Opinion
Budget & Finance Opinion

Unintended Consequences

By Thomas J. Lasley II & William L. Bainbridge — May 02, 2001 8 min read
According to some groups, capitalism produced a great America, and those same market forces can produce better readers and more competent teachers.

Our schools are at a critical juncture. Educational reformers are demanding change. Many in our educational institutions are arguing for working within the existing system. They claim that alternatives serve only to steal time and attention away from solving the real issues that face public schools. Others argue that systemic change is possible only if we redesign the entire system through, among other legislative changes, “strong” charter school initiatives. Regrettably, the debate over what to do is often driven more by ideology than facts.

Until now, the primary focus of the market-based effort has been America’s urban and rural poor school systems—systems historically fraught with the greatest variety of endemic problems—where community dissatisfaction with schooling outcomes is most prevalent. The challenge is greatest where parent education levels are low, nutrition is not adequate for critical brain development in early childhood, and resources for essential stimulation are in short supply. The lack of “kindergarten readiness” in urban and rural poor areas is not new, and neither is frustration that proposed answers are not universal solutions. While there are many heartwarming exceptions—one being the story of 3.9 GPA student and All-American football player Sirr Parker, documented in the new Showtime movie “They Call Me Sirr"—most children who live in extreme poverty carry their social and learning problems with them to school.

Pro-market libertarians and others applying a business-commerce paradigm to schools promote improved educational opportunity through enhanced competition. According to these groups, capitalism produced a great America, and those same market forces can produce better readers and more competent teachers. Economists who study education reinforce the point by suggesting that competition results in lower school spending and higher student achievement. Competition for students is supposed to be a byproduct of charter schools. If it is, then charter schools and expanded parental-choice programs are clearly the way to go.

What we know about whether any of these solutions work is what we don’t know.

Some proposals to improve schools, however well intended, are offered by people who suggest that an educational “slash and burn” policy may be the only way to improve America’s urban and rural poor schools. The solution, they say, is simple: Start over. Let every school operate according to the needs and values of a particular community.

This may seem tempting in a time of huge achievement gaps and increasingly negative perceptions of our current public education system. But what we know about whether any of these solutions work is what we don’t know. The unintended consequence of “growing” charter schools and encouraging choice may be that the resources available to urban and rural poor schools are diminished, and that the capacity of the system to educate young people from low-socioeconomic homes is compromised. Though an attractive option to some, radical slash-and-burn social policy can lead to the very problems of exclusionary education our current system was intended to eliminate.

True, choice can result in enhanced parent satisfaction. True, charters have the potential to offer significant new options for urban parents. True, early evidence from some redesigned schools suggests positive gains for some groups of students. But equally true is the fact that not all the evidence about the performance of America’s current schools is negative. For example, the Washington-based Center on Educational Policy reports that high school students are taking tougher mathematics and science courses and that student achievement in math and science is improving. SAT and ACT scores are up as well.

Competition for students is supposed to be a byproduct of charter schools. If it is, then charter schools and expanded parental-choice programs are clearly the way to go.

The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. By the end of 2000, 37 states had some form of charter school law. Michigan and Arizona have the “strongest” charter school laws and the most schools managed by for-profit firms. While last year showed a rapid expansion of charter school numbers nationally, with 521 new schools opening (44 percent over 1999), the real impact of these reform efforts on student learning is still very much in question. Over half the current charter schools serve only students in elementary grades, the average enrollment is less than half that of a typical public school, and most are sponsored by a public entity other than the local board of education. Meaningful, demographics-based assessment systems are in their infancy, or do not exist at all.

Given the uncertainty associated with market-based educational social policy, two perspectives should be embraced by legislators. First, legislative bodies should cap charter initiatives until clear evidence of the social and educational consequences is available and understood. Enhanced parent satisfaction, though significant, is not a sufficient condition for a major policy shift. The possibility of student academic growth is thus far only that: a possibility. More research is needed to determine whether students actually learn more effectively when their institutional options change.

In a study of New Zealand’s market-based experiment, the authors observe: “There is a big difference between a few charter schools operating on the fringe of a public school system and a whole system of self-governing schools functioning in a competitive environment. When there are just a few charter schools, the government can be assured that if a school does not meet the needs of a particular child, that child will have a guaranteed place in a traditional public school, over which the government has direct operational control. Such a guarantee would seem to be important in a system of compulsory education.”

The cautions based on the New Zealand experience should be just what the authors suggest: cautions. They should not prevent progress. Similarly, those advocating change should be cautioned by the realities emerging in other countries that are experimenting with educational options. Most important, state governmental leaders need to manage the rate of change, so that those most in need of help by the creation of improved schools are not those most hurt if the “experiment” fails. Expanding options without working to strengthen existing schools compromises the common good, because it potentially limits necessary government guarantees.

State governmental leaders need to manage the rate of change, so that those most in need of help by the creation of improved schools are not those most hurt if the “experiment” fails.

School systems in states such as Ohio now require an advocacy group that takes into account the needs of the most needy children and ensures educational stability for youngsters in need. President Bush’s strategy of focusing on low-performing schools is, from this vantage point, right on the mark. Specifically, those parents with children in the low-performing schools could exercise choice and find a more desirable alternative. The market enables them to move to the best provider.

Viewed another way, however, this market approach potentially fails. As low-performing schools are “redefined,” students could be in a situation where they move and move and move again. Those students in communities that have adequately invested in schools and teachers have no need to move—their schools are succeeding. Once again, the students most in need of stability are the ones potentially most adversely affected by the options.

The practical answer to the conundrum is not to eliminate choice options or charter schools. Rather, the solution might be to limit their growth while at the same time investing in urban education for the purpose of strengthening it. Limiting the growth of choice and charters offers the potential for stability; it also creates the reality of opportunity.

The real opportunity rests in trying to determine how best to serve those most in need. In countries like New Zealand, equity requires significant government expenditures to offset the overwhelming disadvantages faced by schools serving at-risk students. If we fail to find a similar balance, choice will not be enough. Exercising choice, though creating pockets of opportunity, will more likely continue to force those most in need to move restlessly from one provider to another. That outcome is not good for a person’s health care, and it is equally pernicious for education.

Limiting the growth of choice and charters offers the potential for stability; it also creates the reality of opportunity.

The answer is not to fight market-based remedies, but rather to create an educational policy that manages reform for schools with high percentages of children from disadvantaged homes. To ensure that the public’s interests are protected, such action is imperative.

In that regard, a second policy perspective should be considered for areas with concentrated poverty: Create strategic partnerships to ensure a more collaborative relationship between those with conflicting ideologies. This can best be assured by studying carefully the effects of change and investing in new models of cooperation between those arguing for choice and those representing the current system.


Thomas J. Lasley II is the dean of the school of education at the University of Dayton in Ohio. William L. Bainbridge is the president of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio-based education research, auditing, and consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Unintended Consequences

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