Striking a Balance Between Individual Choice and the Interests of the State

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For the past 20 years, I have been involved in school-finance reform. During that time, my efforts, and those of most of my colleagues, have been aimed primarily at issues of equity. This was appropriate. The finance systems of most states were such that some local school districts had vast resources and could provide a rich and varied education for their students, while other districts were impoverished, and the education they provided was substandard by any reasonable measures.

We have come a long way toward our goal of increasing equity. In the process, however, we may have neglected other values and tasks to too great an extent. It is time to look more closely at these other dimensions, and attempt to achieve a better balance among them.

We have arrived at a point where many parents and other voters have lost confidence in the public-school system. We can all recite the litany of complaints: Test scores have declined; expenditures per pupil have increased at a rate more rapid than that of inflation; there is no close correlation between the amount a teacher is paid and his or her teaching ability; children are forced to attend schools they do not like and are assigned to teachers their parents believe are not competent; there is no choice in the curriculum offered; discipline is poor; there are insufficient incentives for a student to excel. The fact is that to a greater or lesser extent these are all legitimate criticisms. They cannot be swept under the table, and we must do something about them if we are to improve confidence in our system of education.

Unfortunately, rebuilding public support is an elusive objective to achieve in a highly bureaucratized system such as we currently have. The incentives for change are few in a bureaucracy, while the incentives for maintenance of the status quo are great. If we are to restore public confidence, we must either devise means to improve choice, efficiency, and adequacy within the existing system or adopt a new system.

How can this be done? The easy answer, of course, is to install a voucher system. Proponents contend that the invisible hand of the free market will erase all the problems to which I have alluded. Those schools that provide education in a manner that is popularly desired, and do so efficiently, will prosper, and the remainder will wither. Choice is enhanced, and equity is provided, in that all children are entitled to a voucher of the same amount. But it is not so easy.

Foes of vouchers are quick to identify the problems: Vouchers will be the death of the long-held American dream of a common system of education that transmits broad societal values to all children; there is no sure way for parents to obtain information on the quality of education provided by a school; and differences in pupil needs are not easily accommodated. Moreover, in making a sincere and intelligent effort to solve one broad social problem, you will almost certainly create another problem at least as intransigent. But there is an alternative to the two extreme positions of the present public-school bureaucracy on the one hand and vouchers on the other.

Envision education as divided into two parts: that which is primarily in the interest of the state in providing an intelligent and productive citizenry, and that which is primarily in the interest of the individual.

To a degree, the U.S. schools are currently so structured; we do not, for example, ordinarily provide in the public school such things as flying lessons or tap-dancing lessons. However, there should be a much more restricted definition of what is primarily in the interest of the state. It should consist of reading, writing, and arithmetic to provide a basis for productive citizens, and enough of the social studies to ensure a citizenry competent to cast an intelligent vote. This basic education could be accomplished in the public schools by the 8th grade and would be provided free of charge, with parents free to send their children to any public school they desired. Free transportation to school would be provided within a reasonable radius of home.

For all other things that children or their parents might want by way of education during the elementary years, parents could purchase educational coupons in somewhat the same way as food stamps: The lower the family income, the less is paid per dollar of coupons, but everyone must pay something. These coupons would pay for additional education with a private tutor, at a private school, or even at the friendly local public school that wishes to provide the supplementary education and accept coupons in payment. By requiring approximately equal sacrifice in purchasing these coupons, poor families as well as rich would be able to obtain supplementary education in the amounts and kinds desired.

Compulsory schooling would cease after the 8th grade. However, each person would thereafter be entitled to a portable grant good for an additional six years of education. This grant could be redeemed at any time during the individual's life. This would make it easier for the student disenchanted with school and likely to be disruptive to drop out after the 8th grade. On the other hand, such an individual would be encouraged to drop back in when he or she has rediscovered a desire to learn. Our secondary schools would, I suspect, have a much different atmosphere as a result of these two actions.

Finally, individuals would be allowed to continue to purchase education coupons throughout their lives to use for supplementary education.

This system was developed in cooperation with James W. Guthrie, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, and Lawrence C. Pierce, special assistant to the chancellor of the Oregon state system of higher education. I strongly believe that it could be made to work and would give a better balance among equity, adequacy, efficiency, and choice than does our present system. But this increased balance must be pursued in steps small enough to allow for the discovery of the problems that inevitably will arise from such a sweeping new system. The discovery and correction of unanticipated problems will also allow us appropriately to change our ultimate goals in the light of what we have learned. There are some incremental changes that could be made immediately, changes that would improve the efficiency of public education as well as the public's confidence in it.

We could begin now to allow parents to send their children to any school they wish within their district. One of the most important contributors to the feeling of alienation on the part of the parents is the realization that they have no choice in the school to which their child is sent. Giving them the ability to make a choice will greatly decrease their unhappiness. School administrators will say that this will result in crowded classrooms at one school and empty hallways at another. This is merely an admission of unwillingness to attend to an administrative problem. Ways can be found, both temporary and permanent, to solve problems of crowding.

For example, the principal whose school is crowded can also be assigned supervision over another school that is less crowded, with opportunity to take on its teachers or to reassign them. Ultimately, I would hope that the principals and teachers who attracted greater numbers of pupils would be compensated accordingly, while those abandoned by parents and students would become candidates for retraining or employment elsewhere. When the problems of such a system have been solved, there is no reason it could not be expanded on an interdistrict basis to an entire region, with appropriate tuition transfer.

To the contention that such a system would result in increased segregation, I note that the most segregated schools in the country are the public schools of northern states where such choices do not exist. The private schools of those states are less segregated than the public schools.

There is also no reason to continue to use the schools to serve a variety of purposes that are only distantly related to education but that serve to disrupt class and take time away from more important objectives. One group of such disruptions are the commercial intrusions into the schools, such as bank day and school pictures. A second type is exemplified by driver education and driver training. It can be argued that it is good to train students to be skilled drivers, so they will not kill people with cars. But the urge to drive is so strong in the U.S. that a simple requirement for driver training as a prerequisite to obtaining a license would ensure that it was done, at individual expense and after school hours.

Districts could begin, in a modest way, to examine with unions possibilities for initiating some tie between teaching effectiveness and teacher pay. The present time, when there are teacher surpluses in many fields and shortages of money, may be propitious for the start of such discussions.

We could also start to experiment with educational coupons as a way of offering parents more choice over the amount, kind, and source of education for supplementary purposes. We could begin in subjects, such as fourth-year Latin, where local schools do not now provide the service.

If one is freed from the mind-set that education must be furnished exclusively by a massive bureaucracy, it becomes possible to think of alternatives that may be much more attractive. And given the current lack of public confidence in the education enterprise, such thinking should be no less than an imperative.

Vol. 02, Issue 28, Page 24

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