plentiful,remains inconclusive, however (Gill,Timpane, Ross, & Brewer, 2001; Peterson& Campbell, 2001).

Preliminary Evidence

So far, the harrowing predictions of massevacuations and disparate impact have notmaterialized. Polls consistently show thatparents across the United States haveconfidence in public schools, evidentlymuch more than choice opponents surmise(Moe, 2001). The exception is foundamong minority parents living in urbancommunities, who consistently supportchoice and vouchers. This perspective putsa different face on the overall condition ofU.S. education. Academic failure is notendemic to public education. It can bedefined more specifically as an inadequatenumber of effective urban schools.
Even in urban settings, however, choicehas not depleted public schoolenrollments. With 10,739 students receivingvouchers and 1,559 attending charterschools, Milwaukee offers a wide range ofchoices to parents; yet, because of abulging school-age population, enrollmentin regular public schools remains stable at103,500 (Borsuk, 2001). Since 1997,private philanthropists have offered a fulltuition scholarship to any student in theEdgewood, Texas, school district whowants to attend a private or parochialschool. Yet only 11 percent of the studentsin this mostly Hispanic, low-performingdistrict outside of San Antonio have takenadvantage of the opportunity (McLemore,2001).
By targeting disadvantaged students,public and private voucher programs havecome a long way in assuring that choice is made available to those who need it most. Although charter schools enrollapplicants on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery, considerable evidence indicates that the profileof students attending charter schools is similar to those in nearby public schools (U.S. Department ofEducation, 2000). Many charter schools have a slight oversubscription of poor and minority students whoare highly motivated to seek alternative providers of education services. Some evidence also shows that thepoor students who take advantage of vouchers and charter schools have parents who are slightly bettereducated. But this is a far cry from the kind of middle-class “creaming” (a racially offensive term)predicted by choice opponents. The fact is that choice programs offer opportunities to disadvantagedstudents that were once available only to the middle class.
Most parents of students in public voucher, private scholarship, and charter school programsindicate that their students are better off for it. When asked, they point to more rigorous academicstandards, higher expectations, safer environments, and a sense of community within their new schools asreasons for their satisfaction.
The evidence on academic performance is more mixed. Encouraging evidence suggests thatAfrican American students in voucher programs are registering higher gains than their public school peers.For example, research on inner-city Catholic high schools consistently shows that the low-income AfricanAmerican boys who attend them are more likely to graduate and attend college (Evans & Schwab, 1995).The data on Hispanic students are less positive, though.
Evidence on the academic performance of charter schools is also mixed, with some showingimpressive results and others not doing as well as neighboring public schools. Some jurisdictions need toimpose greater accountability standards on charter schools—and on many of their public schools as well. But if charter schools are to succeed as a viable alternative forunderserved students, they must be adequately supported. The average charter school gets approximately80 percent of the per-pupil funding received by regular public schools. Because of bargains struck betweenproponents and opponents in the legislative process, charter schools must function at a financialdisadvantage.
In Cleveland, for example, per-pupil spending for regular public school students is $7,746,compared with $4,519 for students in charter schools. Each student who participates in the Clevelandvoucher program receives $2,250 in public funding. In such cases, the home district of the studentexercising choice gets to keep the portion of the funds that would have gone toward the student'seducation. Defenders of such practices claim that they protect school districts from financial hardship. Ifstudents are educated outside the district, however, the district has no justification for retaining the funds.The net result is to penalize the students. These are “opportunity costs” imposed on poor parents who seekto exercise education options similar to those enjoyed by their middle-class counterparts.
Proponents of the market model insist that the competition created by choice will provideunderperforming public schools with an incentive to improve. That sounds reasonable enough, but againthe evidence is inconclusive. Last year, after a decade of experimentation with choice, the Milwaukeeschool district failed to meet 14 of the 15 goals that it had set for itself. It is difficult to assess marketeffects when laws are written to curb competition. When the Wisconsin voucher plan was first enacted,participation was limited by statute to 1 percent of the student population. Most charter school laws imposestrict caps on the number of schools allowed, regardless of demand. I believe that if unencumbered choicewere allowed, inner-city schools would rise to the occasion and improve, which would be a good reason tosupport choice. But I could be wrong. Some urban school districts might still resist change and continue tofail. And that would be an even more compelling reason to support choice.

Plan for Success

School choice is not a panacea for the problems of urban schools. But to succeed on any level, schoolchoice must be designed to succeed. It must be targeted to benefit those students with the greatest needs.Vouchers should be restricted to economically disadvantaged students who attend chronically failingschools. As long as the demand for seats in charter schools exceeds the supply, a certain percentage oughtto be reserved for students from failing schools. No arbitrary cap should limit the number of studentsallowed to participate, and funding must be equitable.
Private schools that accept public vouchers should be held accountable to a public authority, justas charter schools are supposed to be. To qualify for public funding, private schools that accept studentswith vouchers should be required to demonstrate a level of academic proficiency comparable to those setby the states for regular public schools. Likewise, public schools that do not meet such standards should bereconstituted or closed. The real answer to the so-called “creaming” problem is a public policy thatenforces a low tolerance for failing schools. That way no child gets left behind.
The fundamental injustice of urban education is that it consigns poor children to schools that mostmiddle-class parents would not consider for their own children. The point was driven home in New YorkCity last year during a hotly contested mayoral election between six major candidates. Despite theirdifferences on issues, the candidates shared two things in common. All but one rejected school vouchers asa way to provide poor students with access to private schools, and all had sent their own children to privateschools. This sounds incredible until you discover that the chancellor of schools and all but one member ofthe city's board of education also had sent their children to private schools. And one could add to the list ofprivate school parents the mayor and the former mayor, the governor and the former governor, and thenewly elected U.S. senator. Nearly every member of the political establishment in New York opposesprivate school vouchers for poor children while refusing to send their own children to public schools. As inother cities, the political and economic elite of New York views public schools as places for other people'schildren. The establishment provides the public school system with just enough support to keep it going butdoes not provide the commitment or determination to make it succeed.
Parents whose children get stuck in failing schools are told to be patient. Patience is an easy virtuewhen you do not need to live with the consequences of an inadequate education. But why is the publicschool system good enough for some kids and not for others? That position is no longer morally defensible.Indeed, it never was. That is why I have come around on school choice.

Borsuk, A. J. (2001, October 24). Choiceprogram tops 10,000. Milwaukee Sentinal Journal, p. B1.

Evans, W. N., & Schwab, R. M. (1995). Finishing high school and starting college: Do Catholic schoolsmake a difference? Quarterly Journal of Economics, 110, 941–974.

Fuller, B., & Elmore, R. F. (1996). Who chooses? Who loses? New York: Teachers College Press.

Gill, B. P., Timpane, P. M., Ross, K. E., & Brewer, D. J. (2001). Rhetoric versus reality: What we knowand what we need to know about vouchers and charter schools. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Goodnough, A. (2001, October 24). Majority of eighth graders again fail statewide tests. New York Times, p. D5.

McLemore, D. (2001, November 11). Voucher program in its 4th year; school choice reviews mixed in SanAntonio. Dallas Morning News, p. A45.

Moe, T. (2001). Vouchers and theAmerican public. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). NAEP summary data tables. Washington, DC: U.S.Department of Education.

Peterson, P. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2001). Charters, vouchers, and public education. Washington, DC:Brookings Institution Press.

Public Agenda. (2001). Trying to stay ahead of the game: Superintendents and principals talk about schoolleadership. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Education. (2000, January). The state of charter schools 2000: Fourth-year report.Washington, DC: Author.

Viteritti, J. P. (1983). Across the river: Politics and education in the city.New York: Holmes & Meier.

Viteritti, J. P. (1999). Choosing equality: School choice, the constitution, and civil society. Washington,DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Joseph P. Viteritti has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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