Education Opinion

Doing Choice Right

By Paul T. Hill — November 19, 2003 7 min read
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Any form of school choice can support public education or can harm it. It all depends on factors under human control.

Will school choice be the end of public education? Or will it be the salvation of thousands of students who would otherwise fail in district-run schools? There is only one honest answer to these questions: It all depends.

It depends in part on what we mean by public education. If we give public education a trivial definition, equating it with existing arrangements— including school boards elected in particular ways, large central-office bureaucracies, and teacher hiring and placement set through union agreements— proposals like charters and regulated vouchers surely threaten it. But if we define public education in a serious way, as a community’s effort to make sure its children are all educated for good jobs and constructive citizenship, then choice might advance it.

Any form of school choice, whether new options offered by school districts or new independent schools funded by vouchers, can support public education or can harm it. Everything depends on factors that are under human control, such as how choice is funded and organized, who can choose, what information parents get, and who takes public funds to run schools. That is the message of a new report to be issued this week by a Brookings Institution-run commission on school choice. (“Panel Says Choice’s Benefits Worth Risks,” this issue.)

The commission, a group of scholars that includes both optimists and pessimists about choice, asked what could be learned from choice programs in cities such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and others in the United States and abroad. We studied many forms of choice, from targeted programs run by school districts to broader voucher programs in which independent groups are allowed to run publicly supported schools. The results of the commission’s work will be surprising to anyone who has been listening to ideologues on both the right and left, who either call choice a solution to all problems or claim it will destroy our democratic commitment to universal education.

When the commission looked closely at how choice could work—how it could lead to good outcomes (improved learning for children of parents who choose), or to bad ones (greater segregation or harm to children who stay in public schools)—we learned some lessons that should have been obvious but weren’t, and we got some surprises.

In the “it should have been obvious” category, we learned that funding, admissions rules, and parent information are all-important.

  • On funding: Choice can help children only if they can transfer to good schools, and good schools require reasonable amounts of money to operate. If public funds (vouchers) are worth very little, few good schools will offer to accept students, and even fewer good new schools will start up. Existing schools will also have a strong incentive to admit children who are easy to educate and whose families can pay extra.
  • On admissions rules: Choice can help disadvantaged children only if rules on admission are fair and unbiased. That means schools must accept applications from everyone who applies and, if they get more applications than seats available, select students by lottery.
  • On parent information: Poor parents who have never been able to choose among schools need a lot of information about what choices are available, how to choose, and how to judge whether a given school is right for their child. This requires plentiful information and aggressive outreach. It also requires information that is seldom available anywhere: information about how much children learn each year they attend a particular school.

In the “surprise” category, we learned that choice doesn’t give a community the luxury to abandon a messed-up school district. If choice is to help all children, rather than helping some and hurting others, something must be done to protect children in the lowest-performing district schools, the ones that alert parents will abandon as soon as they can.

Choice doesn't give a community the luxury to abandon a messed-up school district.

This requires changes in district policies that let the ablest teachers avoid the most challenging schools, and leave those schools with the least- qualified and least-experienced teachers. In order to pay the salaries of experienced teachers who cluster in nicer neighborhoods, urban districts transfer money out of poverty-area schools. The result is that real spending per pupil is, on average, lowest in high-poverty neighborhoods.

This is hard to see with the naked eye, since high-poverty neighborhoods have the same numbers of teachers (albeit, on average, lower-paid) and also get add-on funds from federal programs. But when actual dollars are totaled up, per-pupil spending is lowest in the lowest-income schools.

Left alone, the school district will continue to starve poverty- neighborhood schools, even as they lose children to new schools of choice. That means teachers with any options will avoid those schools, or get out as soon as they gain enough seniority to claim a job elsewhere; the dollars available to those schools will fall even further; and the education of children left behind in those schools could get even worse.

Choice for families doesn’t cause this problem: District policies and collective bargaining agreements do. But unless the district is forced to change, by allocating real dollars on a per-pupil basis and letting them follow children to whatever schools they attend, the children left behind in troubled district- run schools will suffer. The district might even have to go beyond real-dollar equality, using extra grant funds to offer cash incentives for excellent teachers to work in those schools.

Here’s another way choice implies changes in school districts: One of the benefits of a choice plan is that schools get real dollars that they can spend on teachers, books, materials, extracurricular activities, and other needs. This makes a big difference, because district central offices now rake off nearly half of all the money that is supposedly available to educate children. Schools of choice still have to buy goods and services, but they set their own priorities and don’t have to buy at inflated prices from the district “company store.” Troubled district schools, the ones most likely to feel the effects of competition from schools of choice, need the same arrangement.

A related surprise: We learned that no community can move quickly to a pure market system, in which every school is run by an independent entrepreneur free of regulation. Starting new schools is challenging and expensive, so the numbers of good new schools can grow only slowly. In the meantime, district schools have a chance to respond to competition. Community leaders will be able to learn about how choice can be organized and regulated to protect children. And they also can learn how to keep the good teachers already working for the district, and attract new ones to the city.

As a result, choice is likely to lead to a hybrid system in which new schools coexist with district-run schools, and the district changes to operate more efficiently and, knowing that students can always leave, accountably.

Though the commission’s report leaves a lot unanswered, it makes clear that choice is neither a certain disaster nor a sure thing. Choice, like bureaucracy, is a human creation that can be regulated, tinkered with, and made to work.

One of the benefits of a choice plan is that schools get real dollars they can spend according to their own needs.

Community leaders, elected officials, and philanthropists can play important roles in designing and implementing choice. City officials and the school board need to build capacities, in the school district or elsewhere, that don’t exist now. For example, some city agency needs to allocate and account for funds on a per-pupil basis, provide good school performance information, and run fair admissions lotteries. Local government—whether the school board or some agency with broader powers—also needs to create an environment of fair competition and reliable rules so that both alternative and district-run schools have a chance to offer good teaching.

Philanthropy’s potential role can be significant: in sponsoring planning for choice; developing the capacities of communities, schools, and educators; and providing a “watchdog” function that ensures there will be someone to complain if choice programs are not implemented as planned.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation and other philanthropies are starting a “Doing Choice Right” initiative to follow up on these recommendations. It will become a national resource for research and development and for assistance to communities that want to use choice as a way to improve educational opportunities for their children.

The federal government can facilitate transition by allowing categorical- program funds to follow children to new schools of choice and by investing in studies on how parents get and use educational information, and on what sorts of schools work best for what students.

Choice can create needed new opportunities for children. But one sure route to failure is to protect adult jobs and bureaucratic functions first, leaving the consequences for children to chance.

Another scenario for failure is to implement choice programs carelessly and cheaply, maintaining a blind optimism that, at some point, everything will work out for the best.

Paul T. Hill is the director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, in Seattle, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. He led the Brookings commission on K-12 choice, whose report, “School Choice: Doing It the Right Way Makes a Difference,” is being published this week.


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