A Matter of Choice: The Debate Over Schools and the Marketplace
Choice is a concept as American as the Declaration of Independence. So, too, is the notion of universal access to learning. It was Jefferson, after all, who warned us that no nation could remain both ignorant and free. The freedom to choose, in our choice-laden democracy, has always implied a right to knowledge.
Now, with "choice'' the most politically loaded word on the social horizon, American policymakers are testing the limits and possibilities of this most American of concepts in the school arena. The promise is that by delivering to parents and students the basic decision of which school to attend, the contours of the education system will be altered dramatically for the better. Good schools will thrive, bureaucracies will wither, and bad schools will either improve or be weeded out by the forces of the free market.
The peril, in the eyes of opponents of school choice, is that this altering of the contours may become, with insufficient safeguards, a diminution of the system's strength. They fear that the long-cherished ideal of offering every child equal access to high-quality public schooling may be jeopardized if learning becomes a commodity, rather than a public good.
Somewhere in the middle of the debate is the common ground that says
is in order. In only five years, 13 states have passed legislation giving parents the right to choose public schools outside their own districts. A dozen other states are considering such a move, and countless localities have implemented public-school-choice plans.
In Milwaukee, as well as in statewide voter initiatives in Colorado and California, the ante has been upped to include private schools through a system of vouchers. Both the Colorado measure, which was defeated last month, and the California proposal, which will be on the 1994 ballot, would give parents vouchers equal to half the per-pupil cost of public instruction, which they could then use toward tuition in private or parochial schools.
Moreover, experiments are under way in many communities that would privatize some education services paid for by the taxpayer, or would provide for totally new arrangements between public and private deliverers of education.
For now, despite the intense interest in choice advanced by the Bush Administration and political and academic leaders at all levels, no one can say with certainty what the public's tolerance or enthusiasm for a full range of choice options will be. Nor can the true, bottom-line benefits of such experimentation be accurately gauged. Backers speak of potential. Public-opinion polls differ according to the wording of questions. The research base is thin. Only one thing seems clear, as a recently released report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching notes: "The decade-long struggle to reform American education seems suddenly to hang on a single word: 'choice.' ''
Whether this shift to choice holds the key to a revival of American education or is, as some have suggested, a destructive diversion from the task at hand will be an unfolding story in reform's second decade. Education Week will monitor the pulse of opinion in this debate through an occasional series during the coming year made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The roundtable discussion beginning on the following page is the series' first installment. The participants--John E. Coons, Linda F. Davis, James W. Guthrie, Willis D. Hawley, and Terry M. Moe--spoke at an Education Week Forum held Sept. 18 in San Francisco.
EW: Terry Moe, you and John Chubb advocate in your book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, a market-driven kind of system that would allow private schools to be chartered so that they could participate in choice programs and receive public funds. How do you address the concerns of critics who claim that the move toward choice, and particularly those choice plans that include private schools, would actually undermine public schooling and the whole notion of the common school?
MR. MOE: First of all, most reforms that go under the name of choice are easily accommodated within the current system and certainly don't offer any threat to open enrollment, magnet schools, alternative schools, interdistrict choice, and similar programs.
The reforms that really do threaten the existing public system are thoroughgoing reforms that promise a dramatically different kind of system. The proposal that John Chubb and I make in our book, the [John E.] Coons and [Stephen D.] Sugarman proposal, the California initiative, the Colorado initiative are proposals that would really revolutionize education in this country.
Now, would they undermine public education? Yes, they would, in a special and highly desirable sense. They would transform this system into a system that provides better schools and more equitable educational opportunities for everybody. That's the point. The point is not to preserve this system. This system is not working well. The point is to transform this system, and choice is the reform that promises fundamental change. The others really don't.
EW: How would you answer critics who charge that the public schools won't have an opportunity to compete--that the competition is basically unfair?
MR. MOE: For those public schools that are good--and there are many public schools in the suburbs that are good--there's no problem here. Most of their kids will just stay where they are. They like their schools. That's why they live there. They bought themselves a good school.
The schools in the inner city are often not good schools. Those schools will have to compete, and that's the whole point. If they don't get better, they're going to lose their kids. What those people will say is, "Well, we need a level playing field. This is unfair. We have to operate under all these rules and regulations.'' But, again, that's the point. All these rules and regulations are bad for schools. And if the school system is going to allow its schools to compete, as they must under a full-fledged choice system, they have to deregulate their schools. The solution is not to regulate private schools. That's moving backward.
EW: Opponents of choice also argue that the inclusion of private schools will drain off funds from the public system.
MR. MOE: This is not the public system's money. [California Superintendent of Public Instruction] Bill Honig does not have a right to all this educational money. The money comes from us. It's our money. We're the taxpayers. And the point of that money is to see that our kids get the best education possible.
The question is not: How can we see to it that the existing public school system gets as much money as possible? The question is: How can we use our money to see to it that our kids get the best possible education? And if that means allowing some of them to go private, that's great.
EW: If large numbers of students did go private, wouldn't that create much greater financial problems for the public system?
MR. MOE: No. Under the California initiative, for instance, the proposal is to allow these kids a voucher of $2,600, just half the $5,200 in state money that California is spending per kid. What that means is that if a kid goes to a private school, we educate that student for $2,600. There's $2,600 left over that could be plowed back into the public school system, or it could be used for something else. The idea that if we educate kids for less, as a state, we're somehow worse off is nuts. If we can get a quality education for less, we ought to do it.
EW: Will the kind of choice program you recommend be inequitable? Is there a danger that poor minority children will be the only ones who are left in the public school system as the rich and the upper-middle-class families bail out?
MR. MOE: This is really the most ironic criticism. The fact of the matter is that the current system is grossly inequitable. It is stratified by class and by race. Upper-middle-class kids and rich kids can bail out. They move to the suburbs. They go private already. They already have good schools. The kids who are trapped in bad schools are poor kids and minority kids. They're the ones who desperately need choice, and they're the ones that want out. They're the ones who would be disproportionately advantaged by a choice system. If you look at polls, both in California and around the nation--and there are lots and lots of these polls now--the group that favors choice the most is poor people and minorities. And the group that is most lukewarm about choice is well-to-do white people.
The bottom line is that we don't want to destroy the public school system but to transform it into a system that can really provide us with the kinds of schools that we, as a state and as a nation, want and schools that are truly equitable, which our current system is not.
EW: Jack Coons, you are a longtime advocate of choice. Why do you feel so strongly that it is right for this country?
MR. COONS: For 25 years, my colleague, Stephen Sugarman, and I have been working--mostly in California, but in other places as well--to try to do something about what we regard basically as the nonexistence of the public school system. We do not have public schools in this country in any recognizable sense of that term. As Terry pointed out, the rich get the choice, either in private schools or in school districts that they can afford to move into, and the poor get to go where they're sent. This has not worked in terms of productivity.
I think that those of us who worked on the Serrano v. Priest case in the 1960's and 1970's and similar school-finance cases around the country have always felt that those who most need reform are the children who are most disadvantaged, who are stuck in segregated schools.
The principal need for reform through choice has to do with the hope that we could have a system that tolerates a difference; that is rich in variety of curriculum, not a censored curriculum produced by a lobbied sort of textbook system produced from state capitals, but rather, a marketplace of ideas with people choosing the kinds of schools that would be available in a market economy of schools.
We would also hope that teachers would at last become professionals and that you would be able to reconcile the 15 percent of the people who are in private schools with the 85 percent who are in public schools. Instead of having them in conflict constantly in the political marketplace, put them together--have 100 percent of the parents in a political system pushing for adequate spending on education, so that there would be enough for schools in a system that deserved more money.
Such a choice system would be better for teachers. It would also be better for integration. You can imagine what would happen to the District of Columbia if everybody got a voucher to go where they wanted--a $7,000 voucher, or whatever they spend there. As you know, the bourgeoisie in D.C. now attend school in Virginia or in Maryland or in private schools--and you can imagine what choice could do for integration.
Choice is necessary for the dignity of the family. It's necessary for the creation of a bond between child and parent after the child reaches school age.
EW: Mr. Coons, you were one of the initial architects of the controversial California choice initiative, but it has changed a good deal since it was first proposed. Would you summarize the proposal, and explain your concerns on how it was changed?
MR. COONS: It is a paradox that I should be, at least implicitly, in the position of defending the California initiative, which I do not support.
The California initiative, which will be on the ballot in 1994, includes some of what I would recommend, but not all. It provides only half a voucher of $2,500. The problem with that, of course, is that people in the suburbs will add another $2,500 and start a private school that suits their purposes--and that's fine; that's a good thing to do. It will put the pressure on the public schools in the suburbs and make them reform. And if they go down, that's their problem. We will have an improved, reformed education for the middle class.
I worry about what would happen to the children in the inner city. Twenty-five hundred dollars will not start new schools--not very many of them, anyway. What will happen is that some inner-city families without the capacity to add their own money to the voucher will get to go to Catholic schools or Lutheran schools or low-budget Montessori schools. There are 25,000 to 50,000 places in California for such children. Good for them. I'm all for it.
But the rest of them have a problem. The other million children for whom there are not places and who cannot afford more expensive private schools will be left in a system that has no pressure for improvement on it whatsoever. The other public schools in their neighborhoods will have no competition, and they will continue to be the kinds of places with which you're familiar now.
That is something you've got to think about when you judge the very good things that the California initiative will do against some things that maybe are not so good.
The second reason that I do not support the California initiative is that it eliminated from the final draft the protection for low-income families with respect to admissions. We think if you're going to take public money through vouchers--and we think that's a very good thing for most disadvantaged children--you've got to protect to some extent against the kinds of discrimination that, if I were trying to run a private school, I would probably engage in. I'd take those easiest to educate. So, a choice program should have a set-aside for, perhaps, 20 percent, 25 percent low-income children. And to make sure that they aren't priced out by add-on tuitions, we would say that if you charge over and above the amount of the voucher, you can only do so according to the capacity of the family to pay. Neither of those protections is in the draft of the initiative that will be voted on in 1994.
For those major reasons--along with some others--I am not supporting nor opposing it.
EW: Jim Guthrie, you and your colleagues have been thinking about and analyzing the California initiative. How would you assess the proposal?
MR. GUTHRIE: My colleagues, in this instance, are those of us who comprise Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, which is a consortium of faculty members at the University of Southern California, Stanford University, and the University of California.
PACE neither actively proposes or opposes a choice plan, though I do think that public education, at least, would benefit from a larger amount of choice than currently exists in most public school systems.
But our position is not so much to advocate or oppose, but to specify approximately eight or nine criteria that we assert ought to be held in the public's mind or in the policymaker's mind when a choice plan is proposed.
EW: Give some examples of the criteria you have in mind.
MR. GUTHRIE: One of the tests we would impose is that of accountability. Whether it be public or private, there ought to be some specification of what schools are expected to accomplish. How will we know if we are receiving a proper return on the investment of public funds?
Second, there is an information dimension to this. We cannot imagine an effective and fair choice plan that does not provide clients--parents and students--with information sufficient to enable them to make informed choices.
Third, the admissions policies have to be fair. There cannot be the injection of various kinds of racial or religious or former-behavior qualifications for admissions to schools that accept public funds.
A fourth criterion is regulation or deregulation. In our judgment, both private schools and public schools in a choice system should be subjected to the same kind of playing field.
Transportation is a crucial element. Unless transportation within some reasonable geographic boundary is provided, there really is not a choice.
An effective and fair voucher plan ought to offer some kind of inducement or incentive for greater amounts of social or racial integration; perhaps 20 percent of the spaces would be reserved--or an added amount of money would be reserved--for youngsters from low-income households.
We believe that handicapped students or disabled students are due some kind of added consideration, that a school should not be permitted to exclude them and provision should be made for them.
And on a financial basis, a school accepting vouchers should not be able to increase its tuition above that amount unless the increase is based on the family's ability to pay.
Also within the financial realm, if a school agrees to redeem vouchers, to accept public payment, then it, in some manner, must make itself accountable to a public agency--at either the local, the state, or the federal level.
EW: Linda Davis, is parental choice an issue in your school district?
MS. DAVIS: In the San Francisco Unified School District, we do celebrate diversity. We don't have schools that are racially unbalanced. No school has more than 45 percent of any ethnic group attending. We celebrate some of the finest scholars in the district. Our Lowell High School has been ranked number one in the nation. So, obviously, we are educating effectively, and our students are reaching their full potential in many of our schools.
Ten years ago, Lowell High School was the only academic high school in San Francisco. Today, we have other academic high schools as good as Lowell, and a lot of our applicants who apply to our academic schools are students from the private schools who want to come back to the district. About 10 percent of the students in San Francisco do not attend the public school system; 63,000 students do attend the public system. We are seeing a slight return of private and parochial school students back to the public system. I can't believe it's all because of economics. It's because they are choosing to come back.
San Francisco has many options for parents. Every parent in our district receives a brochure that extensively describes every school in the district. We have theme schools; we have alternative schools; we have a school founded by parents and teachers that has no principal and is teacher-led. We have schools that focus on international studies, schools that have language themes. We have a Japanese bilingual-bicultural program, a Spanish-immersion program, a Chinese-immersion program. We have newcomer schools for students who are newly arrived immigrants. We have year-round schools. We have schools that start as early as 7:50 A.M.; those that start late at 9:30 A.M.
EW: Are you saying that the San Francisco school district doesn't need the California choice initiative?
MS. DAVIS: What is the purpose of opening up more choice? Public schools should be held accountable; we do have to stand that test of whether our students are achieving their maximum potential. In San Francisco, if parents don't get what they expect, they go someplace else--which is as it should be--but within the public school system.
I don't see students being captives of the system. I see students being able to come to this system and become fulfilled.
Children, regardless of ethnicity, language, cultural backgrounds, should have access to a public school system that allocates resources in an equitable way. I worked in the district before it was desegregated, and the resources were not allocated equitably. Profiles of schools where a desegregation suit has been filed reveal differences in how decisions are made regarding the tenure or the seniority of teachers, the amount of resources in that school, the upkeep of those buildings. These are the key issues that parents are going to look for and value when they go to look for a school for their child.
Unlike private schools, our schools are open to anyone and everyone. Public schools guarantee admission to all children. Public schools need to be held accountable, but they also need to grow and to be helped by all of the resources and the people in this nation.
EW: Five years ago, when Education Week published a special report on choice, it was entirely about public school choice and, even then, there were many concerns being raised. The idea of extending choice to private schools was simply beyond the discussion table a few years ago, and now it is not only an acceptable topic of conversation but also an issue gaining favor with legislators and the public. Why have attitudes on choice changed so quickly?
MR. HAWLEY: There are some larger social trends that are providing a kind of legitimacy to concerns and arguments driving the choice movement.
The first trend is a general loss of faith in government. Call it the Reagan revolution or whatever, but it is very clear that people are more cynical and more skeptical about the role of government. That general belief combines with a more specific belief about the declining quality of America's schools, the "rising tide of mediocrity.''
There's a sense of frustration that we've been at this business of school reform now for a decade, and it just doesn't work. We're not seeing the kind of dramatic changes we'd like, even though there have, in fact, been tremendous changes in the amount of money spent. That confirms in a way the notion that government can't make it happen.
There is also a sense among minority leaders that the schools are not meeting their expectations. There's a paradox here, because, in fact, the performance of minority children in American schools has risen faster than the performance of white children. But, at the same time--and appropriately--the expectations of black leaders have risen. So there is, again, this gap in credibility.
That general trend matches up with another one: our longstanding belief in the superiority of the private sector. It's kind of the other side of the government-can't-do-it coin. Every American kid is taught that the market works so wonderfully, and that's why we're the greatest nation in the world.
It follows, then, that private schools are better--and that all we need to do is introduce market competition.
Still another trend that ties in is the increasing concern over the quality of life in America. People perceive a social disorganization and sense that things are out of control.
The family has changed in lots of different ways--some positive, some negative. Crime has become a factor in most of our lives. We see dramatic demographic changes. There is a realization that this generation will be the first in American history to earn less than its parents.
These trends unsettle us. They make us wonder: "How do I get control over my life? How can I protect my child? How can I maintain a rising standard of living?''
Those trends all fit together, all overlap.
EW: What, specifically, has changed in the political arena to bring about the shift in attitudes toward school choice?
MR. HAWLEY: One is the persistent advocacy of vouchers from the top. We've had vouchers on the agenda since at least the 1950's, but what we haven't had is a decadelong and institutionalized commitment to the idea, reflected in the office of the Presidency, in the Republican Party, and in conservative think tanks. It's interesting that some of the power of the Chubb and Moe book comes from the fact that it was published by a liberal think tank, the Brookings Institution. We find ourselves thinking: "Geez, if they've come around, we really must be there.''
Second is the abandonment of the words "vouchers'' and "tax credits.'' You haven't heard those terms very much. What we hear is choice, and who's against choice?
The way public school choice developed and how it functions and how private school choice has developed and would function are just very different, and the two forms of choice have very different consequences.
I don't think there can be a whole lot of debate about the problem with respect to the concerns that motivate people. The issue before us is whether choice makes sense as a solution to those problems.
EW: You obviously don't think it does.
MR. HAWLEY: No, not beyond the public system. Let me just quickly run down eight assumptions about choice--all of which are wrong, but each of which is important to the argument.
First, that the quality of public school has declined. False.
Second, that private schools outperform public schools. False.
Third, that private schools are more innovative. False.
Fourth, that the primary reason people choose private schools is evidence of the academic performance of the students in those schools. False.
The fifth assumption that is wrong is that there is a market for education and that the market for educational services or schooling would function very much like other good markets--markets for cars, for example, or breakfast cereals. Schools are not Wheaties.
The sixth assumption is that we would have a rush of entrepreneurial activity into this market. That hasn't happened where there's been excessive demand, and it isn't going to happen.
The seventh assumption is that the prices of private schools would not rise. In other words, this is an exception to the market. The point, of course, is that what will happen is that the price of good schools will rise well beyond the voucher provided unless we cap it.
And, finally, there is an assumption that, given the opportunity and appropriate resources, people of different social classes will be equally effective consumers. That's another myth that sustains all of this.
Jack Coons and, to some extent, Terry Moe worry about these problems. But, what we can see from the California experience and from lots of other experiences is that the momentum that these folks give to the idea and the safeguards they want to introduce are subsequently abandoned by the more ideological or self-interested advocates of choice. So there's a good probability we'll end up without those safeguards and, indeed, with a system that has the consequences I suggested.
All of this leads up to some considerable concern that the outcomes of the system will be much less than Jack Coons suggests and that the costs will be very great. And so, it seems to me, the better alternative is to begin to think about what, in fact, we can do to enhance the quality of the public school system. Public school choice is one of those ways, but only one.
EW: There is a growing effort to establish national standards and assessments. Is that inconsistent with the move toward increased diversity through choice? How are those two ideas going to be reconciled?
MR. MOE: I'm a great believer in diversity, and I think it's absolutely crucial that we, as a nation, respect the preferences of ordinary people and recognize that people are different and want different things. It is really not true, when it comes to the various disciplines like history or geography or even reading, that there's one way to do it.
There will be tremendous conflicts in any panels seeking to develop national standards, if those panels are representative. In coming up with standards, there will be tremendous resistance among all kinds of people at the local level, and so there really is an inconsistency between standards at the national level and true diversity that respects individual preferences at the local level.
On the other hand, it's quite possible to hold schools accountable, although what you really want to do is hold them accountable, as far as possible, from the bottom up and not from the top down. And you can use all kinds of testing devices, but those become informational devices for parents in making choices among schools.
EW: If parents vote with their feet, doesn't that insure accountability in a choice system?
MR. GUTHRIE: Well, on at least this dimension, Terry is just flat out wrong. It is possible to develop national standards, but it won't occur quickly.
A decade or two ago, one would never have given any credence to the notion that Republican and Democratic governors and a Republican President could have convened in a summit meeting and agreed on six national goals. That is so counter to the 200-year notion of local control.
Can we get agreement on what the standards ought to be? That is a
tough nut. But in areas such as mathematics, we are starting to get
that agreement. Now, admittedly, that's a less passionate field than
history or civics or maybe even literature, but it's a beginning. A
system of choice is not inconsistent with a movement toward national
standards. They could fit together very nicely.
EW: Would a choice system that includes private schools erode the base for funding of public education? Demographic studies show that there are fewer people with children in school and that could jeopardize funding for education. Won't the situation get worse if more and more parents pull children out of public schools?
MR. COONS: The political support for spending for education, in general, would be increased. The current relationship between those who have children in public schools and those who have children in private schools is often one of antagonism. That's a natural conflict. Parents of kids in private schools have to pay their taxes and then they have to pay their tuition. That means between 10 percent and 15 percent of parents in various states may not be supportive of public education.
If you construct, instead, a reform in which the self-interest of all parents is uniform and uniformly represented by spending for education, then you will have, in large measure, taken care of the problems of the diminishing importance of parents and the diminution of the number of kids that are in the system.
So, it's quite the opposite of what you suggested. If you like education, get more voters for it by enlisting their self-interest.
MS. DAVIS: You say, "Let's get more voters to support public education,'' but when you look at the fact that only a quarter of the nation is having children, then you're out there vying with the self-interests of the rest of the nation. Ideologically, a senior citizen might say, "Yes, we need to have an educated workforce to support the lifestyle I'm used to.'' But the reality is that, with the kinds of economic downturns we've had, people do look at their own immediate vested interest. And it doesn't happen to be around children.
We've seen a devaluation of children. The data from the organizations that are advocates for children tell dismal stories of the quality of children's lives, their health, their education. Just saying, "Let's vote for education'' is not going to be the way we wake up America to the realities of what we should be doing in order to improve education.
EW: Linda said earlier that it is wrong to say private schools are better than public schools in student achievement. Is she correct?
MR. HAWLEY: Let me answer that in two ways. One is in terms of what the data tell us. And, second, because that information doesn't seem to make sense, what's the theory that would explain the data?
In general, a large number of studies suggest that there is a private school advantage. It seems to be limited almost exclusively to Catholic schools, and it amounts to about 2 percentile points difference in scores.
There's no statistical way to control for a critical variable in explaining even that difference, which is that the private school parents are self-selected. For example, how do we control for the difference among black parents who choose to send their children to a Catholic school when they, themselves, are not Catholic and have to pay tuition, and black parents with similar social backgrounds who don't make that choice?
There's no way to statistically control that, but all of us would agree that the first group of parents probably has some pretty substantial commitment to education that is probably reflected in their children's performance in school.
Obviously, there are outstanding private schools and outstanding public schools. When you control for the backgrounds of kids, there's not much of a difference.
The only really good way to measure the quality of a school is by the value added; what does the school add to the achievement of the children who come into it, as opposed to what would have happened to them anyway? That's a very difficult thing to know. Not only do statisticians and researchers not know that, but it's not possible for parents to know that. So, they substitute social indicators, like religion, or values, or neighborhood.
Studies of magnet schools, for example, say the three most important variables in the selection of a magnet school are location, location, location.
The point is that the dynamics of preference--the marketplace, if you will--simply don't appear to operate in the way we would think that they would.
MR. GUTHRIE: Bill, what does Chris Whittle know that we don't know? His Edison Project plans to develop within another several years up to a thousand private schools that will charge tuition of about $5,000 and will admit disabled students and needy students, and yet somehow realize a return on investment.
MR. HAWLEY: I don't know, I really don't know.
MR. GUTHRIE: You're not going to invest, I assume.
MR. HAWLEY: No, I'm not going to invest. But let me point out that we already have an entrepreneur in the business. Educational Alternatives Inc. basically charges $5,000 per kid for running a school, and they have been in the business for five years and have yet to make a profit.
MR. COONS: It strikes me that it would be interesting to know how Catholic schools manage this "slight advantage'' in output, particularly with respect to disadvantaged children. How do they manage to provide an education at half the cost?
MR. GUTHRIE: They don't. Catholic schools are able to at least maintain their own and maybe even have a slight advantage in student achievement at generally a lower cost because a lot of the cost of operating Catholic schools does not show up on any accounting ledger. They have the ability to demand an awesome amount of contributed time on the part of parents that public schools cannot legally mandate. You either contribute that time, or your kid doesn't stay in that school.
Also, they engage in a lot of entrepreneurial efforts to raise money. They also--to some very, very minor degree now compared to what it used to be--have some contributed service from religious orders for which they don't pay the true cost. They run very large class sizes, compared to public schools. But the clincher in this is they are not required by law to take care of disabled students. That's the big one.
MR. HAWLEY: One of the things that almost never gets discussed about the difference between Catholic and other schools is that a lot of Catholic high schools are single-sex schools. And there is a significant reason to believe that single-sex schools outperform coeducational schools, especially for minority youngsters.
MR. COONS: What's the lesson from that?
MR. GUTHRIE: It's a hormonal theory of education.
MR. HAWLEY: Well, I mean, it's not a lesson I particularly like. I don't like that conclusion from the research, but I'm afraid that one conclusion is that we should eliminate coeducation. I happen to think that's not a sensible idea, but neither is choice.
EW: If private schools are included in a school choice program, won't they be subject to governmental regulation? And should that be a matter of concern?
MR. MOE: Yes. There should be a minimum of regulation for these schools. That's the whole point. What we want to do is free up the schools, give them as much autonomy as possible, put them in the hands of principals and teachers, and allow parents and students to choose among them.
One of the big problems with the public schools is that they're buried under regulations. They want to be freer to do their own thing, to have their informal, flexible, cooperative organizations that they find it very difficult to construct now.
EW: But if you reduce regulation, that raises the question: What about accountability and how can we hold schools accountable?
MR. MOE: The first principle is that we don't have to hold them accountable through an 11-volume education code handed down by the state. We can hold them accountable, in large measure, from below--as parents and students decide what kind of school they want, learn about the school, experience the school, and decide whether to stay there or to move to some other school. And schools that are not doing a good job will fail. Schools that are doing a good job will be rewarded and probably imitated. That is the best, most accurate form of accountability.
The worst form of accountability comes about when people think that they can give kids tests and hold the schools accountable on the basis of scores on those tests.
In Palo Alto, Calif., for example, we have kids who are off the charts. The average family educational level in Palo Alto is something beyond the master's degree. We're just a perverse sample of people, and we all live in this place. The kids there are in the 99th percentile. So everybody's saying, "God, we've got great schools here. Look at how our kids score.'' Well, I don't know if the schools in Palo Alto are great or not, because when kids take tests, the scores that they get are largely a function of their social-background characteristics, their family characteristics, and so on, and only partly a function of the school.
The question is: How much is the school contributing or detracting from a child's education? And that means you have to parcel out the effects of all these other things, so it's a pretty sophisticated, technical analysis. That kind of analysis is almost never done in politics. What everybody does is to stare at the scores. And if you start holding schools accountable and rewarding and punishing them on the basis of test scores, it's a real disaster. It distorts everything. Far and away, the most effective way to do it is to let people experience the schools and let them decide on their own which schools are doing a good job and which are doing a bad job.
MR. GUTHRIE: And on what basis do you believe they will reach their judgment?
MR. MOE: Experience and reputation.
MR. GUTHRIE: What does that mean?
MR. MOE: It means that kids actually go to schools, parents participate in the schools. They get to know the schools. They talk to other parents who are associated with other schools. If you go out into the private sector and want to choose a private school, it would take you about a day to find out what the reputations of all the different schools are. Those reputations are highly accurate. And they're based on personal experience.
MR. GUTHRIE: How do we know that?
MR. MOE: Because people are out there making decisions on the basis of those . . .
MR. GUTHRIE: But how do we know they're accurate?
MR. MOE: I think you can judge the accuracy, in part, by talking to people who are actually experiencing the schools.
MR. HAWLEY: Then, why don't private schools outperform public schools?
MR. COONS: They do, considering the money spent.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: Would a choice program affect different developmental stages differently? What would be the impact of a market-driven system on different age groups? We already have a choice system for 18-year-olds--higher education. Would choice affect a 6-year-old in the undifferentiated mass of 1st grade much more than it affects your hormonally affected 16-year-old?
MR. COONS: With little kids, particularly, you have to ask the question: Who decides? Some adult will decide to connect that child with some institution. It may be the parent, in the case of choice. In the case of public schools, somebody who has never met the child will apply a criterion, such as his or her address. Therefore, untouched by human hands, the child will reach the school without any intelligent choice whatsoever.
The principle of choice is that human beings called parents make better judgments than nobody.
MR. GUTHRIE: The question about developmental stages and the consequences of choice is difficult because some 18-year-olds make up their own minds or decide with their parents. But for young children, parents make these decisions.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: Exactly. So does a parent of a 6-year-old need fewer or more choices than the parent of a 14-year-old? That's my question. Should this system somehow be differentiated for elementary schools, versus junior high schools, versus high schools, versus higher education?
MR. GUTHRIE: Presumably, the younger the child is, the greater the return to the society for making the educational investment in the youngster. The older the child is, the greater the return to the individual and, presumably, less to society.
We could argue from that there should be fewer choices for the younger child in order for society to have its imprimatur.
MR. MOE: I would argue the opposite--not surprisingly.
Kids are very different, and what happens to them in their early years is going to shape them to a large extent.
For instance, in Palo Alto, we have a couple of alternative schools--one is a 60's-type, basically unstructured; the other is a highly structured, reading-writing-and-arithmetic type of school. The rest of the schools are sort of in between. In principle, parents can choose. Some kids are much better off, given their personalities and the way they are developing as youngsters, in an unstructured environment. Some would apparently be much better off in a highly structured environment. Parents know their own children better than anyone and are in the best position to make this kind of a decision.
It's really important for parents to make those decisions and to have lots of choices to make at that age so that their kids get the kind of training and the kind of environment that they need as individuals. The whole problem with this system is it treats everybody as basically the same. And people are incredibly different.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: It looks more and more like the most appropriate model here is the current medical system. You have a third-party payer. You have the people with the wherewithal who can buy themselves a good doctor or a good hospital, and everybody else gets Medicaid and/or an emergency room or whatever is left over. That is what we would replicate if we got a choice system that included private schools.
MR. COONS: The medical analogy is somewhat appropriate. I would drive it back a little further to the days of the poorhouse and the county hospital. That used to be the choice for the poor. They now get lousy medical care, but it's a lot better than it used to be and a lot more dignified, even though it's lousy. We ought to be able to do better than that.
But, medicine is, after all, a rather different kettle of fish from education. For one thing, most parents are ordinary people who don't know a lot of science. We don't have any experience with it. It is totally different making a decision about an appendectomy or a lobotomy than about a school.
Parents don't have to make a snap judgment about some complicated, technical medical problem when they are choosing a school. They have experience. They know the kid. They call in professional help to advise them. In the end, it's a kind of human encounter with which they can deal.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: The three unstated elements in this whole conversation are: one, the power of teachers' unions; two, the problems of school bureaucracies; and three, the impulse to get away from nasty kids. All of the choice proposals, to some extent, deal with the first two, but they say nothing about the third one. What do you do about the nasty kids who are still there and who are not going to be saved by choice? These kids, in fact, are not going to have the parental advocacy, and are, in a way, one of the reasons that choice has become a much hotter issue now than it was 20 years ago.
MR. COONS: We ought to have something in this for the nasty kids. What's in it for them? First, if you have a well-designed system, the parents of these children will at least have a chance, at last, to try to get in. Let's have a proxy for "nasty,'' say the lower 20 percent in income. That's a very crude approximation, isn't it? But I think that's what you had in mind. So, these nasty kids at least get a chance to start. If they are so bad, if they are so violent or whatever, they shouldn't stay in that school; there's no school that should be required to keep them, because they spoil it for the other 99 percent of the kids.
Father Flanagan said there's no such thing as a bad boy. Well, let's believe that. There's something good in this nasty kid. What will happen to him in a choice system? Somebody will provide him with a school that is designed to meet his problems as best one can. There will be a variety of people who will be creating schools in an effort to capture the vouchers for nasty kids. And if their legislature has any sense at all, it'll give big vouchers for those kids. There will be a lot of money driving the system, just as there is today for certain kinds of kids who have special needs.
MS. DAVIS: I don't believe there are nasty kids, and I defy anyone in this room to say they could look at a class of 4-year-olds or 5-year-olds and say who's going to be the criminal on death row or who's going to be the President of the United States. It's the experiential base from which those children are operating that makes them appear to others as people who aren't going to be socialized appropriately.
It is interesting that you define nasty kids as being poor kids. They might be black. They might be kids who don't speak English.
MR. COONS: That wasn't my definition.
MS. DAVIS: Twenty percent poor, then.
But look at the Head Start research that shows that the investment in those preschool children has paid off in lower pregnancy rates and lower criminal activity and lower dropout rates. We're talking about a human investment. Teaching is a personalized act, and we really need to focus on the children if we really are making decisions around what's good for children. I'm sitting with a bunch of political analysts, and your heads are in a different place than mine. But I think if we thought more about the children, we might make a lot more intelligent decisions and not even have to debate a choice system.
MR. MOE: You hear this analogy to the health sector, to medical insurance, a lot. It's important to point out that markets aren't equally useful in all aspects of social policy. They work well in some areas, and they don't work well in other areas, and there are reasons for that.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: That's a concession on your part, isn't it?
MR. MOE: No. I am not running around saying that markets are great for everything. I've never said that. And aside from maybe one or two people who shall remain nameless, nobody really does that. What you need to do is figure out what characteristics do or don't imply that markets will work well in a particular setting.
In the health sector, medical insurance represents certain difficulties for markets. Take pregnancy insurance, for instance. Let's just say that you had a company that was offering pregnancy insurance. Who would want to buy that insurance? It would disproportionately attract women who had the private information that they were going to get pregnant. And people who didn't expect to get pregnant wouldn't buy that kind of insurance. So the insurance company is faced with what economists would call adverse selection. They end up attracting precisely the people they don't want to attract--the people who are going to spend a lot of money on pregnancy. No matter what price they charge, they're always attracting people who expect to cost the insurance company more than that.
In that kind of a setting, in a medical setting, markets often break down, and that's why we end up talking about things like government insurance or group insurance where employers have to provide everybody with insurance, regardless of their needs. In fact, that socializes the risk for everyone in a much more efficient way. This is not a simple-minded thing about applying markets.
In education, let me just say a grossly unpopular thing. Schools are like Wheaties, or chocolate bars, in basic respects. When you say schools are not like chocolate bars, everybody goes, "Right, that's obvious.'' Well, it's not obvious. The fact of the matter is that people can directly experience schools. They get a direct benefit from schools. Their kids are educated. They get all kinds of private benefits from these schools. They want good schools, and when they go to these schools, they directly experience the teaching, the organization, and they come away from it knowing what they're getting, and they can talk to other people about the same things. They can make educated judgments about the exchange. So there's a real basis for market exchange in education that doesn't exist in the same way, in any sense, in the health environment.
MR. GUTHRIE: Well, let me tell you why schools aren't like chocolate bars.
When you or I eat a chocolate bar, the gratification and the effect is virtually immediate. Schools have a lagged effect, some of the consequences of which are not immediately evident. And that's the reason I've tried to ask you before, on what basis will parents make a judgment about schools in the absence of test data or something like that. The fear that critics of vouchers have is that the parents will make a judgment based on the social class of students. Fundamentally, many potential clients want to avoid the so-called nasty children. That's what critics suspect this is all about. Some voucher opponents fear that a widespread choice plan without any other criteria imposed on it will lead to massive social resegregation.
MR. MOE: The schools are already segregated.
MR. GUTHRIE: Well, not completely--not as massively as they could be.
MR. MOE: It is an easy matter to design a system by saying, among other things, that the schools are going to get anybody they want but they have to reserve 20 percent of their slots for poor kids.
MR. GUTHRIE: The initiative in California, the EXCEL initiative, does not address this problem. It could lead to a far greater resegregation than we have now.
The current segregation to which you refer is suburban and urban, and, to some degree, religious. But, currently, you do not find a lot of segregation in schools by ideology, by raw ideology, and that could happen.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: Ms. Davis, you indicated that you occupy a different place than anyone else on the panel, and it's clear you do, but I want to hear you on choice. Are you suggesting that what you've achieved in the San Francisco school district makes you really unconcerned about choice because the California proposal would have no effect on you at all? You already have, essentially, what they offer? And if that's not the case, if you do have a concern about choice, I wish you'd explain what it is.
MS. DAVIS: I speak from my experience in San Francisco because I think it does epitomize a district that does have a variety of choices. However, we're a desegregated district. We're under a consent decree--a court order--which is going to mean, in essence, that the choice-voucher initiative is not going to impact San Francisco, because we are not going to be under any kind of jurisdiction to allow students to leave San Francisco to go to another school district. If students are going to leave our schools to go to private schools, that's a different matter.
The choices I've described, though, where 36 percent of our students are actually using the optional-enrollment process shows that we already have parents who are exercising their right to change, to go to different schools of their choice.
Other districts--Los Angeles, Stockton, Sacramento--are really saying, "If you're going to take energy and resources, put it where it counts; use it to upgrade the public schools,'' instead of looking at another way of letting people vote with their pocketbooks and flee. The people who are going to leave are those who do not want their kids sitting next to students who look different than themselves.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: What kind of choice do the children of crack-addicted parents have? What will prevent the kind of manipulation we have had in the trade schools, where some found they could operate schools and collect money from the government and not provide proper care, proper education? Mr. Moe has described a perfectly splendid middle-class system of choice, where parents can make informed choices. What kind of protection do you give the children who come from broken homes, who have addicted parents, who have suffered the abuses society cannot yet protect them from?
We have laws, for example, to prevent people from sexually abusing children. They're not working out very well. And there are homes in which the idea of the parents' being able to make a proper choice of school is unreal.
How do you prevent schools that indoctrinate? Or should they be permitted to do so? As you know, one of the criticisms of the initiative in California is that it would not prevent the Ku Klux Klan--or the American Nazi party--from establishing schools that would receive government support.
MR. MOE: In the matter of trade schools, I think there is a fundamental difference. The K-12 schools are operating under an intense public spotlight all the time. Trade schools, basically, were not. People will insist on knowing what's going on in schools all the time.
Additionally, schools should be required to get their finances audited once a year by an independent auditor. The government should be allowed to require certain kinds of information on staff, on programs, and so on, and that information should be made available to all citizens. This has to be a system of open information that functions in the public spotlight, making it very different from the trade-school situation.
In the proposal that John Chubb and I outlined, we specify that in every district, there should be a choice office that provides every parent with information about every school. They have one of those in Cambridge, Mass., in the form of a parent-information center. They have staff liaisons there who meet personally with every single parent. The California initiative doesn't allow for something like that. I wish it did.
On the positive side, if you think that poor people or minorities can't make decisions for their own kids, talk to Polly Williams in Milwaukee. She was the leader of a movement there to set up a voucher plan for black kids who wanted out of the public schools. The first thing she'll tell you is: We care about education here. We can make decisions for our kids, and we resent it when people in the bureaucracy and public officials tell us we can't make decisions like anybody else can.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: I didn't say poor people. I suggested parents who do not meet their minimal responsibilities to their children, which is quite different from what you responded to.
MR. MOE: That is a fairly small percentage of the people. There should be some office that would make sure that all kids get placed in schools that are compatible with their interests so that if there is no parent or guardian that can perform their function, someone must. That's important.
EW: Who decides, though, what school can participate in a voucher program?
MR. MOE: It depends on how the system is set up. Under the system we proposed, there would be a chartering mechanism with criteria that have to be met--graduation requirements, health and safety requirements, and so on. Schools would have to meet those criteria in the judgment of a board or a commission that would determine eligibility. Other plans have other ways of doing this.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: It's been my observation that most parents who want to opt out of the public system are looking for a choice of educational philosophy. Don't national standards in subjects like social studies and humanities mitigate choice in terms of educational philosophy? And, to Ms. Davis, if I were a Black Muslim or an Orthodox Jew wanting a different educational philosophy, which of the San Francisco schools would I choose?
MS. DAVIS: First of all, you would not get indoctrinated or have that opportunity to learn about Muslimism or the Orthodox Jewish religion in the public school. You would look for one of those religious schools, instead. I don't advocate that we should be teaching about religion. We all value the separation of church and state. Public schools are not about teaching those kinds of philosophies or practices.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: So, I guess, by default, the religion in public schools is secular humanism. That's the critique I hear all the time from those who aren't satisfied with that system. Therefore, you're not really neutral.
MR. COONS: I think you're probably wrong. The curriculum in the public schools is pure vanilla. There's nothing there. Once you've passed it through the censorship system that is manned and womanned by feminists, Christians, Jews, blacks, whites, unions, businessmen, and the rest of them, there isn't a whole lot left that you can say about anybody anymore. As a consequence, all of the interesting ideology gets flushed out. There are no sharp-edged ideas in the curriculum. To his credit, [Superintendent] Bill Honig has tried to reintroduce some, but it's always an uphill struggle because our curriculum is made in Sacramento by a lobbying system of committees. And so, are you indoctrinated? Well, yes. No education can be provided without indoctrination.
MR. GUTHRIE: I don't think national goals conflict with the prospect of offering different philosophical alternatives. No one who is an advocate of national goals or national educational standards contends that that ought to fill the entire agenda for a school. These national purposes to be met are seen as something of a core around which a state, a locality, a school, a headmaster, a headmistress, or teachers could add more. Second, the goals and standards address what ought to be achieved, not necessarily how it should be taught--not the textbooks, the readings, or the instructional methods involved. There is a place for national standards, national goals, and different philosophic outlooks and structural approaches.
MR. MOE: When it comes to these sorts of things, I'm just not clear what the point of national standards is. Is the point to let us know as a nation how well we're doing? If so, it's sort of informational for all of us.
Or is the point to somehow hold schools accountable for teaching students what they ought to know? Because when it comes to what students ought to know, clearly there is tremendous disagreement in this country about that. How are you supposed to teach science? What do you do about something like evolution? How do you teach history? Who's supposed to figure into history and who isn't? On all of those things, people don't agree. The whole idea of national standards is absolutely unclear. And what you do with them and what their effect on the schools ought to be is also unclear.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: I worry terribly that choice is being seen as a panacea for problems of school improvement and that we're tired of tinkering with reform. I could imagine choice being written about in a history of reform saying that we tried it, and it didn't work. Do you agree?
MR. COONS: Well, we have tried it, and it does work.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: The districts where choice has succeeded have involved maverick people who have done lots of other things. Many other things have to come into play with choice, and I don't hear that being discussed. I'm afraid that we're talking about an empty term.
MR. COONS: No, I don't think that's right. People have been making choices when they could for their own children throughout history. The history of this country did not start with the public schools, nor have the public schools been the exclusive experience of our people. The question to ask is: What about those people who, at great sacrifice and great expense for their family, had historically chosen to move to another district or to go to private education? They have made choices. They have used their own self-generated vouchers, if you will. They are a natural experiment. What has become of them? Do they become criminals? Do they become uneducated boobs? Has our history been marked, essentially, by private school failure, or how would you rate it? There it is. See for yourself what you think of it. But, it's choice, and it's a choice without government money. If we can provide that same experience to ordinary people and low-income people, it seems to me we have a model to judge.
MR. MOE: What you hear a lot among educators is the statement that choice is not a panacea. And what they really mean by that is that those of us who really know about schools know that there are hundreds of variables that affect school effectiveness. And if we want schools to be better, then we have to tinker with hundreds of these things. So we want to talk about decentralization, and we want to talk about school leadership, and we want to train administrators, and we want to talk about teacher credentials, and I could go on and on about all these different reforms that we should be looking into.
Consider Eastern Europe. There were all these people over there working in an incredibly inefficient system. You can imagine somebody going over there and saying, "You know what you people need here? You need more training for your managers in these firms. You need workers who are better educated. You need more modern accounting methods. You need more modern plants and facilities.''
Well, they could do all those things, and as long as they kept that system that put all those things together in an incredibly unproductive and inefficient way, they still would have been inefficient. And that's because the fundamental problem was a system problem. What they really needed to do was to scrap the system and introduce markets and private property within a governmental framework. With those fundamental changes, all kinds of other changes follow. They would get new forms of leadership, new kinds of administration, new accounting methods, new kinds of investment, new kinds of plants and facilities, and so on. All of those things flow once you make the fundamental change.
It's really a mistake to focus on the trees instead of the forest. In education, I am willing to say--mainly for shock value--that choice is a panacea. It's a panacea in the sense that if we really adopt a thorough going choice system, all kinds of other changes will follow--many of them precisely the kinds of changes that reformers are trying to undertake piecemeal in a system that's basically incompatible with the kinds of results we want to see.
MR. HAWLEY: Take a look at the system we have now and then ask yourself what would change if we put tuition vouchers into the picture. Would it alter anything?
A voucher system will, in fact, magnify the consequences that we have in the current system of private schools. There's nothing about the voucher system that would cause you to believe anything different than that.
American schools would become increasingly homogeneous along at least four dimensions: religious belief, social class, race/ethnicity, and political viewpoint.
If you think that's good for the country, you should support vouchers. If you don't think it's good for the country, then oppose vouchers. How can we believe that the dynamics of the market, given what we know about education, will introduce radical innovations in American schools?
What will happen with the introduction of vouchers is that we will, in fact, pull some of the most articulate, aggressive people out of the public system, reducing their impact on the quality of the public system. But we will not change the nature of the private system because these people will be co-opted to that system.
All you have to do is look at what goes on in private schools to see whether there are parent groups arguing for change--"We want this new curriculum,'' "We want this new instructional strategy,'' "Aren't you guys paying attention to the research on retention?'' It doesn't happen.
MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: What do you base that on? What makes you think people are going to stop being agents for change or advocates for improvement in the schools just because they have to justify the choice they've made for their own children?
MR. HAWLEY: When the selection is based on criteria other than sound evidence of educational quality, which it is in choice, two things happen: One, you find yourself in the midst of a community of like-minded persons who have pretty much the same kind of views you have, and, two, that environment lessens the pressure for innovation or change. What we know about change--especially in public-sector environments--is that you have to have some conflict about what the goals are. And you argue about that, you discuss different means, and it's through that dynamic that you bring about change.
As we privatize the system so that one can protect one's own environment and feel happy with it, you have to believe that you made the right choice for your kids. Because if you didn't or don't believe you did, you're an irresponsible parent to leave them there. So there's a need to believe in what you've done. Your world is fine. What's in it for you to advocate on behalf of others? What's in it for you to become an active participant in the political process?
MR. GUTHRIE: We do find some of this today with child care. When parents of preschool children are polled regarding the quality of child care, they complain about it intensely. Child care is not good. But their child care is fine. It's very difficult to admit that somehow you've made a bad choice for your child's child care. I think that's some of the dynamic to which Bill is referring.
MR. MOE: This is the oddest discussion I've ever heard. I mean, the fact is, people choose schools that they like, and so when you ask them whether they like their school, they say, "Yeah. That's why I chose it.'' That's not mind-boggling; that's what you would expect. Also, I don't know what studies you're looking at, but it seems to me if you look at the research, parents in private schools participate much more actively than parents in public schools. For example, take parents in public schools that adopted a choice system, like in New York City's East Harlem district. In East Harlem in the 1970's, you had all these minority parents. They're poor. They're alienated. They're apathetic. And everybody says, "Well, what do you expect?''
Then they adopt this choice system, and before you know it, they've got the Jose Feliciano School for the Performing Arts and they have a maritime academy and a science and math school and a whole array of specialized schools, and they're all choosing their own schools. Well, these parents aren't alienated and apathetic anymore. They're involved. They think of those schools as their own schools. Suddenly, they're active. They're participating. Why is that? It's because they chose their schools. They have a sense of ownership. They like their schools. Their kids like the schools. Everything is different.
MS. DAVIS: You gave us an excellent example of what can happen in a public school system.
MR. MOE: Right. I think choice brings it about.
MS. DAVIS: Thank you.
Vol. 12, Issue 15