Proposals for Private-School Choice Reviving at All Levels of Government

By Lynn Olson — February 20, 1991 15 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Proposals to provide parents with a choice among public and private schools are surfacing at the federal, state, and local levels, prompting some experts to predict that the choice debate may be entering yet another stage of evolution.

Two years ago, at a White House conference on choice, then President-elect Bush carefully avoided any mention of extending choice to the private sector.

Instead, Mr. Bush called for a “further expansion of public-school choice” as a “national imperative.”

The statement led many educators to conclude that private-school choice had been relegated to the back burner, particularly when Mr. Bush later said he did not favor tuition tax credits for people who sent their children to private schools.

Now, however, the notion of private-school choice appears to be reviving. Several recent developments provide evidence that the idea is gaining new currency:

Just this month, the President unveiled a $200-million plan to reward districts that develop choice policies that enable parents to enroll their children in public or private schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 13, 1991.)

Also this month, the Detroit Board of Education agreed to consider a proposal that would allow some private schools in the city to become public schools paid for out of public funds. (See Education Week, Feb. 6, 1991.)

In December, town officials in Epsom, N.H., authorized tax abatements for property owners who sponsor a high-school student’s private education. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)

In September, Milwaukee became the first city to experiment with a private-school voucher plan that enables some 260 low-income children to attend private nonsectarian schools at state expense. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

Meanwhile, broad-based coalitions to push for the development of choice plans that would include both private and parochial schools are springing up around the country.

One consortium in Pennsylvania plans to launch a legislative drive next month that would provide vouchers for parents to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice.

And in Michigan, a similar group wants to place a referendum on the November 1992 ballot that would remove the state’s prohibition against providing public funds to private schools.

“I think that it’s premature to say that these widespread examples of private-school inclusion represent the beginning of a trend,” cautioned John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “My sense is that there’s still a tremendous amount of resistance to the idea of including private schools in any kind of choice plan.”

Nonetheless, he added, state and local officials appear “less afraid” of such debates today than they were a few years ago.

In many ways, the arguments for and against private-school choice have changed little since the 1980’s.

Proponents claim that all parents should have the right to choose schools that reflect their personal beliefs. In addition, they argue, competition for students between public and private schools would force the public schools to improve.

Opponents assert that providing public dollars for private sectarian education violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

They also fear that such programs will siphon money and interest from the public schools and lead to the increased segregation of students by race and income.

Unlike previous federal voucher proposals or tuition tax credits, however, which called for massive national expenditures, the new proposals are much smaller and more limited in scope.

They also draw their support primarily from the grassroots level, where they originated.

In interviews last week, experts offered a number of reasons why choice plans that embrace private and parochial schools are experiencing a revival.

Much of the impetus, they maintain, can be traced to three people: Mr. Chubb of Brookings; his colleague, Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University; and State Representative Polly Williams of Wisconsin, a Democrat who helped pass the Milwaukee bill.

Last June, Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe published a book entitled Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington think tank in the political mainstream. (See Education Week, June 6, 1990.)

In it, they called for the creation of a new educational system based on choice in which private schools would become eligible to compete for students.

The authors based their recommendations on findings that private schools were able to function with more autonomy and less political interference than public schools and were more effective in raising student achievement.

Since then, critics have launched attacks on the book’s methodology and conclusions. (See Education Week, Nov. 14, 1990.)

But most concede that the fact it was published, much less by a well-respected think tank, gave the movement a powerful surge.

The push for private-school choice received an even more potent boost last March, when Wisconsin passed the nation’s first private-school choice bill, under the leadership of Ms. Williams.

A black former welfare mother who was state chairman of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns, Ms. Williams has touted choice as particularly beneficial for low-income, minority students trapped in deteriorating urban districts.

Her support of such proposals, along with that of other black leaders—like Lawrence C. Patrick Jr., president of the Detroit Board of Education—has made it clear to many that choice is no longer the exclusive property of the right wing.

“Because of Polly Williams and people like John Chubb at Brookings, the American people have seen that choice is not just a conservative, lunatic idea,” said Jeanne Allen, an education specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

“It’s a safer message,” she said, “because it’s coming from a better messenger.”

“Polly Williams proved that it is thinkable in our lifetimes that programs will be enacted that include private schools in choice policies,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University.

“Two years ago, I was saying to people who asked about private-school choice, ‘Don’t be silly, it will never happen,”’ said Mr. Finn, who served in the Reagan Administration during its unsuccessful push for private-school vouchers. “Well, I was wrong. And I can’t be the only person in the world that’s gone through that kind of a cycle.”

By making the case for private-school choice so strongly and so effectively, observers maintain, both Mr. Chubb and Ms. Williams moved the issue out of the shadows and into the mainstream of political opinion.

In addition to being lionized in the Wall Street Journal, praised by President Bush, and courted by conservative think tanks, for example, Ms. Williams has been asked to speak at the May meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Advocates of private-school choice also assert that the Milwaukee program heralded a “political breakthrough” on two key fronts.

By limiting choice to private nonsectarian schools, they say, it showed how to avoid the legal confrontation over the constitutional separation of church and state.

Equally important, proponents of private-school choice say, by focusing only on low-income students, the program managed to create a new political constituency for the idea—made up of conservative Republicans on the one hand, and traditionally Democratic minority groups on the other.

“Private-school choice used to be primarily a middle-class and Catholic phenomenon,” said Clint Bolick, director of the Washington-based Landmark Legal Foundation.

“Those groups still generally support choice,” added Mr. Bolick, who is helping defend the Milwaukee program in the courts, “but the focus has really shifted dramatically. And that seems to be the recipe for a winning coalition.”

At the same time, Ms. Allen of the Heritage Foundation noted, Christian fundamentalists, who were among the strongest supporters of choice during the 1970’s and 1980’s, are now backing off, “because they fear any kind of state or federal intervention” in their children’s education.

Their much less visible role has also made the movement more acceptable to a wider audience, she said.

‘Strong’ and ‘Militant’

Meanwhile, other members of the traditional constituency for private-school choice have become more outspoken and aggressive.

Inner-city Catholic schools, for example, have been suffering from severe financial strains in such places as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and New York City. As a result, they have become much more vocal about the possibility of receiving public funds for the many disadvantaged, non-Catholic students they serve.

“The Catholic schools have become very strong, very militant,” in their push for public money, said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “As they see it, it’s a matter of survival.”

In June 1989, a delegation of Catholic educators, representing the nation’s largest Roman Catholic dioceses, met with Mr. Bush to press for the inclusion of private schools in discussions about choice.

At the time, said Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, assured them that Mr. Bush was still committed to the idea of private-school choice, but that he first wanted to make public-school choice more palatable.

Since then, Sister McNamee said, her group has “worked very hard to keep this on the public agenda.”

In October, the Council for American Private Education, which represents 14 national education associations, also released a position paper in support of private-school choice.

Their case was bolstered by a recent study by the RAND Corporation that found that Catholic high schools in New York City and Washington were more effective at educating low-income students than were public comprehensive schools.

The reform movement’s failure to produce marked gains in public education also may have spurred attempts to look outside the system, observers say.

“The reform movement has been in operation for several years now, and various reforms have been started and found wanting,” Sister McNamee said. “They haven’t seemed to achieve results.”

“I think this has made people say, ‘Well, maybe we should take a look at what the private sector is doing,”’ she added.

In Detroit, for example, Mr. Patrick said the board’s proposal “grew out of a community which sensed that there was a clear and impending need for radical change.”

“If we stiffen the competition by offering an opportunity where private schools are able to compete for students who are now attending public schools,” he said, “it means that our existing schools are going to have to do a much better job.”

Under the Epsom, N.H., plan, taxpayers are essentially being encouraged to withdraw their money from the public schools and invest it in schools that work better at a lower cost.

The plan is carefully patterned after a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Mueller v. Allen, that spelled out the circumstances under which public support for private education could be found constitutional.

“It’s the kind of thing that I’ve been predicting for about eight years,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “And it may very well appeal to people in these tough economic times.”

Ironically, such extreme solutions may have been fostered by educators’ resistance to public-school choice, several people interviewed last week said.

“Had educators really jumped on board public-school choice with enthusiasm, we might have seen a heading off of the private-school option,” said Charles L. Glenn, who has overseen Massachusetts’ choice programs for nearly 20 years.

Instead, said Joe Nathan, a senior fellow with the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, “there are many, many people in education who really don’t want to give parents any kind of choice at all.”

“They really think that somehow there’s one best kind of school, and it ought to be up to educators to decide what it is,” he added, “and that makes families furious.”

Mr. Nathan argued that it is precisely that kind of attitude that led to the Milwaukee plan’s creation.

Agreed Ted Kolderie, a senior associate with the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, “To just sit there endlessly saying, ‘No, no, no’ to something that 72 percent of the people under 30 favor, and 70 percent of the people of color favor, and 68 percent of the people in big cities favor, is not a very successful strategy.”

Exactly why the Bush Administration has chosen this moment to throw its weight behind private-school choice remains unclear.

Roger B. Porter, the White House domestic-policy adviser, was unavailable for comment last week.

But several people suggested that the success of Polly Williams and others has shown Mr. Bush what is politically feasible.

“People like Polly Williams gave them cover,” Ms. Allen of the Heritage Foundation said. “They had to wait until it wasn’t such a hot potato.”

Also, observers note, the movement toward a free-market system in Eastern Europe has popularized any attempt to break up monopolies and increase competition here at home.

Michelle Easton, who oversees the new center for choice at the U.S. Education Department, said the Administration has always supported both public- and private-school options.

“I think a lot of what we do here reflects what’s going on in the states and localities,” she said, “and you’re finding tremendous interest there in making the options as expansive and diverse as possible.’'

Since the educational clearinghouse opened in December, it has received nearly 1,000 calls about choice. In many instances, Ms. Easton said, those calls have come from parents who either have or want to enroll their children in private schools.

“Some of them are just tremendously relieved that finally somebody in the government seems to be thinking of families like them,” she said.

Others claim that the President has caved in to the conservative wing of the Republican Party to better his chances in the 1992 election.

But even members to the far right of the political spectrum remain skeptical about how strongly Mr. Bush will push his proposals on Capitol Hill, where few think they have any chance of survival.

“I don’t see evidence yet that they understand how tough of a fight it will be,” said Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council and a White House adviser and Education Department official in the Reagan Administration.

Indeed, despite the spurt of activity regarding private-school choice, most do not give such proposals much of a chance at the federal, state, or local level.

“It’s still an uphill struggle politically,” said John E. Coons, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, “but it’s plain that it has a much better chance than it had before.”

Jack Kelleher, the prime architect of the Epsom plan, said, “I don’t have the slightest doubt that ... we will be ganged up on by every conceivable special-interest group that wants to stop this. All of the big guns are going to come out and pound on the town of Epsom.”

State legislators are also likely to approach private-school choice with caution, until the legal problems have been resolved.

“I don’t think, at this point, we’ll see legislators making a lot of money available in private-school settings,” John Myers, education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, predicted. “I think most legislators will stay pretty much in a concerned posture.”

Meanwhile, opposition from the education establishment is stiffening. In December, the Forum of Educational Organization Leaders—a consortium of 11 national education organizations—released a position statement that assailed the use of educational vouchers to provide public money for private schools.

“You’ll allow the informed and the influential, the muscle-toned and the economic royalty of this country to get subsidies,” warned Herbert Grover, president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “And you’ll absolutely nuke the public support for the institution that serves the preponderant majority of young people.”

Mr. Shannon of the NSBA predicted that ultimately the matter will wind up in the courts.

Although advocates of private-school choice may be betting on a more sympathetic hearing, given the new round of Reagan and Bush appointees to the Supreme Court, he cautioned, “public-school people believe that’s wrong.”

But the most interesting effect of the recent proposals, according to scholars, may be the way they are changing the choice debate.

The Detroit proposal, in particular, raises the question of what constitutes public education.

“We’re in the process of shifting from a discussion about private schools versus public schools to a distinction between private education and public education,” Mr. Kolderie of Minneapolis said.

Now, he said, people are thinking that “private organizations can be involved in public education,” given a different set of ground rules.

According to Mr. Glenn of Massachusetts, existing public-school choice plans have increased the “demand side” for education but have failed to increase the “supply side.”

“If the choice is only among schools that are fundamentally all the same—equally bad or mediocore—there isn’t a real choice,” he said. “A number of us have begun to say, ‘Look, we’ve really got to address how additional players can enter the market, how to make it easier to start up a new school, or to become one of those schools that is offering an option.”’

“I could well imagine developing a program under which nonpublic schools could, by meeting some public requirements, begin to be treated as public schools,” he added. “Not as government schools—not to just be absorbed into the government structure—but to be publicly accountable, nondiscriminatory, meeting some common outcomes.”

“I don’t find that horrifying at all,” he said. “And I think that is where the Detroit model may be leading.”

But precisely what ground rules would be minimal enough and attractive enough to make private schools want to participate in this new arena remains uncertain.

Either public education will have to be radically deregulated, observers suggest, or private schools will have to become “publicized,” or subjected to some of the same strictures governing public schools.

“The immutable fact is that what the government funds, the government regulates,” Mr. Shannon warned, “and that’s going to change the character of private schools enormously.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Proposals for Private-School Choice Reviving at All Levels


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
Science K-12 Essentials Forum How To Teach STEM Problem Solving Skills to All K-12 Students
Join experts for a look at how experts are integrating the teaching of problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking into STEM instruction.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: April 27, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 6, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 30, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
6 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 16, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
7 min read