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Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Bribing Students Out of Public Schools

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Bribing Students Out of Public Schools

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The debate over educational choice is heating up again.

With the U.S. Supreme Court's recent sidestep in the Milwaukee voucher case, a move that allows private religious schools to remain part of the Milwaukee experiment, the debate over educational choice is heating up again. ("'Green Light' for School Vouchers?," Nov. 18, 1998.) Advocates of private school choice are continuing to use "exodus" and "market" metaphors so effectively that the images are dictating the terms of the public-policy debate and placing opponents of choice at a distinct disadvantage.

Exodus metaphors portray students and parents fleeing public schools they have rejected as unacceptable. Private school choice inspires "visions of a new exodus" and promises "emancipation" from the "education plantation," writes Daniel McGroarty in Break These Chains (1996), a study of the Milwaukee voucher plan. Chester E. Finn Jr. likes to talk about parents and students "voting with their feet" by leaving public schools and enrolling in private schools. A new group called, appropriately enough, Exodus 2000 is encouraging parents throughout the nation to withdraw their children from "corrupt" public schools.

Once I became aware of exodus metaphors, they seemed to follow me. One evening during the 1997 off-year-election season, for instance, William J. Bennett's voice awakened me from a peaceful slumber in front of the television, booming out on a late-night talk show and urging me and my family to "join the growing exodus from public schools."

So compelling are such metaphors, even opponents of private school choice have picked up the imagery. Edward L. Richardson, the state superintendent of public education in Alabama, where I live, says parents and students are poised to "abandon the schools in droves." President Clinton, on record as supporting choice among public but not private schools, tilted surprisingly far toward private choice in the first 1996 presidential debate after his challenger, former Sen. Bob Dole, made an emotional plea in behalf of poor and minority students trying to escape problem-ridden, inner-city public schools.

Market metaphors portray families as education consumers shopping for schools within the limits of their budgets. Economist Milton Friedman has been applying market metaphors to elementary and secondary schooling since the mid-1950s, leveling criticism at the public school "monopoly." Since 1990, John Chubb and Terry Moe's best seller Politics, Markets, and Schools has popularized market imagery with a large audience. Mr. Finn says shopping for schools is a natural thing to do in a capitalist nation: "People in the know and with a fair amount of money are doing a fair amount of that already." Many other families are eagerly waiting to exercise their consumer rights, he contends.

These images, deeply embedded in the debate over choice, are also sinking into the public mind. People are getting the message. While Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls show public satisfaction with public schools holding fairly steady during the 1990s, support for private school choice appears to be building fast, from 24 percent in 1993 to 44 percent in 1998.

When it comes to schooling, market behavior is new to most families in the United States. It is a learned behavior, and advocates of choice, public as well as private, are trying to get the lesson across as the new century approaches. Advocates of private school choice, moreover, are trying to create more demand for private schooling by using the media, much as private-sector entrepreneurs advertise their products or services. Because, historically, relatively few families have thought of schooling in market terms, the market metaphor itself must be "sold." Advocates of choice seem to be doing a good sales job.

No family wants to be the last one left, the one whose children are still in the local public school building when the lights are turned out. As a parent, I understand these feelings. And as a teacher-educator and historian, I would rather help shed light on the debate over choice than stand by and watch the lights go out on public education.

It is easy to envision parents who are satisfied with their children's public schools listening to voucher dollars talk.

Whenever I hear advocates of private school choice using exodus metaphors to conjure up flight from public schools, I want to call attention to actual enrollment figures on public and private schools. "Have you checked your claims against the Digest of Education Statistics or The Condition of Education lately?" may seem too argumentative and academic for polite discussions among friends, but even in such situations advocates and opponents alike should have their facts straight.

Enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics show nothing like an exodus from public schools has occurred in the 20th century--not during the last 20 years, when choice has emerged as a real political issue, and not at any other time. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the percentage of K-12 students attending private schools was slightly smaller in 1995 (11.3 percent) than in 1980 (11.5 percent). The proportion of students in private schools rose during Ronald Reagan's first term, to be sure, peaking at 12.7 percent in 1983 and 1984, but the private school share then fell back to 11.3 percent in 1990 and has shown little change throughout the 1990s. If anything, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools appears to be declining slightly as we move toward 2000, even while the debate over choice continues to generate heat. Where's the exodus?

Faced with these figures, advocates of private school choice may want to modify and qualify their metaphors. Students from middle- and, especially, high-income families, those who have the money to exercise choice without government assistance, must be the ones abandoning public schools. Those students must be exiting through one door while low-income students, in much larger numbers, are pouring in another. So while public schools are maintaining their share of overall enrollment, advocates may speculate, they are losing students who are financially able to escape on their own.

Not so. Enrollment figures broken down by family income into high income (the top 20 percent of all families), low income (the bottom 20 percent), and middle income (the 60 percent in between) reflect the overall enrollment trends discussed above. In all three income groups, and at both the elementary and the secondary levels, students were less likely to attend private schools in 1997 than they were in 1985. The sole exception to this pattern is low-income students at the secondary level, who were more likely to be enrolled in private schools in 1997 than they were in 1985. Where's the exodus?

Advocates of private choice can, of course, point to small increases in the private school share among most income groups between 1991 and 1997. But wait. Detailed enrollment data for the individual years between 1991 and 1997 (available from the National Center for Education Statistics) show small increases in the private school share from 1991 through 1995 or 1996, but small decreases thereafter. I keep using the word "small" because the changes are just that. The stability of the situation is the significant factor, not the minor fluctuations. For those who want to highlight the latest trends, though, it is accurate to say that in all three income groups, and at both the elementary and secondary levels, students were less likely to attend private schools in 1997 than they were in 1995. Where's the exodus?

When I first examined recent enrollment figures and realized flight from public education has not occurred to any significant degree, not even among families with the money to send their children to whatever schools they wish, I began to wonder about the relationship between money and school choice. Obviously, money plays a role. Families with more money are indeed more likely to choose private schools, as the statistics suggest. This is an old, familiar pattern, one public school defenders have used for a century and a half to paint private schools as elitist.

At some point, our nation will be using public money to bribe students out of public schools.

But a new pattern is emerging. By 1996, according to Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls, 37 percent of public school parents were saying they would switch their children to a private school if the government gave them a $3,500 voucher. Here is testimony to the effectiveness of the choice campaign. Even if the percentage of families who actually made the move to private schools turned out to be lower, as both advocates and opponents of choice believe it would, there can be no doubt vouchers and other instruments of private school choice would drain large numbers of students away from public schools.

Advocates of private choice are using recent swings in opinion polls to paint a very unflattering picture of public education. If more than a third of public school parents would be willing to switch sectors, advocates are now arguing, then parents must really be dissatisfied with the quality of education their children are receiving.

Not necessarily. Let's look at the picture another way. A colleague once stopped me short with this remark: "Almost everyone and everything have a price, and for some price, you can buy almost anyone out of almost any institution." My colleague's point may be crude, but it is telling. From the perspective of those who oppose private school choice, his point may even constitute the ultimate market analysis of education.

What's your price, public school parent? How much will voucher advocates have to offer you to buy your child out? Let's make a deal. If $2,000 won't do it, will $3,500? How about $4,000? Will you make the big switch for $5,000? Step right up, fill out an application, and watch the mail for your voucher. Move right along now. Next!

Casting voucher advocates as slick hucksters--as purveyors of bribes--may strike you as either funny or offensive, depending on your point of view. But my colleague's serious message is "Money talks." It is easy to envision even parents who are satisfied with their children's public schools listening to voucher dollars talk, scratching their heads, and pondering the choice. "OK, let's take the bucks and make the move," many public school parents will eventually say. Different families will have different prices. This market-driven analysis, my colleague concludes, helps explain why the popularity of vouchers is increasing in opinion polls at a time when the ratings of public schools--especially the ratings of local public schools in the respondents' own community--are stable.

Private-choice advocates say this kind of market analysis misses the point. The point, which they reiterate with metaphors, is that many low-income students, many of them members of minorities, are trapped inside the nation's worst public schools because their families cannot shop for alternatives like middle- and upper-income families can. Why not give poor kids a way out in the form of means-tested vouchers, limited strictly to poor families, and let them play the education market, too?

I must confess I find some appeal in this proposal. The latest twist in the debate over choice, means-tested vouchers are gathering support from people across the political spectrum. But I also share the suspicions of private-choice opponents that means-tested vouchers could prove to be the entering wedge for voucher programs available to virtually all families. The Milwaukee and Cleveland experiments are being watched more closely than ever. State legislatures across the nation are considering voucher bills. If private school choice gains widespread political acceptance, how long will it be before William J. Bennett, Chester E. Finn Jr., Exodus 2000, and other advocates push to raise the face value of the vouchers just a little? Loosen the means test just a bit?

Given the prevailing politics of "Me and mine before you and yours," the pressure to broaden the base and raise the ante will be tremendous. At some point, then--and the political arena will be rife with disagreement over when we have reached it--our nation will be using public money to bribe students out of public schools.


Joseph W. Newman is a professor of education and the chairman of the educational leadership and foundations department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile and the author of America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education (1998).

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 53,76

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