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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

“I dislike the idea of choice, and I want to tell you why...”

      Jonathan Kozol, author of the best-selling Savage Inequalities, recently spoke at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville about the terrible disparities among public schools in this country. At the end of his speech, members of the audience were invited to ask questions. Here, reprinted with permission, is Jonathan Kozol's response to the question: What are your views on the proposed voucher system for public schools?
      I'm very much against vouchers, and I've been opposed for many years. In order to answer your question, I'd like to include the whole idea of choice because it's part of the same agenda. Choice really breaks down into three different ideas. One of them is that people should have the choice of going to any school they want within a given district. That's like one-district choice. The second notion is that you have choice across districts; you can go to any district you want. The third is that you can take public money and spend it at a private school. And that's what people usually mean by vouchers.
      Certain types of very limited choice within one district may have some merit if the system is very carefully controlled. In general, I dislike the idea of choice, and I want to tell you why.
      First of all, I'm old enough to remember the history of this notion. (One of the things that fascinates me is that so many of the people in Washington who talk about this stuff nowadays are very young, or if not young, they are new to education. Typically, there's a smart-aleck young businessman who's made a lot of money, been to a few commissions, and read a few reports, who is suddenly going to tell you how to remake education....) I'm old enough to remember the first voice on these ideas. The first time I ever heard vouchers proposed in the U.S. was by Milton Friedman, an economist respected among scholars for some of his pure economics work but best known to the world as the former economics advisor to Augusto Pinochet, the fascist dictator of Chile.
      The first time I heard of schools of choice, it was after the Brown decision in the 1950s, when schools in many Southern states set up schools of choice—that was the word. They called them Freedom of Choice Schools as a ploy to avoid desegregation. That's the history.
      What have I actually seen? Well, first of all, the idea behind choice (within the district), basically, is that if you let people choose, everybody will get the school they want. Everybody will have an equally free choice; everybody will have equal access. And, those I hear defend choice say it will not increase class or racial segregation. In fact, in virtually every case that I have seen, none of these conditions is met. People very seldom have equal choices, and even when they theoretically have equal choices, they rarely have equal access.
      People can't choose things they've never heard of, for example. And lots of the poorest folks in our inner cities are illiterate. I've written a book about that, as some of you know. In many of our inner cities, as many as 30 percent of our adults cannot read well enough to understand the booklets put out by school systems delineating their choices. That's one point.
      Even if they can understand and even if the school system is sophisticated enough to print these things in five different languages for all the different ethnic groups in cities like New York or Chicago, there's a larger point that those who hear about new schools, good schools, first are almost always the well connected. They're almost always the people whose friends are in the school system, the people like myself who went to college with the principal or the superintendent or some of the people who run the system. Word of mouth always favors the children of the most wealthy or best educated.
      And so, what almost always happens is that while everybody theoretically has the right to choose any school, the affluent, the savvy, the children of the academics, the children of the lawyers, the children of the doctors, the children of the school superintendent always end up in the same three little boutique elementary schools. And I call them boutique schools because they're always charming, and the press loves them, and they always have enough racial integration so it looks okay for the newspaper or the TV camera. But, in fact, they are separated by both race and class, and more and more by class.
      What happens is that the poorest of the poor do not get into these schools or get in in very small numbers. Large numbers of the kids who nobody wants end up concentrated in the schools that no one chooses except by default.
      That's my profound reservation. I've been at it a long, long time. I've seen that happen.
      When you have choice across school districts, it gets even trickier. In Massachusetts, we now have a statewide plan called Massachusetts 2000.... What's happened? Eight hundred kids transferred to other districts within two months after the plan's initiation. Who were those kids? Ninety-three percent of them were white and middle class. Not one child transferred from a rich district to a poor district, which does tell us something about the value of money, doesn't it?
      Let me give you a simple case study. Two adjacent districts in Massachusetts: One is a small industrial town of 80- to 100,000 people, called Brockton, an old mill town. Half the people in Brockton are nonwhite, half are very poor—the same half largely. And the others are working class. There are few middle-class people in the town. About 1,000 kids in the school system are bilingual, that is, they are definitely not proficient in English. Of the kids who transferred from Brockton, only 5 percent were low-income and only one of these children was a bilingual student.
      We've seen these kinds of statistics across the state. And what happens when kids transfer is that for every child who leaves, the school system they leave loses the per-pupil funding for that child. Brockton, last year, which already was in dire straits because of the recession, lost $850,000 to the neighboring, white affluent suburb of Avon, Massachusetts. $850,000! That's happening in every paired situation (where there are neighboring rich and poor schools) across our state. So what has choice done in Massachusetts? It has unleashed the flight of rich and middle class from poor; of white from black, Hispanic, and Asian....
      What happens when you take choice to the ultimate, and let people take public money and go to a private school? It sounds wonderful, just like choice. It sounds so reasonable. Why shouldn't people have the right to do that? Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander says rich people already have the right to go to private school; why shouldn't we give poor children this right? Listening to his words, one might almost think he had undergone a conversion and was ready to give the poor black kids of Washington, D.C., a $15,000 voucher so they could go to Andover. But no, despite the disarming simplicity and the subtlety of his formula, that's not what he intends at all. The choice plan he points to involves about $1,000 in vouchers.
      At the very most a voucher plan like that might get a kid the same amount of money that would be spent on him or her if he or she stayed in the local school district. So, what does that mean? It means the kid in Mississippi would get a $2,500 voucher, and a typical kid in Tennessee, maybe a $3,500 voucher, and in the wealthy suburbs, $15-, $18-, $19,000 vouchers. What can you buy with those? Well, the latter vouchers will buy you entrance to the same good prep school Mr. Alexander's son attends. But what will a $2,500 voucher buy you?
      Class distinctions will remain unaltered. They will remain the same. I'm very much against voucher plans.
      We are at this time in American history threatened with more fragmentation than at any time before. We are experiencing an enormous loss of the glue that hold us together as one people. You can see it [this gap between social classes] in New York, where you have this whole generation of bizarre, to me, pathological people who can spend huge amounts of money on expensive clothes and meals and literally walk across the bodies of homeless people on their way to work. That is one loss of a sense of human solidarity. And now we are seeing it even among kids in New York. It's not just black against white; Jew against Christian; it's Salvadoran against Venezuelan, against Dominican, against Puerto Rican, against American-born black. There's this terrible sense of splintered loyalties.
      Now the dark, terrifying prospect of vouchers or a choice agenda, of a so-called market basis for our public schools, is that rather than encourage a sense of common loyalties among people, choice will particularize loyalties. It will fragmentize ambition, so that the individual parent will be forced to claw and scramble for the good of her kid and her kid only, at whatever cost to everybody else. There will no longer be a sense of “What I choose for my child, I choose for everybody.” There's a wonderful quote from John Dewey. He said “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely. Acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”
      Just a tiny postscript: A lot of the people who are for vouchers don't know that much about vouchers. They're not right-wing or bigots or anything like that. They might be people who say, “Well, nothing else works. Why don't we try them?” That's a common mood in this country.
      The best known voucher advocate, John Chubb, of the Brookings Institution, in Washington, says something—I'm paraphrasing him—like this: “Democratic governance of schools is what's wrong with schools. We need a voucher plan in order to break the bonds of democratic education, because it hasn't worked.” That's what he says.
      When I hear that, I think to myself, “Wait a minute. We've never tried democratic education.” We haven't yet given equal, wonderful, innovative, humane schools—at the level of our finest schools—to all our children. I do not agree to “break the bonds” of democratic education. I think we should try it first, see how it might work.

      Jonathan Kozol has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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