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School Choice: It's Still a Seller's Market

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Certainly we have evidence that parents want school choice and that they will compete for it. But does this improve schools?

Sixteen thousand parents in New York City signed up last spring for 1,300 privately financed vouchers that would enable their children to attend private schools. ("16,000 N.Y.C. Parents Apply for 1,300 Vouchers to Private Schools," April 30, 1997.) That's a ratio of 11-to-1, or greater than the odds of getting into Stanford. In San Francisco, the city's open-enrollment system generates similar ratios when 2,000 apply for a high school with 160 seats in the freshman class. Certainly we have evidence that parents want school choice and that they will compete for it. But does this improve schools?

As a parent who has chosen a magnet public school for her children, and as a writer of two education guidebooks for other parents, I am more an advocate than a critic of choice. But unless we make a major commitment to educating consumers, the cure school choice promises is much more snake oil than panacea for the ills of our schools.

If every child were to take advantage of choice, then every seat in every school would be filled voluntarily, which would mean every one of them would need to be worth choosing. Only then would "choice" truly mean something. In the meantime, as the New York experiment demonstrates, choice is simply a way of rearranging who wins and who loses.

Proponents of vouchers and other forms of competition wrap the idea in voluminous rhetoric about free markets and the insidious promise that it will improve quality, as if a free market made every car a Cadillac. Their promises conjure up images of good new schools rolling off assembly lines on demand. Can you imagine the salesman? "We've got a big order from Philadelphia, let's ship an extra batch of good schools out there!"

Eighteen states now mandate some form of public school choice by law. Districts all over the country are experimenting with vouchers, charter schools, magnet programs, and various forms of open enrollment. But most of these offer a rearrangement of desirable school seats and who gets them, rather than a genuine increase. It's still a seller's market.

If not quality, what does choice deliver? Competition--winners and losers. For the price of 1,300 parents who win a private voucher, New York City reaps 15,000 who lose. It's one thing for the district official besieged by requests or the voucher advocate whose own children are safely ensconced in private schools. It's quite another for the parent whose child is in an inadequate school and fails to get a better one.

The anguish that parents experience in making school decisions is justified: They know they hold the child's future in their hands. Don't bother tut-tutting that there will be more vouchers or private scholarships next year and the year after. The parent of a child entering school this fall doesn't want to hear that in three or four--or 10--years, more vouchers will be available. The baby will have graduated by then.

So choice by itself, without an equal emphasis on creating more good seats in schools, is about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is a distraction, not a solution.

The brutal truth is that in a free-market environment it is unlikely that parents will only choose 'better' schools given the chance.

But let's be optimistic and buy the rhetoric about competition driving up the demand for quality (not just parental anguish). Let's assume we will get hundreds who will rush out to build wonderful new schools. How many parents are equipped with a reasonable consumer's knowledge about quality in schools--let alone real expertise in what it takes to start a school? Arizona's freewheeling charter movement presents an instructive example. It takes years of planning and then years of building before the school is up and running. The road is rocky, and there are casualties--not every school makes it, and of those that do, not every one is good. Many lose their supporters when, in the third or fourth year of operation, everyone is burned out and the leadership is in turmoil. It is a small comfort to hear charter proponents say "closing a failing school is a plus for the movement" when your child's education is at stake.

When business people talk about the benefits of competition, rarely do they seem to calculate the fragility of school communities. They don't seem to realize it's every bit as hard to create a good school as it is to build a successful family, and just about as predictable. Even less do they seem to understand the fundamental difference between products and people: that the failure of an Edsel is quite different from the failure of uneducated children.

I understand how awfully tempting it is to indulge in Monday-morning quarterbacking and to believe that any one of us could do better than those working in schools now--I'm occasionally guilty of it myself. But the truth is, if good intentions were all it took to improve schools, every single one in America would be a success. Because as anyone who hangs around schools will testify, it isn't a lack of caring or hard work that causes schools to fail. Time, resources, and knowledge--for parents as well as teachers--are the huge deterrents. So among the promises made about school choice, the one that competition will somehow generate lots of wonderful new schools is perhaps the most implausible.

The brutal truth is that in a free-market environment it is unlikely that parents will only choose "better" schools given the chance. With the dearth of parent education about schools, it is ridiculous to hold out the hope that parents only choose good schools. There is simply too much proof--in the charter, parochial, and private domains as well as the regular public--to the contrary.

I've listened to too many of my friends and neighbors wax eloquent on their ideas about schools to trust the free market's definition of "better." Absent good consumer information, what drives their thinking? Fashion is certainly one element, and schools are as vulnerable as autos to becoming status symbols. Salesmanship on the part of other parents is another. Parents accept the word of the grapevine as gospel. Then, based on a brief hour or less of viewing, they "buy" an education for their children. Often it is less time than they spend on purchasing their family car.

Children need more than a choice of schools. They need parents who understand schooling.

Moreover, most adults have more reliable information about quality in automobiles than they do about schools, whether it comes from friends, auto-shop classes they took in high school, their local mechanic, or the many consumer rating systems available. And at least our society requires that drivers take a class and get a license before they hit the road. With schools, few data reach the public other than test scores, an evaluation that's roughly comparable to judging cars solely by miles per gallon of gas.

Americans love the "any fool" standard, as in "any fool" could go to Congress, or "any fool" can run a school. It is our frontier populism wielded like a knife to whittle down anyone we perceive as drawing rank on the average citizen. Too often it is misapplied to undercut the contributions of those who actually know something, as millions will attest in almost any profession other than brain surgeon. Unfortunately, much of school choice builds precisely on this skepticism, and pushes parents into trying to do it for teachers rather than working with them.

I'd argue that educating parents as consumers is our only real hope for quality, in part because it is the only way to help every school and every child. Children need more than a choice of schools, they need parents who understand schooling. We certainly need to begin with the role parents play in preparing their children for school, and should applaud the surge of interest in the early years and recent research on brain development. But the necessity for knowledgeable parenting doesn't stop at the schoolhouse door.

When Johnny doesn't read or Mary fails math, parents make all the difference. It is here that the children of educated, affluent families--of all races and ethnicities--have the advantage. Their parents notice sooner and respond more strongly. They have the resources to hire experts, and the savvy to work the system to see that their children get help when the classroom teacher can't do it all. Most important, they don't accept failure easily.

Educating parents is the only way to radically redistribute this advantage. In most communities information about schools is restricted to newspaper reports of test scores, along with occasional reportage when a team wins a championship, a new superintendent is hired, or when vandalism or violence occurs. Asking state education departments or school districts to provide the information is a little like relying on automakers to present information about their products, or the Internal Revenue Service to tell us how to minimize our taxes. Important sources, but definitely not without bias. American consumers need more.

Glimmers of hope are emerging--from holding education journalists accountable for improving the substance of their writing to noting the surge of new publications rushing into the market to guide parents in school selection. Fortunately, more and more communities are developing mechanisms for educating parents about their choices. But we are still a long way from the consumer research and reports that exist to help us buy cars. We don't yet have an equivalent to the automobile-rating and -repair magazines or "blue books" to give us true values, and there certainly isn't an association to give us maps, insure us, or tow us when we break down.


Susan Jacobson is a public school parent in San Francisco and the author of Getting the Public School You Want in San Francisco, as well as the upcoming The Anxious Parent's Guide to School Tours.

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