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School Choice & Charters Commentary

What’s So Good About Choice?

By Frank B. Murray — January 27, 1999 8 min read
Why should the public pay for private school attendance when they have already paid for public schools at about $7,000 per student?

Legislators and courts may be asked to pay private school tuition with tax dollars. There are several reasons to support “school choice,” as this plan is sometimes called. It is not exactly “choice” that is being proposed, because since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1925, Americans have clearly had the right to send their children to public or to private schools.

Choice now refers to subsidized choice for families who cannot afford to pay private school tuition or to live in the school district of their choice. All the same, why should the public pay for private school attendance when they have already paid for public schools at about $7,000 per student?

Here are 10 reasons to support choice–some good, some not so good:

1. The public schools are inadequate. Many states already accept this argument for cases where the needs of the pupil are beyond the capacity of any public school. Delaware, for example, pays six-figure school costs for a handful of Delaware children whose special needs cannot be met in Delaware. When it is clear that the child’s educational needs cannot be met by a public school, the child’s right to an education is still a public obligation.

When children chronically fail in school, the question naturally arises whether the school has the capacity and talent to meet the child’s educational needs. Should new accountability and educational-bankruptcy laws lead to the removal of a school’s accreditation or some other state intervention, some other school would need to be found. If a nearby private school had the capacity to meet the child’s needs, it would be difficult not to place students in such a school.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, incidentally, do not indicate that private schools are superior to public schools. If anything, they show that advantaged students do marginally better in public schools while disadvantaged students do better in private schools. The scores in both public and private schools, in any case, are low and trivially different from each other.

Public school teachers, even those with dual incomes, choose to send their own children to public schools more often than the general public, and three-quarters of private school teachers place their kids in public schools. Apparently, those who know the schools do not accept the natural superiority of private over public schools.

2. Adequate isn’t good enough; we want all children to excel. We should not permit children to merely “not fail,” or coast, in one school when we know they would thrive in another. The educational needs of children so outweigh any other value that the community must place the child in the best school available--public or private. Why would we just make do when we have other choices?

3. We need more diversity in education. America has a “laboratory of democracy” view of schooling. That the 50 states and 15,000 school districts have different goals, standards, and policies is thought to be our strength. The nation once had more than 100,000 school districts, and we need more, not less, experimentation in education. Since private schools are freer to experiment, we need devices like vouchers to encourage and support their innovation and experimentation.

4. Competition from private schools will shape up the public schools. In rural New England, towns too small or poor to have their own schools send their children to private academies or to a larger town’s public schools. These academies, or the public schools from the larger towns, despite the competition among them for students from the smaller towns, are not noticeably different from those schools which do not compete for students. In cities like New York, which run dual systems of high schools that compete for the same students, the regular high schools have not improved because of the need to meet the competition for students who elect to attend the specialty “charter” high schools.

5. It is time to have the private schools meet the state’s new standards. In this view, the survival of American culture requires a common school to fashion a common experience for all citizens. These private schools, each serving some private end and securing some exclusive benefit or privilege for its students, only tear the nation apart, making it harder for civic dialogue and national purpose. Funding private schools with public money will help bring these schools under the long-overdue regulatory authority of the state.

Why shouldn’t the pupils in these schools meet the same standards as public school students, take the same tests, suffer the same consequences, and so forth? The nation can no longer afford the luxury of these private schools, each with its own idiosyncratic view of what it means to be an American.

The popularity of school choice is based upon many beliefs, only one of which is that public and private schools differ in important ways.

Besides, why shouldn’t private school teachers be licensed? We don’t exclude drivers of private cars from the driver’s-license requirement. Why should we exempt private school teachers from the teaching-license requirement?

And private school teachers, with vouchers behind them, could make up their average $7,000 gap in salary with public school teachers. Why should they make so much less for their service to the nation?

6. It is time to break up the public monopoly of government schooling. People can choose more wisely than the state. If this view were extended to other aspects of government services, people would also have their shares of the park budget for their country clubs, their shares of the transportation budget for their cars, their shares of the police budget for their home-security systems, and so on. And, what’s more, the parks, buses, and police force would improve under the threat that a dissatisfied public might choose to spend their vouchers on private solutions for recreation, transportation, and personal safety.

7. This is a good way to cut costs and reduce taxes. There are several lines of reasoning here. Most private schools spend less per student than public schools, so money could be saved. But tuition vouchers are often smaller than the true costs, so even more money can be saved. The voucher, unlike the public school budget, which only grows, is sensitive to enrollment declines, so money is saved when enrollments go down--fewer kids, fewer vouchers.

On the other hand, if the 11 percent or so of the nation’s pupils who are now in private schools are funded publicly, costs will increase. Private schools, unless regulated, could be expected to raise their costs by the amount of the public voucher, as they already know their clients can afford the current tuition they charge. Still, the voucher provides civic watchdogs with a simple tool for monitoring school costs.

8. If public funding of private schools were done the right way, the public would take more interest in education. Generally, voucher schemes take the total amount of public dollars spent on the public schools, divide it by the number of students, and arrive at the value of the voucher (the current per-student cost of schooling). This approach overvalues the parents’ views of education and marginalizes the views of other citizens who have a stake in the value education confers on their community. To give the equation more balance, the amount of the voucher should be determined by dividing the school budget by the number of taxpayers. Each taxpayer, whether he or she has children in the school system or not, would send his voucher share to the school of his choice. These are, afterall, the public’s schools, not the parents’ schools.

9. Parents who choose their children’s schools are more satisfied with the schools. Researchers find that only about 20 percent of parents exercise “choice"--9 percent choosing from among public school options and 11 percent, private schools. Parents who choose public schools cite academic achievement, convenience, and special courses as their primary reasons, while private school choosers cite academic standards and religious or moral reasons. Choosers are more involved in, and more satisfied with, their schools, the teachers, the standards, and the policies than those who say they would have chosen the assigned school.

10. Vouchers will strengthen the public’s reliance on government. Currently, about 6 million children have parents who believe it is their responsibility to pay for their children’s education. These families stand in the way of total reliance on the government, and vouchers are a good device to seduce and convert them to government dependence. Just as Americans have been relieved of their responsibilities to save for their retirements, care for the elderly, and pay for their health care, educational self-reliance will evaporate as the voucher-takers stand shoulder to shoulder with others who lobby for increases for services they used to provide for themselves.

The popularity of school choice is based upon many beliefs, only one of which is that public and private schools differ in important ways. About 25 percent of American schools are private, with the great majority of them (79 percent) having religious affiliations or purposes, enrolling predominantly white students, and serving the elementary grades. There are minor differences between private and public schools in graduation requirements, and no academic differences of consequence between the top 10 percent in either category. Public school teachers are better educated, more experienced, and better paid, but private school teachers report greater influence over the curriculum.

Two variables could be expected to confer some advantage on private schools, neither of which has much to do with how these schools are funded and governed. These are: higher family income and smaller school and class size, both of which are associated with higher levels of academic achievement and with private schools.

Those who think the key ingredient in choice is the manner in which the schools are funded are likely to be disappointed in their choice. They may be even more disappointed when they discover the reasons their neighbors have for wanting vouchers.

Frank B. Murray is the H. Rodney Sharp professor and the former dean of education at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., and the director of the Center for Educational Leadership and Policy.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as What’s So Good About Choice?

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