School Choice & Charters Opinion

School Choice Trade-Offs

By R. Kenneth Godwin & Frank R. Kemerer — May 15, 2002 9 min read
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As every school administrator knows, the operation of a school involves making trade-offs among competing educational goals. Time spent on teaching math cannot be spent on teaching history, resources devoted to gifted-and-talented programs are not available for remedial programs, and money spent on gymnasiums cannot be spent on books. Trade-offs like these are routine.

While legislatures and courts may adopt policies that encourage or even force integration, neighborhoods will not.

Other trade-offs, however, are more difficult because they involve conflicting core values. For example, should schools be balanced by race and class across the district to equalize capital and human resources and maximize the opportunity for social interaction? Or should students be assigned to their neighborhood schools? A neighborhood-attendance policy will almost always mean that schools will be racially and economically segregated. Data from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University show that the average white student attends a school that is more than 80 percent white, the average black student attends a school that is 55 percent black, and the average Latino student attends a school that is 53 percent Latino. The poverty rate tends to be high in schools with large concentrations of minority children. Poor children, often in poorly funded schools, lag far behind their peers in schools with average or above-average funding and below-average child-poverty rates.

While legislatures and courts may adopt policies that encourage or even force integration, neighborhoods will not. Wealthy and middle-class families are unlikely to support bringing low-income children of color into their schools. They are even less likely to support a system that would send their children to inner-city schools. Should a neighborhood-school-attendance policy or racial and income balancing take precedence? Most school officials find it best to avoid considering this trade-off.

More than any other educational reform, school choice forces educational policymakers to confront core values and clarify the trade-offs they make. Fundamentally, the concept of school choice conflicts with local control of schools. For many parents, controlling the education of their children is an important liberty right. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in the seminal 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, "[T]he child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” In that decision, the court unanimously ruled that parents have a constitutional right to educate their children in private schools.

But if parents choose the schools their children attend, democratic control of schooling is undermined. Liberal and communitarian philosophers like Amy Gutmann and Michael Walzer have argued that majoritarian control of neighborhood schools provides a wonderful opportunity for building democracy, a sense of community, and social capital. They assert that residents of a neighborhood should have considerable influence over the amount and content of educational programs. By coming together to make these important decisions, citizens build democratic skills and create social capital. But subjecting parents to the control of the majority undermines family control of schooling. Imagine being a Buddhist, Jew, or secular humanist in a community that overwhelmingly supports conservative Protestantism and seeks to inculcate values compatible with this perspective in its schools. Which goal takes priority? Majoritarian control or the right of parents to prevent their children from being forced to learn a government-endorsed image of the good life and the good person?

Issues of equality of opportunity clearly emerge in the development of school choice programs. Consider, for example, an open-enrollment policy that allows students to transfer to any public school in the district. The school board must decide whether to provide free transportation to all students who select an alternative to their neighborhood schools. Suppose it costs $2,000 per student to do so. There are many other valued objectives that the district could pursue with those funds. Not to provide transportation, however, means that the district gives greater educational options to families who can provide transportation than to families who cannot. Therefore, if the district chooses not to provide transportation beyond the neighborhood school, it violates the goal of equal educational opportunity. And the trade-off it makes becomes clear to all.

School choice forces educational policymakers to confront core values and clarify the trade-offs they make.

Another critical trade-off that policymakers must make when considering school choice programs is deciding whether every school should be culturally diverse or whether to encourage diversity among school types. Should a charter school be built around an Afrocentric curriculum? Is it permissible to set up a charter school that serves only deaf students or is restricted to students with birth defects? How about a single-sex school that stresses feminist ideals? Such education giants as John Dewey have argued that students must learn to interact with people from different cultures, and that this can occur only if a school’s student body is diverse. But is it more important to require a diversity of cultures and ideas within every school or to have a diverse set of schools from which parents can choose? The former provides society a better opportunity to socialize all its students to a common core of values, while the latter offers greater encouragement to a multicultural society.

If policymakers expand school choice to include private schools, then the trade- offs involve more elemental social values. If the state is neutral among all reasonable conceptions of the good life, then public funding would be available to schools that might not teach equality between males and females, as well as to schools which teach that a life based on unquestioned obedience to sacred texts is more valuable than a life based on the Enlightenment concepts of rationality and autonomy. Should publicly funded schools in a democratic society promote only schools that encourage ways of life that are rational, democratic, and equalitarian? For example, should the government demand that a young female in a fundamentalist Muslim community be taught autonomy and equality in school? Is teaching her these values more important than preserving her culture, where the proper roles of men and women are not equal and democracy is not valued? How policymakers answer this question tells us whether they believe that enhancing cultural diversity among students is more important than requiring all schools to emphasize individual autonomy.

Deciding how much regulation to place on schools of choice poses a dilemma for policymakers. Too much regulation undercuts the ability of such schools to be different and the opportunity of parents to choose among a wide variety of schools. Too little opens the way for financial and educational abuse. When private entities receive charters or participate in voucher programs, state constitutions generally require some accountability. But what kinds of accountability? After lower state courts ruled that the Michigan charter school program violated provisions of the state constitution, the legislature revised the law to make it clear that the schools (called academies) are under the control of the state board of education and subject to its regulations. Other new restrictions prohibited academies from levying taxes and required all teachers except college professors to be state-certified. In its 1997 decision upholding the constitutionality of the charter school law, the Michigan Supreme Court cited these changes with approval. Yet, by making the changes, the legislature to some extent undermined the very value of charter schools.

Teachers' unions and other public school advocacy groups seek to have choice schools accountable for most of the regulations that apply to public schools.

Teachers’ unions and other public school advocacy groups seek to have choice schools accountable for most of the regulations that apply to public schools. These include recognizing the constitutional rights of students and teachers, requiring teacher certification, guaranteeing due process, following the state curriculum, participating in state student assessments, teaching democratic norms and political tolerance, complying with open-meetings and -records acts, protecting collective bargaining, and being fiscally accountable. But regulations to achieve these objectives reduce the control that school administrators and teachers have over what to teach and how to teach it. Research on effective schools shows that principal and teacher independence improves educational outcomes. How should policymakers decide among these competing values?

If it is constitutional under both federal and state constitutions for the state to provide vouchers that can be used in a sectarian private school, can the state require the latter to accept students not of the school’s faith? The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program requires that schools admit students randomly, except for siblings of enrolled students, and to exempt students who are not of a school’s faith from religious activities. The Cleveland scholarship program prohibits participating schools from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion. By restricting student admissions in this way, the state fosters equality of opportunity, but at the expense of the availability of schools. Nearly 80 percent of American private schools are religiously affiliated, and many are not likely to participate in school choice programs that limit their discretion in student admissions and curricular requirements.

If we truly want democratic accountability, the trade-offs among valued educational objectives must become more explicit, and include the voices of all citizens.

When public officials design a school choice program, the trade-offs they make among liberty, equality, and diversity become clear. Research on educational policymaking shows that few citizens know what school boards decide or how they make their decisions. In particular, low- and middle-income families have almost no input into critical decisions. If we truly want democratic accountability, the trade-offs among valued educational objectives must become more explicit, and all citizens should have opportunities to make their voices heard. One of the greatest benefits of the school choice debate is forcing educational policymakers and those they serve to consider the core values that underlie the best schooling system for a democratic society, and making their preferences clear.

R. Kenneth Godwin is the Marshall Rausch distinguished professor of political science and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Frank R. Kemerer is the Regents professor of education law at the University of North Texas in Denton and a visiting professor of law and education at the University of San Diego. Their book School Choice Tradeoffs: Liberty, Equality, and Diversity was published last month by the University of Texas Press.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as School Choice Trade-Offs


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