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The Predictable Consequences Of School Choice

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It seems clear that the choice train is on track and picking up policymakers around the country. The train is pulling vouchers, charter schools, and open enrollment onto the main line. Fueling this train are a combination of attractive philosophical arguments about parents' rights to choose their children's schools and claims that choice will spur innovation and increase the overall quality of education in America.

So far, there is little evidence to support the view that choice enhances school effectiveness measured by students' academic achievement. But perhaps it is too soon to know. There are, however, a number of consequences of using public funds to increase the choices parents have in selecting their children's schools that are virtually certain. The more choice is maximized, the more likely it is that we will also:

  • Sort students by race, income, and religion, and increase social conflict and economic disparity.
  • Reduce financial support for public education, and for programs serving children with special needs.
  • Increase the costs of good private schools.
  • Lower standards of academic performance overall and simultaneously decrease the demand for school reform at the grassroots and among elites.

These outcomes may or may not be what the advocates of choice want, though they are not the arguments for choice that we often hear. Different choice plans will have different consequences, of course. But it seems important to know what would happen if the most ardent advocates of choice carry the day.

(1.) Choice reduces diversity and increases the potential for social conflict. For many parents, the social, racial, and ethnic characteristics of a school's students are more important than a school's curricula or its academic effectiveness in their selection of a school. Student populations are sorted accordingly. Every study in every country studied comes to this conclusion. As we sort children of our very diverse society by race, income, and religion, we will fragment the curriculum accordingly. It follows that school choice will reduce the opportunities that students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds have to learn from and about one another. Such opportunities contribute immensely to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to interact effectively with people who have different needs and points of view and are important to the reduction of racism and the promotion of respect for diversity. Furthermore, debates over school curricula and educational policies contribute to the development of common values and goals. Choice eliminates the rationale for and the opportunity to define the public welfare because choice defines education as a private good.

(2.) Choice will reduce financial support for public education and children with special needs. Not surprisingly, private school parents are less likely to favor public school funding than public school parents. Choice will increase the number of private school parents. Moreover, since those already attending private schools would receive public funding, the funds available for current public school students will decrease. Choice is usually associated with the transfer of power from school districts to schools. The logic of decentralization encourages the funding of schools on a per-pupil basis. Since choice will lead to the further concentration of students with special needs, possibilities for allocating resources to children with special needs will decline.

(3.) The costs of private schools will increase. Many of the best private schools already have full enrollment. If their students can receive public funds, the schools can raise tuition accordingly without fear of losing enrollment. That's the way the market works, and choice, after all, is meant to bring market characteristics to education.

(4.) Choice, school reform, and academic standards. Choice seeks to provide parents with greater influence in school policy. Almost every recent comparison of the educational priorities of civic leaders and educators on the one hand, and parents on the other, suggests that parents are generally less insistent that all students learn at higher levels. Moreover, as noted above, there is little evidence that academic rigor is a major reason why most parents choose their children's schools. Choice will concentrate the more assertive and achievement-oriented parents in a limited number of schools and will decrease their interests in district-level change or public school reform.

Much of the demand for significant school improvement has come from civic and business leaders. The influence of these proponents of educational reform is most effectively applied to state and district policy. Choice, however, will reduce the importance of state and district policy. If choice were maximized, how would we link education to the political and economic needs of the nation?

The more we maximize the publicly funded opportunities parents have to choose any school they prefer for their children, and the fewer the constraints we place on their choices and the schools they might choose, the more certain these outcomes will become. But if we consider these consequences of choice undesirable, it follows that policies could be developed that would reduce the negative effects. For example, vouchers could be limited to the poor, schools that participate in various choice programs could be required to have diverse student bodies and could be required to offer minimal state curricula and participate in state testing programs, and extensive (but expensive) assistance could be provided to parents to help equalize the knowledge they have and their access to distant schools.

Most advocates of choice will not want the inevitable outcomes of maximizing choice to be the focus of attention. They prefer more attractive, if less certain, claims for the virtues of choice. And many will argue that the negative effects of choice can be controlled by some of the policies just noted.

It seems politically naive to imagine that controls placed on choice experiments will be sustained as the choice train gains speed and passengers. What are the political advantages of supporting constraints on either parents or schools that want to participate in choice programs? And, even if some constraints were adopted, the widespread use of parental choice as the determinant of where children will go to school would leave the nation with weaker schools overall, greater disparity in the quality of education experienced by the haves and have-nots, and more divided along class, racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Bet on it.

Willis D. Hawley is the dean of the college of education at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

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