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Five Myths About School Choice

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School choice received another setback in Colorado on Election Day, but voucher plans will be back before legislators and voters in many states in the next two years. Conservatives in the Bush Administration and elsewhere have made vouchers a key part of their education agenda, along with national standards for educational achievement, to be measured by state, regional, or national tests.

Few observers have pointed out the conflict between these proposals. National standards tend to create centralization and uniformity; choice tends toward decentralization, competition, and diversity. If the problem is that our schools are stagnant, bureaucratic, and unproductive, then the last thing we need is national tests demanding that every 4th grader in America learn the same things at the same time. Parental choice is the remedy that will bring the benefits of competition and innovation into our school system.

Congress has been more receptive to the national-standards proposal--which tends to give the federal government more power--than to choice, which would tend to disperse power. But fortunately choice plans are spreading through states and cities, from East Harlem to Milwaukee to Minnesota and on to initiatives like the 1994 vote in California, which is as it should be in a federal republic.

In response to the growing demand for educational choice, defenders of the education monopoly have thrown up a smokescreen of charges against vouchers. Many of the charges are the same complaints that have always been made against competitive capitalism. In fact, if American history had evolved such that education was provided privately with school stamps for the poor, but food was sold in government-run grocery stores with assigned geographical areas and a Central Grocery Authority in every city and a State Department of Public Nourishment laying down the rules, the nourishment establishment would be telling us, "Of course private enterprise can provide education, but food is different.''

There are several specific charges that will be hurled against any choice plan, none of which holds up under careful examination.

  • "Choice Won't Help Unaware Parents.'' One of the most revealing criticisms of educational choice is that it won't help parents who are uneducated, unambitious, or unaware. There is a great deal of paternalism, if not outright racism, in this charge. It's not the parents in Scarsdale and Fairfax County who are said to be unable to choose their children's schools; it's the parents in the ghetto.

There is simply no evidence that most poor black parents cannot do an adequate job of finding good schools--if they have the wherewithal to do so and they know that their involvement in the decision will make a difference. Education Week has reported that suburban school districts are setting up elaborate programs to apprehend and expel the urban students who are sneaking into suburban schools in order to get a better education.

As for inner-city parents being able to choose among many different schools, it really isn't necessary for all or even most consumers to be well informed about market alternatives; a small number of educated consumers will force all suppliers to compete for their business, thereby providing reasonable combinations of price and quality for all their customers. For instance, my mother read the grocery ads carefully and compared the price and quality of meats and produce at different groceries. I just dash into the Safeway down the block and buy what's available. But because there are shoppers like my mother, I can be reasonably certain that Safeway and its competitors are attempting to offer the best value for the money possible. Certainly even an ignorant consumer like me is better off than if the government ran all the groceries in town.

  • "Choice Would Enhance Segregation.'' Critics frequently charge that choice would lead to more racial segregation in the public schools. In large measure this argument stems from memories of the "segregation academies'' set up in some Southern cities in response to the busing orders of the 1970's. But it reflects a misunderstanding of the situation in our schools today. In the first place, choice would have the greatest effects in our inner cities, where the public schools are already effectively segregated. In Manhattan, for instance, the public schools are nearly 90 percent black or Hispanic, while the private schools are more than 80 percent white. Nationally there is a smaller percentage of black students in private schools but less racial segregation within the private sector. By definition, the movement of children from the almost-all-black public schools to the less-black private schools would increase integration.
  • "Choice Means the Public Schools Won't Be a Melting Pot.'' The traditional argument in favor of a unitary, near-monopoly school system is based on the myth of the American melting pot: Everyone goes to the same school and learns to get along with people of different races, different incomes, different cultures. In small towns this myth may still be reality. But most Americans now live in cities or suburbs, and there's much less social interaction in those schools. Inner-city schools are overwhelmingly poor and black. Suburban schools are heavily middle- and upper-middle-class. And even if they are racially integrated, almost all the students come from families of similar socioeconomic status. Charles Glenn, a long-time equal-opportunity advocate in the Massachusetts Department of Education, points out that "the student body of the elite boarding school Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., is more diverse than is that of Andover High School.''

The melting pot theme emerged in the late 19th century as a rather un-American fear of diversity. The Progressive reformers wanted everyone to receive the same education designed by those elite reformers. One of the oft-stated goals of the reformers was to "Christianize the immigrants''--most of whom were Catholic. To do that they tried to discourage attendance at private and parochial schools, a campaign that was most pronounced in Oregon's attempt to ban nongovernment schools. What those reformers did not realize is that the United States thrives on diversity. Our common commitment is to political and economic freedom, not to a particular set of religious and moral values. We are most likely to produce students with the values of both individualism and respect for others by allowing parents to choose from a diverse array of schools.

  • "There Aren't Enough Schools.'' Perhaps the most absurd criticism of educational choice is that students can't really benefit because there aren't enough private schools to absorb all the students who might want to transfer: In response to two lawsuits demanding voucher programs, The Washington Post editorialized recently: "But choice ... is unlikely to help much. There aren't enough private or parochial schools in either Los Angeles or Chicago or anyplace else to help more than a relatively small number of carefully chosen kids. What of the rest? Who will 'liberate' them?'' People who make such charges misunderstand the nature of the free market.

The market is constantly responding to changes in supply and demand. A few years ago there were no personal-computer stores and no video stores. And there certainly wasn't enough poultry and seafood in the groceries a few years ago to satisfy today's demand for lower-fat foods. But when demand arose for such products--or when entrepreneurs perceived that there would be demand if the products were made available--stores were established to meet the demand. On every block, old stores are closing and new stores are opening to keep up with changing consumer demand. When every family has the ability to choose a private school, we can count on entrepreneurs--nonprofit and profit-seeking--to respond with a variety of teaching methods and new technologies.

A related objection is that there won't be enough alternative schools in poor neighborhoods. But when all parents in Harlem have $2,500--or $5,000--per year to spend on each child's education, we can expect schools to spring up in response (although many Harlem parents may well want to send their children to schools on the Upper East Side, in Scarsdale, or in New Hampshire). There are, after all, groceries and other stores in ghettos.

  • "Choice Means Giving Up on Public Schools.'' This is the last-ditch defense of the education establishment: With educational choice, you're giving up on the public schools. Shouldn't we try to make the public schools work instead? The problem is that we've tried government monopoly for years, and it's just getting worse. Costs keep rising and test scores keep falling--despite a decade of high-priced reform. How many more generations of students should leave school unprepared while administrators say, "Give us just a little more time''? Teachers in government schools, who should know the state of those schools best, send their children to private schools at rates far in excess of other parents--46 percent in Chicago, 36 percent in Memphis, more than 50 percent in Milwaukee--yet they don't want to make it easy for other parents to choose alternatives.

Some defenders of the education monopoly boast that they send their children to the public schools: They say such things as, "When our children reached school age, we moved to Palo Alto, or Greenwich, so we could keep our children in the public schools.'' For parents who can afford a $500,000 mortgage in an elite suburb, we already have educational choice. It's time to make school choice a little more affordable.

Sometimes the claim is that educational choice would cause a wholesale flight from the government schools. But given the effort of finding a new school, quite possibly farther from home than the neighborhood government school, as well as the natural tendency to stick with the familiar, surely such a wholesale flight would indicate that the government schools are truly terrible. If that were the case, why should we want to force students to stay there? At least the mass exodus would give the government schools a strong signal that they need to reform.

As for the notion that a school-choice plan would allow the private schools to "skim the cream'' of the students and leave the government schools with "the dregs,'' such an attitude reflects a bureaucratic mentality that treats students and parents as a caseload rather than as customers. Profit-seeking businesses rarely describe potential customers as dregs. Schools would develop to meet a variety of educational needs, and some of them would likely be able to motivate the students written off by the bureaucratic schools as unmotivated, undisciplined, or uneducable. Indeed, Marva Collins's Westside Prep in Chicago has a long tradition of teaching Shakespeare to elementary students tagged as "learning-disabled'' by the public schools; those students weren't learning-disabled, they were schooling-disabled.

Every argument against choice made by the education establishment reveals the contempt that establishment has for its own product. School boards, superintendents, and teachers' unions are convinced that no one would attend public schools if they had the choice. Like Fidel Castro and former Postmaster General Anthony Frank, they have a keen sense of the consumer demand for their product and are fighting a rearguard action to protect their monopoly.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.

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