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Choice for the Long Haul

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Despite the resounding defeat of a school-voucher initiative in California this month, the campaign for private school choice continues to gain momentum. But the highly charged fight over vouchers has masked a quieter revolution in American schools: the widespread acceptance of public school choice.

"I don't think choice, in the broad sense, is really a questionable concept anymore,'' says Connie L. Koprowicz, an education-policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures. She has stopped monitoring how many states will consider public-school-choice plans this year. The reason: No one asks her. "What I'm really tracking more are voucher and privatization issues,'' she says, "because that's where the controversy is.''

The California initiative, Proposition 174, would have amended the state constitution to provide parents with tax-funded vouchers--worth about $2,500 each--to send children to the participating public, private, or parochial schools of their choice. Voters' rejection of the measure by a seven-to-three margin marked the third-straight loss for voucher advocates at the polls in four years. Voucher referendums were defeated in Colorado in 1992 and in Oregon in 1990, both by two-to-one margins. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)

But the voucher issue is far from dead. In September, Puerto Rican lawmakers approved a plan that provides eligible students with $1,500 credits to transfer to the public or private schools of their choice. And the N.C.S.L. estimates that a dozen more states will consider voucher bills this year.

'Not Stopping for Anything'

Spurring them on are two new national groups designed to promote grassroots political campaigns. The Chicago-based Americans for School Choice has pledged to build organizations in at least 25 states by the end of this year, establish privately funded scholarship programs for low-income families in 15 cities by 1995, and organize successful ballot drives in at least five states during 1994 and another eight states in 1996.

Its board of directors reads like a who's who of prominent Republicans--including two former U.S. secretaries of education and Govs. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, William F. Weld of Massachusetts, and John Engler of Michigan.

Empower America, another G.O.P. bastion that flies the voucher flag, identifies nearly a dozen states where the debate will be played out over the coming years. They include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Joel Rosenberg, an analyst for the organization, also cites a handful of cities where private-school-voucher plans could gain a foothold. In Milwaukee, a limited number of low-income families are already given $2,970 state vouchers to send their children to private, nonsectarian schools.

A bill now moving through the Illinois legislature would provide vouchers for some 2,000 low-income children in Chicago. In Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Bret Schundler has called for a voucher plan that would allow inner-city children to attend public or private schools anywhere within city limits. And this month, Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas, a Democrat, said she would be willing to support a pilot voucher program focused on poor families.

Backers of the California initiative have already pledged to repackage their plan for inclusion on the 1994 or 1996 ballot. And the huge amount of media attention focused on the California vote has raised the prominence of the voucher debate nationwide.

"The school-choice train has left the station,'' Rosenberg asserts, "and it's not stopping for anything.''

Defeat has also provided the advocates of private school choice with some sobering lessons that are likely to be reflected next time around.

One is the need for better fund-raising against an education establishment that outspent voucher supporters more than five to one in the Golden State.

Another is the necessity of making voucher plans "budget neutral,'' or as close to it as possible. In California, concerns that Proposition 174 would raise state taxes and decimate public school finances led Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and chambers of commerce in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose to oppose the plan. A slower phase-in of students already enrolled in private schools or limited means-testing for voucher participants are two possibilities, Rosenberg says.

'Fragile Constituency'

But at least some studies suggest that the problem goes deeper than that. Two separate analyses of the California initiative found it virtually impossible to predict the fiscal impact of large-scale voucher proposals, because there is no way to anticipate how many students would want to use vouchers or how many private schools would spring up to serve them.

The California debacle also highlighted some schisms within the voucher community itself. "School choice failed in California because Republicans didn't want it,'' John J. Miller, the associate director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for the New American Community, writes in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. While Republican leaders are pushing private school choice, he argues, G.O.P. suburbanites are happy with their schools, can afford some measure of choice already by selecting where they live, and don't believe the nation's education crisis affects them personally.

"School choice actually has a narrow and fragile constituency: conservative ideologues, the urban poor, and parents with children already enrolled in private schools,'' Miller suggests. "These groups will continue to put points on the board every time school choice comes up for a vote, but they hardly represent a winning coalition.''

Equally important, polls in California found that voters believe the use of public dollars for private schools should be accompanied by greater accountability. And the specter of state regulation has scared away some conservatives and private school adherents who view the freedom from government mandates as one of the main strengths of private schools.

Of course, none of these difficulties means the opponents of school vouchers can sit back and relax. The pro-voucher network is becoming more sophisticated and more aggressive.

"They'll be back,'' predicts State Rep. Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and the chairman of the House education committee in California. "And, to be perfectly honest with you, I think they will deal with the most egregious shortcomings of this particular initiative.''

'Best of Both Worlds'

Meanwhile, a Republican Governor, Engler of Michigan, is pushing public school choice about as far as it will go. He has proposed giving $4,500 vouchers to students to use at any public school in the state.

According to the N.C.S.L., 11 states now have "comprehensive'' public-school-choice plans, either within or between districts, that affect every school system in the state. Eight have more limited programs. And six states have adopted "charter school'' laws that allow for the creation of semiautonomous public schools that must compete for students.

Other surveys use somewhat different numbers, reflecting the lack of common criteria for classifying state choice plans that differ markedly in their details.

In addition, magnet-school programs; "schools within schools''; and postsecondary-enrollment options, which enable high school students to attend college programs for credit, are widespread.

A report released last year by the Council of the Great City Schools found that 29 percent of all big-city school districts now have some kind of choice program in every school and that an additional 44 percent have a choice program for at least some schools. The District of Columbia, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle are all currently weighing wide-ranging choice proposals.

"Whereas buying into choice outside of the public arena takes away resources from the urban districts,'' Superintendent Franklin L. Smith of the District of Columbia schools says, "I think we're beginning to realize that choice within our system allows us to keep resources that are needed and to keep some students who ordinarily would leave because their parents are able to exercise their options. It seems to provide the best of both worlds.''

Evidence Debated

Ironically, the interest in public school choice continues to grow, despite hotly debated and inconclusive research about whether choice works.

"There is no consistent, empirical evidence that relates school choice to improved student achievement,'' a summary of the research on school choice conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education concludes.

Although test scores have climbed in some urban districts that have adopted intradistrict choice plans--including East Harlem in New York City; Cambridge, Mass.; and Montclair, N.J.--PACE found that it was hard to separate the effects of school choice from such other factors as higher spending and curricular reforms.

A report by the Economic Policy Institute, "School Choice: Examining the Evidence,'' found that parents and students often choose schools for reasons other than academics. But a study by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University found that, where states collect such data, most parents request to switch their child's school for reasons of educational quality over convenience.

What researchers agree on is that parents and students in choice schools like what they get. They believe the education provided in their schools is better than that in other public schools.

In a study of the Milwaukee program, for instance, John F. Witte, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that achievement in voucher schools was no better than in public schools. But parental attitudes toward the schools were more positive, and their involvement in school activities was greater.

The caveat is that most choice programs are still so new and the data about them so limited that it is difficult to conclude much, one way or another. At least some proponents suggest that studies to date have had a hard time capturing the real benefits of school choice. They underestimate the number of dropouts who have returned to school because of such programs and the number of students who are doing better academically, Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, says.

'Easy and Popular'

Given such ambiguous research, why, then, do states and school districts continue to embrace school choice? The reasons range from the idealistic to the cynical.

As the Economic Policy Institute notes, public school choice appears to connect parents and students more with their schools, which may be worthwhile in itself. Polls find that parents don't want to be restricted in their choice of schools, and administrators may simply be getting smarter about how to honor their requests. Choice also reflects a legitimate attempt among educators to expand the types of programs and schools available for students to learn in and teachers to teach in.

But the biggest factor may be that choice looks like a no-cost solution to a complex problem. "It's easy and popular, and you can point to it and say, 'See, I did that,''' explains Julia Koppich, the deputy director of PACE. "The question is, 'Are you making a difference?'''

Educators also admit that the continued push for vouchers has had more than a little to do with their embrace of public school choice. By opting to go along with one set of reforms, they are hoping to avoid the other. "A part of it is the establishment of a political fire wall,'' says Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "We'll go this far and no farther.''

In California, with the threat of vouchers hovering, lawmakers passed both a charter-schools bill and two public-school-choice laws this year. And one of the great ironies of the campaign was watching the California Teachers Association, which had opposed public-school-choice measures in the past, using the new laws as one reason to explain why vouchers were not needed.

Problems and Possibilities

But at least some suggest that many existing choice plans amount to so much window-dressing.

They don't really provide choice for a lot of students. And they might even exacerbate some problems like segregation.

"It's almost impossible to say 'no' to choice in the abstract,'' notes Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which last year released a widely quoted report on the subject. "It's almost un-American.''

"The problem we keep running into,'' he adds, "is translating that general appeal into a workable plan that makes sense educationally and fiscally and practically. Often, it's presented in a way that leaves you with more problems than possibilities.''

Many of the statewide programs that permit choice between districts, for example, fail to provide sufficient money for transportation or adequate information to allow parents to make informed choices. In some districts, observers fear, the schools are so crowded that there is no place for people to move, even though choice theoretically exists. The same is true across school districts. And in the rural parts of the United States, argues Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, "choice means absolutely nothing. There is only one school. So we're really talking only about the urban and suburban areas.''

Such views are sharply disputed by advocates of public school choice. "We basically found that there are more than 100,000 kids in Minnesota using various school choice laws and choice programs,'' Nathan of the University of Minnesota says.

But unless carefully structured, choice plans may also increase segregation by income or race. Several studies indicate that few parents exercise choice when faced with opportunities to do so. And initial research suggests that families with higher income and education levels tend to participate more in choice programs, although such research is neither comprehensive nor conclusive. One study, using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, found that African-Americans and Hispanics who attended a choice school were somewhat more segregated from whites.

Some observers worry that charter schools could re-create these same difficulties, providing options for a few savvy students and parents. In Los Angeles, for instance, one group of affluent parents raised $18,000 from the community just to write a charter-schools proposal.

"I really worry that we aren't putting enough thought into how we structure choice in public education,'' says Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of educational policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, "because we're trying to run so fast away from the voucher efforts.''

Although educators largely agree that public school choice has a place in school reform, the question is what kind of choice is appropriate.

Areas for Expansion

Increasingly, what educators--and limited research--appear to support is public school choice within districts. These efforts include such controlled-choice plans as the one in Cambridge, Mass., where all parents must select from among available schools within the district, and where administrators try to insure some uniform level of quality and equity.

"It was very clear to me that choice within a district offers the greatest possibility of success for the greatest number,'' Boyer says.

At least some researchers and politicians also want to pursue more large-scale pilots of private-school-voucher programs, such as the one in Milwaukee, that are limited to low-income students.

"I think it's time that we do an emulation of the Milwaukee program,'' Witte of the University of Wisconsin argues. "I think we're learning enough. And I would like to see other cities start thinking along those lines.''

Whether that would satisfy the hard-core voucher advocates--who want to throw all of education open to free-market competition--is dubious. But as Rosenberg of Empower America said after this month's vote in California, "We'll take a quarter of a loaf, half the loaf, all the loaf. We just want to keep it moving.''

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