Private School Vouchers

.. n open forum of values, not all values are equal. A few are central: respect for minority opinions, freedom of expression, and allegiance to reason over unreason. On the other hand, education for economic interest views education as a dependent variable. In this view, education’s success is judged by whether it satisfies marketplace needs thus, the marketplace determines the nature of schooling.

Economic interests are narrowly personalized with little commitment to the collective or broad public good. The question, Does education work? is answered only in terms of personal, family or corporate economic success. This tension, between an America where individuals are perceived as creating the good economic life for themselves and an America where citizens possess the right and duty of self governance, not as individuals, but as a community, is at the heart of the debate about private school choice. At its core, the debate is about the extent to which knowledge or access to knowledge is privileged. The effects of privilege are most apparent in the disparities of resources available to wealthy and poor school districts which Jonathan Kozol has documented in striking fashion in his book, “Savage Inequalities.” The issue is quite simple: Who in a democracy has the right to know what? The policy question which follows is, Will public resources be diverted from schools whose purpose is perpetuating the public good? The answer to this question has implications for the parents and children involved and for the nature of our collective future. The concept of the public good suggests that public education is neither exclusively public nor exclusively private. Democracy is not just an instrument for accomplishing some other policy objective.

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It is a way of living together in a pluralistic and difficult world. Private School Choice: The Marketplace Metaphor Private school choice has been offered as a marketplace solution to the perceived crisis in education. Advocates of a marketplace solution point to efficiency and quality as a consequence of a competitive market structure. The simple analogy between choosing a school and shopping at the mall for a pair of tennis shoes has great appeal to some. Yet, in purely economic terms, the market and the exercise of choice within that market, is fraught with uncertainty.

Consequently, a laissez faire setting does not assure quality, but, rather, demands consumer vigilance. The alternative, consumer protection through the imposition of standards by some regulatory agency, has been a consequence of consumers facing unacceptable levels of risk. Advocates of private school choice are eager to escape minimal educational standards however, by embracing a marketplace of educational providers they also give up the assurance of quality. Private school choice carries no inherent focus, value, purpose, or quality it is merely a policy tool which can be used to address some perceived educational problem. The historical record of school choice reveals its instrumental nature and that history suggests that choice produces results acceptable in a democratic society only when sustained by authoritative government action and careful supervision. How has choice been used in the past? Following the elimination of a dual education system by the Supreme Court in 1954, a number of states created alternative private school systems subsidized by public funds, as mechanisms to avoid racial integration. In some states, tuition vouchers were used to help defray the costs of nonsectarian private schools.

The federal courts ultimately ruled that no freedom-of-choice plan would relieve local school authorities of the responsibility to desegregate public schools. During the 1970s, magnet schools, as manifestations of choice, were used to facilitate integration. Through the intervention of the federal courts, magnet schools within the public school system became a way to minimize forced busing and yet integrate the public schools. By 1981-82, there were over a thousand magnet schools in the United States. In some communities, where segregated schools continued, magnet schools were used to improve the quality of education available to minority children.

New York’s District No. 4 had created 23 choice programs by 1985. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a controlled choice program ended the drift toward segregation and narrowed the achievement gap between minority and white students. In Milwaukee, private school choice appeared not to improve the student achievement gap, although it did produce higher levels of parental satisfaction. The case for market-based school choice rests on two claims: that there is evidence that choice works and that there is an explanation for why it works. Evidence for the argument that choice works is more mixed and uncertain than advocates have claimed.

Although the debate continues, the issue of whether choice works may not be as important as why it appears to work in some instances in some communities. The marketplace perspective holds that private school choice (including magnet schools) “works” because it represents an alternative to government intervention, control, and authority. Successful examples of choice are more appropriately understood as having been the product of strong and authoritative government leadership such as in Cambridge and East Harlem where public school choice has been defined, controlled, and supported by the public. These successes demonstrate that government controls are required to produce the promised results. The marketplace cannot and will not secure the public good.

Conclusions Since 1983, with the publication of A Nation at Risk, it has been argued that the condition of public education has put this nation at economic risk. While there is plenty of evidence to support the claim of economic distress – declining profits, high levels of urban unemployment, declining levels of wages and fringe benefits, a growing international trade imbalance, a level standard of living – there is no evidence that public schools are responsible for the conditions of the American economy. Nevertheless, the solutions which have subsequently emerged have been oriented to the marketplace – youth apprenticeships, school-to-work, education for employment, tech prep, and private and public school choice. What has not emerged is a broad consensus among citizens that private school choice is an appropriate and acceptable alternative to public education. Although citizens support the concept of public school choice, they do not support the use of public funds to support private sectarian or nonsectarian school choice. Parents of public school students continue to be supportive of the teachers and schools their children attend (Elam, Rose and Gallup, 1994). This generalization erodes in urban communities facing growing economic stress.

The concerns of parents in urban areas are driven by the flight of large corporations from the city. The erosion of an economic base which is fundamental to the maintenance of healthy family and community structures has left the public schools as the most visible remaining community institutions in urban settings. Communities, families, and the schools that serve them simply cannot endure and thrive in a climate of economic abandonment. Private school choice is a diversion sponsored by those whose collective economic decisions have made life in our urban community a daily struggle for survival. References Chubb, John E. and Moe, Terry M. Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990. Elam, Stanley, M., Rose, Lowell C., and Gallup, Alec M.

“The 26th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.” Phi Delta Kappan (September 1994): 41-56. Henig, Jeffrey R. Rethinking School Choice: The Limits of the Market Metaphor. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1994. Kelly, Elizabeth A. Education, Democracy, and Public Knowledge.

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Press, 1991. Plank, David N. and Boyd, William Lowe.

“Antipolitics, Education, and Institutional Choice: The Flight From Democracy.” American Educational Research Journal (Summer 1994): 263-281. Witte, John. Third Year Report: Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Madison, WI: Robert La Follette Institute of Public Affairs, 1993.