School Choice & Charters Opinion

School Choice: Beyond the Numbers

By Joseph P. Viteritti — February 23, 2000 11 min read
Education is the only profession where the providers’ lack of confidence in their own product is used as a rationale for rejecting an alternative.

There are two distinct approaches to school choice. A market model, taken from economics, is based on the empirical proposition that introducing competition to education will improve the performance of school systems and their students. An equity model, derived from a concept of justice, is based on the normative proposition that all parents deserve an equal opportunity to select the schools their children attend. The two approaches are inextricably related, but often confused and misapplied in debates about the desirability of school choice. The validity of an empirical model is tested by the assembly of measurable data that reasonable people can agree are relevant. Normative models are assessed according to deep-seated values that parties to a discussion claim to share.

Behind the choice debate that has occupied policymakers so intensely for the past 10 years is the fantastic notion that some day a group of dispassionate experts will objectively reach a judgment to determine whether or how it is safe to translate the explosive idea into policy without incurring unwitting harm. Of all the issues up for discussion among educational researchers, none is so packed with emotion. Many of the underlying premises to the debate are plainly irrational. Choice opponents defend the status quo by arguing that if we provided parents with the means to remove their children from traditional public schools, an overwhelming number would. Education is the only profession where the providers’ lack of confidence in their own product is used as a rationale for rejecting an alternative.

Market purists, skeptical about the capability of the public sector to accomplish anything worthwhile, expect government officials to enact a revolutionary choice policy that is not only efficient but also just. Presently, there is little evidence that the market alone is capable of serving the needs of disadvantaged communities, whether the commodity in question is housing or groceries, recreation or health care. Equally absurd, however, is the assertion that we should not try choice until it can be proven to work, since it is impossible to demonstrate the viability of any idea that has not been given a chance.

The most controversial empirical debate that rages around choice programs concerns student performance.

Most people trace the market model to the writing of economist Milton Friedman, dating back to 1955. Troubled by the monopolistic nature of education in America, the Nobel laureate advocated a system of vouchers that parents could use at any school, public or private. His expectation was that competition would force low-performing schools to close, and provide the rest with an incentive to improve. Convinced that private schools would outperform public schools, he envisioned a system of education that was publicly financed and privately run, with a minimal governmental role in either operating or regulating institutions. Since the market had not yet been tested in education, Mr. Friedman’s model was purely theoretical; because the operation of the market had been uneven in other sectors, his message rang hollow to most who heard it. And if the culture of the public education profession was inhospitable to the concept of competition, it was downright hostile to the prospect of privatization.

The choice question was brought into the mainstream of policy circles in 1990, with the publication of John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. As the issue moved to center stage through the next decade, both the dialogue and the characters began to change, so that the script originally written by Milton Friedman was barely recognizable. Charter schools, which by the first of this year were instituted in 36 states and the District of Columbia, provided public school advocates with a way to enjoy the benefits of choice and experiment with competition without crossing over into the voucher camp. Voucher programs became a reality for 8,000 low-income students in Milwaukee and 4,000 in Cleveland, while Florida began to launch a statewide program for children who attend chronically failing public schools.

Unlike the universal voucher plan put forward by Milton Friedman, the current voucher programs are targeted at disadvantaged and underserved populations. They are advanced in the name of equity as well as efficiency. Like the many charter proposals that were enacted in state legislative bodies once resistant to change, these voucher plans were put forward by unusual political coalitions that included free-market champions, concerned business leaders, and representatives of minority communities who were fed up with the quality of local public schools, demonstrating that the constituency for choice had expanded beyond the Republican right. Polls today indicate that the most consistent and vocal supporters of school choice are black and Hispanic parents.

It seems that children who participate in choice programs are forced to incur certain “opportunity costs” in terms of educational expenditures.

The case for choice is no longer built on abstract economic models; and advocates are unwilling to wait for expert evidence decreeing that it is all right to advance the cause. The demand erupts from an on-the-ground understanding by parents that there is no future for children consigned to failing schools, parents who reject the unjust arrangement that limits choice to families that have the economic means to either acquire a private school education or live in communities where public schools provide a decent education. Economically disadvantaged people, who historically have not been well served by either public education or the market, are not likely to be taken in by romanticized notions of one or the other. But they understand that both public schools and the market respond to clients who have the power to grant or withhold revenues needed for institutional survival. It is not the market that makes choice work for the poor, so much as giving poor people the resources to prod the market. When choice is properly designed, it is a form of redistributive public policy: providing public resources for disadvantaged people to purchase private (or public) goods (or services) in accord with a larger public interest.

There is no reasonable response to the demand that all parents, regardless of economic status, should be allowed to select the schools their children attend—other than to argue that if poor people were granted choice, they would fail to exercise it in the best interests of their own children. It is an untenable position on many counts. History shows that those who have made such crucial decisions for poor children in the past usually have not done so to the children’s benefit; if a disproportionate number of poor children attend failing schools, it is not because their parents want them there. Anyone who has a child knows that there isn’t any person or institution that is more inclined to act in the best interest of the child than that child’s own parents. This natural sentiment is not compromised by economics, but the ability to act on it is.

In addition to the charter and voucher programs already mentioned, philanthropists have inaugurated privately supported, voucher-style scholarship programs that reach more than 100,000 students across the nation. This wide range of experience has been informative. The record shows that there is a strong demand for choice among poor and minority parents. This is demonstrated by the long waiting lists of applicants that accompany all choice programs—charters, vouchers, and private scholarships alike. Last year, when the Children’s Scholarship Fund announced a lottery for 40,000 partial-tuition scholarships, the foundation received 1.25 million applications from low-income parents. These parents were willing to forgo a free public education and absorb the balance of tuition payments for the opportunity to exercise choice.

When parents who have exercised choice are asked to identify the characteristics that attracted them to their children’s new schools, their responses usually focus on several factors: high academic standards, a safe, nurturing environment, opportunities for meaningful parental involvement, and, for those in parochial schools, the religious values within the curriculum. After their children attend such schools, they register higher levels of satisfaction on these same factors in comparison to their previous public schools. Contrary to what some would believe, poor parents are capable of making intelligent decisions in selecting schools for their children.

The most controversial empirical debate that rages around choice programs concerns student performance. If students who have opted into charter schools and voucher programs are not exhibiting higher levels of academic achievement, then, even conceding the best intentions among choice advocates and parents, what’s the point? At this juncture, there is no definitive evidence with regard to charter schools, although a major federal study is under way. Early studies of privately financed voucher programs in New York, San Antonio, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis are encouraging, but skeptics question their methodological rigor. The same can be said for the public voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, although the quality of the later evaluations is generally better.

Scholars have been fighting over whether private and parochial schools outperform public schools since the late James S. Coleman posed the question in 1983. I happen to agree with him that parochial schools do a better job mediating the effects of poverty among inner-city minority children. I find the recent spate of comparative studies on graduation rates in urban schools especially persuasive. But not everyone would agree. Nor will they ever, at least not in the educational lifetimes of those children whose parents are waiting for some authoritative body to declare that they should have the opportunity to exercise choice that most middle-class families take for granted.

The case for school choice is no longer built on abstract economic models.

In the end, choice constitutes good public policy because it is fair, not because its effects are measurable by academicians who would not dream of sharing the decision about where to send their own children to school.

For those empiricists who need reassurance, I would suggest for the sake of argument that we call it a draw. Let us assume that there is an equal proportion of high-quality schools in the public and private sectors. Acknowledging the overall shortage of good schools in poor urban communities, let us assume that the parent in search of an educational opportunity has the same probability of finding a desirable placement in both. Certainly there is no evidence to contradict that assumption; even skeptical scholars could accept such a randomized assertion. A well-crafted voucher program targeted for poor and underserved communities would simply expand the number of decent options for a population that wants and needs more options; and it would empower parents whose opportunity to act in the best interest of their own children has been impeded by financial hardship.

A final consideration brings us back to where we began: Would the competition engendered by choice provide an incentive for low-performing schools to improve? Unfortunately, that question cannot be fully addressed with the current assortment of charter and voucher programs because most have been designed to limit real competition. As a result of the legislative horse-trading imposed by choice opponents, most charter school laws set strict limits on the number of schools allowed, and on average, these new schools receive about 80 cents for every dollar allocated to regular public schools. The same is true for voucher programs. When the Milwaukee program began, a cap was set so that only 1 percent of the school population was allowed to participate. It is now at 15 percent. About 4,000 children participate in the Cleveland program, but the waiting list of applicants exceeds 17,000.

It seems that children who participate in choice programs are forced to incur certain “opportunity costs” in terms of educational expenditures. The further one moves from the traditional public school run by a local district, the higher the cost. For example, in Cleveland, per-capita public spending for children who attend regular public schools is $7,746; for charter school students, it is $4,518; and for students who use vouchers, it is $2,250. This is an unfair competitive arrangement. It is also inequitable. Considering that many of the children who participate in choice programs come from disadvantaged backgrounds, the practice turns the idea of compensatory education on its head.

Yes, theoretically the effect of market competition is measurable empirically, but no, we can not fully assess it under the existing plans. Of course, there are some skeptics who will continue to deny that competition, even unencumbered, with all the artificial constraints removed, will work to improve public education. I don’t share their cynicism. Even if they are wrong, but especially if they are right, the most compelling argument for choice remains a plea for fairness. We don’t need numbers to prove that.

Joseph P. Viteritti is a research professor of public administration in the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University in New York City, where he is the director of the Program on Education and Civil Society. He is the author of Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society (Brookings Institution Press, 1999).

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as School Choice: Beyond the Numbers


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