‘Open Market’ of Schools Needed, New Book Argues

By Lynn Olson — June 06, 1990 9 min read

Washington--Politics is ruining America’s public schools. At least, that is the conclusion of two political scientists in a book scheduled to be released here this week.

They advocate that states govern public schools more like private ones by creating a new system based on choice in which private schools would become eligible to compete for students.

According to John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, the political institutions that govern public education--namely, school boards, superintendents, and district offices--function naturally to increase bureaucracy, undermine school autonomy, and suppress student achievement.

Until states replace these institutions with an entirely new system of governance--one in which schools compete for students in the open market--school reform is destined to fail, the authors contend.

“What we’re trying to point out is that bureaucracy is not everywhere by accident,” said Mr. Chubb in an interview. “Bureaucracy, and especially the almost byzantine and incredibly burdensome form of bureaucracy that we have in the big-city systems, is a product of politics. It’s a product of the politics that you get when you set up a system where you want to have direct democratic control of the schools.”

Under the authors’ choice proposal, states would set minimal criteria for defining what constitutes a “public school.”

Any group or organization that applied to the state and met those criteria--including existing private schools--would be chartered as a public school and granted the right to accept students and receive public funds.

Each school would be free to govern itself as it wanted, specify its own goals and programs and methods, select its own student body (subject to nondiscrimination laws), and make its own personnel decisions.

Parents and students could then choose among alternative schools, aided by a state-operated “choice office” in each district.

The authors’ findings are based on the largest comprehensive survey of principals, teachers, and students ever conducted: the federal “High School and Beyond” survey.

The analysis of 500 public and private high schools includes information gathered from more than 20,000 students, teachers, and principals.

In the early 1980s, the authors helped design a questionnaire for the survey that asked principals and teachers about the control and organization of their schools. That data was collected in 1984 and analyzed beginning in 1985.

The Brookings Institution plans to unveil the completed work, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, in Washington later this week at an invitational forum for leaders of the political and education establishments.

Educators who have seen advance copies of the manuscript describe it as “dynamite": an analytical “tour de force” that could shape the debate about school reform in the year to come. (See related story, page 14.)

Unlike most arguments for choice, which are based on economic or political rationales, the authors ground their proposal in an analysis of the effective-schools research, which is widely accepted by educators.

They found that effective schools in both the public and private sectors were characterized by strong leadership, clear goals, ambitious academic programs, teamwork, and professionalism among teachers.

Average students gained over one year more of learning by attending these schools rather than ineffective ones.

But where the authors depart from prior research is in their explanation of what causes effective or ineffective schools to emerge.

According to the study, the single greatest predictor of school effectiveness is the autonomy that schools have from external, bureaucratic control.

“The reason that school autonomy is crucial,” Mr. Chubb explained, “is that the sorts of qualities that we find to be very important within schools--and, in fact, the kinds of qualities that other researchers argue are important--are simply very, very unlikely to develop in a bureaucratic setting where decisions are being made by and large by people outside of the school.”

The authors’ research found that effective schools experienced 20 percent to 50 percent less interference from superintendents and district-level administrators than ineffective schools did in matters ranging from curriculum and instruction to the hiring and firing of teachers.

Private schools were subject to much less bureaucratic interference than public schools: Only 9 percent of private schools were subject to high levels of constraint in staffing and organizing their programs.

As a result of this increased freedom, the researchers found, private schools were far more likely to be effective than public ones.

The only public schools likely to enjoy the same measure of autonomy were those located in suburban settings that served high-achieving students and well-educated parents.

In fact, Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe assert, "[t]he kinds of qualities that contemporary school reformers would like public schools to develop, private schools have developed without external reform at all.”

According to the authors, the real root of the problem--and the reason why private schools have so much more autonomy than public schoolsts with the differences between organizations controlled by politics and those controlled by market forces.

Society, the authors note, exercises “direct democratic control” of the public schools through politics. Under this system, the right to make policy decisions is constantly up for grabs among individuals and groups representing a diverse array of social interests.

The “winners” in these battles--through their elected and appointed leaders--have the legal right to impose their policy decisions on everyone else.

Although parents and students are part of the broad constituency that governs the public schools, they have no special right to “win” in the fight for public authority, the authors explain.

This constant struggle for political dominance, they write, naturally results in bureaucracy for two reasons. First, the “winners” need to ensure that those lower down in the system will carry out policies with which they may disagree. So they pass rules and regulations to ensure compliance.

Second, because those in control know they may not keep their positions forever, they protect what they want done through legislative and regulatory mandates.

Although public schools and their personnel are granted some discretion out of necessity, the authors note, that discretion is sharply limited. Moreover, it is insulated from the uncertainties of politics through civil-service laws, tenure, and other requirements that actually serve to increase bureaucracy still further.

“If society wants to prescribe everything that schools do, then this is the price you pay,” Mr. Chubb asserted. “You’re going to have a system that’s very bureaucratic. You’re going to have a system where the best people don’t want to work, where you’re not going to get good leaders, and so forth.”

“Maybe that’s what you want,” he continued. “We think ... this is wrong. It’s not worth the price.”

In contrast, the authors assert, private schools tend to develop fewer bureaucratic constraints precisely because they are not subject to battles over public authority, changes in the political landscape, or conflicting demands from multiple layers of government.

While public schools are responsive to a distant bureaucracy, private schools are more responsive to students and parents, who are free to take their business elsewhere if they are dissatisfied.

The solution, Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe conclude, is to govern the public-school system more like the private one by injecting a dose of marketplace competition.

Their choice proposal is far more radical and comprehensive than any that is now being tried.

“To the extent the movement for choice can be called a movement at all,” they write, “it is an extremely fragmented and conceptually shallow one.”

“Rarely do these plans take any steps to free up the supply side by decontrolling--or, at least, encouraging and promoting through official actions--the emergence of new and different types of schools,” they maintain, “so that people really have an attractive (and dynamically responsive) set of alternatives from which to choose.”

Under the authors’ plan, any group or organization could become chartered as a public school if it met new, minimum state criteria. States would then provide schools with tax-funded scholarships for every eligible student they enrolled.

The scholarships would be based on educational need, with disadvantaged students receiving the largest scholarships.

Students could apply to any accredited public or private school in the state, regardless of school district. But schools would be free to charge their own “tuitions"; set their own admissions criteria; develop their own governing structure; and determine how they would organize to do their work.

The applications process would take place in a framework that guaranteed each student a school, as well as a fair shot at getting into the school that he or she wanted most.

District governments would be free to run their present schools. But they would have to vie with these new competitors for students. And they would have authority only over their own schools and not over any of the others chartered by the state.

Although districts could retain as much of their current governing apparatus as they wished--superintendents, school boards, central offices, and all their staff members--they would have to pay for these entirely from the scholarship revenues of children who chose to attend district-run schools.

The district’s only other role would be as a taxing authority that allowed citizens to determine how large their children’s scholarships would be.

The state would hold schools accountable for meeting procedural requirements and for continuing to meet the criteria for public schools. But it would not hold them accountable for student achievement or for any other assessments of quality.

“When it comes to performance,” the authors assert, “schools are held accountable from below, by parents and students who directly experience their services and are free to choose.”

According to the authors, the “direct democratic control of schools’'--"the very capacity for control, not simply its exercise"--would be eliminated under their plan.

In an interview, Mr. Chubb said he was “guardedly optimistic” about the chances that such a proposal would be carried out.

“Over the last five years, the concept of choice has taken on a life of its own,” he noted, “and suddenly is not a far-fetched idea. In fact, it’s become an idea that’s on the agenda of well over half the state legislatures.”

In addition, he said, the education establishment has had a “good crack at turning the schools around” without much success, so people are more willing to entertain radical ideas from the outside.

But he admitted that incremental change is far more likely. For the proposal to really succeed, he said, it would require parents in the inner-cities, who are most hurt by the current system, to rise up in revolt and demand the freedom to choose.

“You have to be practical in the real world,” he stated. “You don’t get this kind of change overnight.”

But he added: “If you can affect the way people think ... then where they end up after they’ve figured out all the practical issues is a lot closer to where you wanted them to be.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Open Market’ of Schools Needed, New Book Argues