A School of Choice

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A dozen years ago, school officials in San Antonio created a school-choice program aimed at improving schooling for Hispanic students. Toward that end, they opened twothematic middle school programs and invited students to apply. Combining language-education with cultural teaching, the two programs now have a solid academic reputation in the city and strong support from the parents whose children attend them.

But only students with strong academic records can enroll. And the youngsters tend to come from those families least in need of extra educational opportunity--relatively affluent families with college-educated parents.

Miles away, in Montgomery County, Md., school officials launched a popular magnet school program a few years earlier to help integrate schools more fully. But the schools that parents pick do little to advance that goal. Indeed, parents tend to ask for schools where the students' families make about the same amount of money as they do and where the students come from the same racial and ethnic backgrounds. That puts school administrators in the hard-to-defend position of having to deny the first choices of as many as one-fifth of program parents--just to keep schools racially balanced.

And in Milwaukee, low-income parents are enthusiastic about a voucher program that provides them with $2,927 in public funds that they can use to send their children to private, nonsectarian schools. But the schools these children choose are highly segregated. And, for the most part, students are making no more academic progress in their new schools than they did in their old ones.

These are a handful of the conclusions from a soon-to-be-released collection of papers on school choice. Taken together, the editors of the collection say, the nine evaluations raise some "red warning flags" about the growing number of school-choice programs in districts around the country.

"School-choice advocates place great faith in the market model, assuming that parents will be good shoppers and move their children into higher-quality, more responsive schools," says Bruce Fuller, the Harvard University assistant professor who co-directed the project. "But it's the slightly more advantaged, better-educated, and informed parents who are shopping.

"Choice advocates need to recognize that many students are left behind in low-quality schools," he adds. "Unregulated choice programs unfairly penalize children whose parents are not savvy educational consumers."

The papers, which grew out of a seminar held at Harvard two years ago, are not scheduled to be published by Teachers College Press until winter. But, in the politically volatile world of school choice, the findings are already sparking some harsh criticism.

Among the complaints: The collection omits other work that paints a brighter picture of choice. Critics also say the researchers ignore the reality that choice already exists for a privileged few.

"If government doesn't let poor and moderate-income families have choices, then only rich people have choices," says Joe Nathan, the director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for School Change in Minneapolis.

Widening the Rifts

Southern conservatives first advocated school choice as a means of thwarting court-ordered desegregation efforts in the 1960s. While studies onthe issue have been around almost as long, there have not been a lot of them.

"It struck us that there was a scarcity of evidence on who was actually participating in choice," says Harvard's Fuller. "So we wanted to assemble the best empirical work on the issue." His co-editors on the project were Richard F. Elmore and Gary Orfield, both of whom are also Harvard professors.

In truth, however, the nine papers present a more varied and complex side to school choice than either critic or champion might imagine. One study shows that students in the Milwaukee voucher program did not make great academic strides. But other findings suggest that students in San Antonio did. Another study suggests that private school students in developing countries have an academic edge over their public school counterparts--even when differences in students' backgrounds are accounted for.

"One of our major points is that the structure of these programs is highly variable, and the demographic conditions into which these programs are dropped are equally diverse," Fuller says. "You've got to look and see how the program interacts with the demographic and economic makeup of the community."

Nonetheless, the concern that school choice may deepen the existing rifts in American society is a strong thread running through several studies.

In San Antonio, for example, parents who sought out the multilingual program were more than twice as likely as parents who did not to have attended college. What's more, the students who actually enrolled in the program were more than twice as likely as either those who were turned down or those who did not apply to come from families with annual incomes of more than $35,000. And the mothers of the students enrolled tended to be more involved in their schooling, according to a study by Valerie J. Martinez-Ebers, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas.

Jeffrey Henig's study of Montgomery County revealed a different tendency. A few of the county's more distinctive magnet schools did attract both black and white students. But for the most part, white students from higher-income families tended to request transfers into mainly white schools in higher-income neighborhoods, while students from minority families were more likely to ask for mainly nonwhite schools in lower-income areas.

If school officials had not taken a strong hand in maintaining racial balance in the schools, the George Washington University researcher says, many of the county's schools would have become more segregated. "Choice may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, racial segregation," Henig says. "And the choice movement today, unfortunately, seems to be turning away from managed programs."

In Milwaukee, on the other hand, the voucher program did serve the families it was intended to serve--the poorest of the poor and the lowest-achieving students. Program planners had placed strict income limits on participation. But, even after four years, those students are doing no better academically than their public school counterparts.

"We've concluded that the differences are nil," says John F. Witte, the University of Wisconsin political-science professor who headed up that evaluation. Other researchers, however, have challenged Witte's findings.

Witte and his colleagues did find one key difference between the students who chose the private schools and those who stayed behind: Their mothers were more involved in their schooling.

Parents' Pull

Amy Stuart Wells, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, set her sights on a choice plan in St. Louis that allowed inner-city students to attend predominantly white suburban schools. In her study, she looked at three groups of urban students: students who chose to transfer to a suburban school, students who stayed behind, and those who initially took part in the program but later returned to their city schools.

Like the Milwaukee transfer students, the St. Louis students who chose suburban schools were prodded to go by their parents. Parents did not, however, spend a lot of time shopping for the best choice. They figured any suburban school--and they had 120 to choose from--could provide a better education than their children were getting.

"When you have a strong, domineering parent, then they'll often take choice," Wells says. "If it's left up to the kids, they're going to choose to be with their friends."

The students who later returned to their old schools did so for a variety of reasons. Some were "pushed out" because of discipline problems. Others complained of the added workload. Most students, however, said they had been made to feel uncomfortable in the predominantly white environments.

"A lot of very white and wealthy districts don't really want black and inner-city kids in their schools," Wells says. "And that's a reality that has a lot of implications for who chooses and the schools they attend."

Such findings, Fuller suggests, highlight the role that culture plays in the decisions that parents and children make about the schools they attend. "There's a real yearning among parents to pull back into their own cultural milieu," he says. "It's a failure of these big, urban, secular school systems that have really not recognized this ... desire to keep kids in safe, culturally familiarsurroundings."

The national data Fuller examined shows that Hispanic families tend not to enroll their children in formal preschool programs. Even among those Hispanic families with working mothers, only 32 percent did so, compared with nearly half of white and African-American families with employed mothers. In part, the lower numbers of preschoolers may be due to the tendency for Hispanic families to have more adults in the home who can pitch in with child care.

But in interviews over the course of two years with a handful of working Hispanic mothers, Fuller also found cultural perceptions at play. The mothers perceived home caretakers as more "cari¤osa"--or caring--than the formal programs. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the "American" teachers they encountered in preschools.

Other parents may not exercise their right to choose simply because they don't know they can. In the Montgomery County study, for example, more than a third of the families reported that they had never heard the term "magnet schools."

Still, many of the studies suggest that parents are not only aware of their choices but are happy to have them. Overwhelmingly, parents expressed satisfaction with the schools they had chosen--even in Milwaukee where students were making little academic progress on paper.

A Negative Spin?

The charge of the Harvard papers' editors seems clear: "We're not saying every choice program in the United States is going to yield unequal effects and increased stratification," Fuller says. "But it's incumbent upon designers to demonstrate how they're going to minimize theinequities."

And critics do not completely disagree.

"I think there is a component of any choice situation that could give rise to inequities," says Terry Moe, the Stanford University political-science professor whose 1990 book with John Chubb, called Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, intensified the school choice debate.

"But it's not something that should be attributed to choice per se," he adds. "It's a design problem."

"If you claim there are grounds for saying choice is a good thing to do, then it's worthwhile to look forways to deal with program flaws," adds Mary Anne Raywid, a Hofstra University education professor. "If you're claiming there's no evidence it's effective, then you don't have to deal with that."

She says the collection of Harvard papers failed to include studies of choice programs in Cambridge, Mass., Harlem's Community School District 4, and other places where students are making academic gains. In doing so, she adds, the editors took the easy way out and relieved themselves of the responsibility of having to offer solutions to the problems they found.

Martinez-Ebers, whose later studies found that San Antonio choice students did fare better in their new private schools, shares the same sentiment when it comes to the editors of the Harvard project: "They have an agenda and a preference, whether or not they're for or against vouchers."

For his part, Fuller says the project's aim is simply to broaden the debate over school choice.

Researchers on both sides promise that it won't be the last word on the subject.

Vol. 15, Issue 10

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories