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School Choice & Charters Commentary

The ‘Common School’ Fallacy

By Gary W. Ritter & Christopher J. Lucas — October 23, 2002 7 min read

Almost half a century has passed since the economist Milton Friedman first proposed offering taxpayer-financed tuition vouchers to parents dissatisfied with local public schools. Ever since, proponents of school choice programs have argued for a “free market” approach to institutionalized education, one that would open up affordable private-sector options and thereby effectively spell an end to the near-monopoly now exercised by public schools.

Two red herrings put forth by critics of choice hinge on the romantic notion of the ‘commonality’ of the American common school.

Choice advocates anticipate that under the prodding of competition akin to that prevailing in business and industry, failing schools would be forced to undergo meaningful revitalization if they hoped to continue attracting students. Meanwhile, parents would be financially empowered to decide what type of schools, public or private, they wanted their children to attend. The latter, of course, under free choice presumably would benefit from enhanced accessibility.

Critics, however, allege that school choice plans would further weaken and impoverish public education. If widely adopted, opponents fear, vouchers would undermine the political will necessary to fix the ailments currently afflicting public education in this country, especially in decaying urban school systems. School choice allegedly would serve to exacerbate racial inequality, further reinforce segregation and other societal divisions, and ultimately contribute to the demise of the democratic, secular, common school ideal.

Debate over school choice has heated up considerably in the last few months, prompted in part by inconsistent rulings from the courts on the constitutionality of experimental programs in Cleveland and Florida. Neither supporters nor skeptics have lacked for rhetorical fervor. Yet hard evidence for or against various private-school-voucher plans has been skimpy at best. Last year’s RAND study, “Rhetoric vs. Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools,” for instance, sounded a decidedly cautionary note. Although its authors endorsed school choice initiatives as experiments worth continuing, they concluded there is insufficient hard evidence as yet to allow any conclusive judgments about their merits. Neither the advantages touted by supporters of school choice nor the worst fears of opponents appear warranted so far by the limited data in hand.

Although irrefutable evidence to help policymakers embrace or reject school choice may be lacking, we believe there are several suspect arguments clouding public debate. Two such red herrings put forth by critics of choice hinge on the romantic notion of the “commonality” of the American common school. The first amounts to the claim that vouchers would have a deleterious effect because they would serve to increase attendance at private schools, which tend to be segregated by race and social class. The second is that school choice would weaken efforts to sustain other, equally important egalitarian and democratic ideals associated with common public schooling.

Paucity of data notwithstanding, some tentative findings on racial integration in schools—or the lack thereof—seem pertinent. In 1998, Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, in New York City, released a study indicating that students in private schools are less likely to attend racially segregated classrooms than their public school peers. Using data from the 1992 National Educational Longitudinal Study, Mr. Greene found that 37 percent of private school students attended integrated classrooms, compared with only 18 percent of students in public schools. He concluded overall that students in private schools were less likely to attend racially segregated classrooms than were those attending public schools.

Researchers from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, however, recently drew precisely the opposite conclusion. Using data collected from the 1997-98 school year, they found black-white segregation was more prevalent in private schools than in their public counterparts.

Our own research, drawing from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study- Kindergarten (Georgetown Public Policy Review, Spring 2002), examined 1998 data on 17,000 students enrolled in 866 kindergarten programs nationwide. Our findings fell somewhere in the middle. We found that kindergartners across the country were more likely to attend school in racially segregated classrooms in private schools than in public schools. But the difference was not large: Private and public schools alike tend to be racially segregated. We found, for example, that most kindergarten students, whether situated in private or public schools, are assigned to classrooms in which nearly everyone else (85 percent or more) looks like they do.

Our analysis provides data on the relative levels of racial integration in existing public and private schools. It does not necessarily furnish corroborating evidence for the claim that school choice would exacerbate racial segregation. Nor, of course, does it imply that the effect of school choice programs would be to advance integration.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that our public schools are truly common schools.

Simply put, what our study does is offer an accurate picture of the current racial composition of very young students in public and private schools. School choice critics are correct in arguing that private schools are segregated by race. But this particular claim does not necessarily constitute a good criticism of school choice plans—because public schools are similarly segregated.

We are not suggesting that the possible impact of school choice on racial segregation in the United States should be ignored. Far from it. But the allegation that increased enrollments in private schools will inevitably obstruct the progress of racial integration and therefore fatally compromise the melting pot of public common schools needs to be viewed with some skepticism. More broadly, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that our public schools are truly common schools in which the offspring of CEOs sit next to those of line workers, where the children of the rich freely associate with the children of the poor. This is a romantic, idealized myth. In fact, our “common” schools are not very common at all. For the most part, public schools are neighborhood schools. And rightly or wrongly, neighborhoods tend to be differentiated by race, ethnicity, and household income.

The second dubious argument runs as follows: Only the more involved, active parents—those motivated and skillful enough to work the system—would take advantage of school choice programs. The rest might not even bother. Those children left behind in underperforming public schools would inevitably be disadvantaged in the absence of the academic and social stimulation otherwise afforded by those who left.

It is undemocratic, critics avow, to “abandon” the public schools and the children still in them. Our impression is that some such sentiment seems to be advanced most volubly by well-to-do urbanites who send their own children elsewhere at the first opportunity. And protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, parents of children in suburban public schools in effect have already “abandoned” deficient public schools by voting with their feet—by purchasing homes in more affluent areas where better schools are thought to flourish.

It is hardly persuasive to argue that democracy is better served by limiting the educational choice of those most in need of options.

Hence, it seems disingenuous for suburbanites who patronize well-financed public schools (or who opt for private alternatives when they can afford them) to urge that disadvantaged parents continue to keep their children in dilapidated public schools, all in the name of democratic egalitarianism. There is something perverse about demanding that poor parents assume a disproportionate share of the responsibility for safeguarding the democratic character of public schooling while the more affluent are under no such obligation.

Still less is it persuasive to argue that democracy is better served by limiting the educational choice of those most in need of options. As Jonathan Rauch observes in the October 2002 Atlantic Monthly, it is callous and wrong for affluent, predominantly white, choice critics to continue to tell inner-city parents: “Urban schools must be fixed! Meanwhile, we’re outta here. Good luck.”

In the final analysis, school choice represents a bold and fundamental social initiative. Whether it will achieve some of the salutary aims imagined for it by advocates or ultimately threaten the cause of public education remains to be seen. But even as current debate continues, in the short term it may not be productive to worry so much about whether our public schools will lose students and dollars to private competitors under school choice plans. In the long run, it may be more helpful to focus attention on helping our public schools become as common, democratic, and effective as we can make them.

Gary W. Ritter is an assistant professor in education and public policy at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, Ark., where Christopher J. Lucas is a professor in educational foundations. Both are faculty members in the university’s office of research, measurement, and evaluation.

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