Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Choice: Panacea or Pandora's Box?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Choice: Panacea or Pandora's Box?

Article excerpt

Messrs. Smith and Meier take on the tasks of drawing hypotheses from the theory of school choice and of gathering data to test those hypotheses. For their conclusions, read on.

Taken at face value, school choice is a pretty simple idea. Take the control of education away from school boards and state legislatures and replace it with the freedom of the market. Schools will supply the educational "product," and parents and students will act as "customers," choosing the school that best fits their educational desires and needs.

Because tax dollars follow students, schools will have to attract students in order to survive, and they will be allowed the freedom to respond to the demands and needs of their customers in creative ways. Schools that offer the best education will prosper; those that do not will close. The end result will be innovative approaches to education and an overall improvement of the nation's schools, with no more bothersome mandates from state legislatures and no more stifling layers of bureaucracy. At least, that is the theory. But will it work?

Yes, say John Chubb and Terry Moe, two of the most persuasive backers of school choice. The market will respond to individual and localized needs in ways that the current public education monopoly cannot. From their perspective, whatever the educational ill, "choice is a panacea.'"

No, say such committed debunkers as Gerald Bracey. In his Fourth Bracey Report on the condition of education, he argues that interest in school choice is on the wane, and for good reason: the evidence says that choice does not live up to its claims.(2) Opponents of choice argue that, instead of promoting performance, a market-driven system of education will promote everything from racial and religious segregation to quickie diploma mills and souped-up day-care centers.

Other observers say that choice falls somewhere between a panacea and a Pandora's box. In a thoughtful analysis, Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist, argues that backers have underestimated the potential for harm in school choice - particularly with regard to segregation and to religion - but that choice may work in limited circumstances.(3)

Social science research has managed to muddy the waters of the debate with a string of contradictory reports. John Witte's reports on the choice experiment in Milwaukee, a closely watched program that pays for low-income children to attend private schools, suggest no evidence of improvement over the existing system.(4) Meanwhile, the choice reforms in New York City's East Harlem are touted as miraculously effective.(5) And the choice reforms in Richmond, California, are blamed for driving the local school district into bankruptcy for no apparent gain in performance.(6)

Adding to the confusion generated by these conflicting results is the delicate question of ideology. As Ernest Boyer has written, "There's an intensity, even a zealousness, in the debate on school choice that smothers thoughtful discourse. Political concerns seem more and more to outweigh educational objectives."(7) Indeed, the "correct" answer on choice all too often depends on the ideological prism through which it is viewed. Supporters and detractors can extrapolate the scant empirical evidence to fit their own agendas.

Does choice work? The current answer is yes. And no. And maybe.

There's Choice - And Then There's Choice

The failure of social science to provide an empirical resolution to this largely ideological debate stems from a number of factors. One is the lack of any real agreement on what school choice is. As Henig has pointed out, choice works well as a metaphor, but it is not a concrete policy option.(8) While many people are attracted to the abstract idea of "choice," this general agreement disappears in a welter of specifics. Should choice involve private and religious schools? Should it involve single-sex schools? Single-race schools? …

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