Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Choice as Education Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Choice as Education Reform

Article excerpt

The evidence indicates, Mr. Goldhaber points out, that school choice is unlikely to be the panacea that many claim it to be, given that the arguments for choice rest on the unproven notion that private schools are far more efficient than public schools.

School choice is a policy whose time has come. This statement is not intended to endorse school choice, but rather to acknowledge political reality. A number of states either have some sort of voucher program in place or have considered instituting one.(1) However, public debate over school choice has been and continues to be contentious. The question of whether private schools ought to be included in a choice program is a particularly polarizing one.(2) Choice plans that include private schools usually take the form of a voucher issued to parents to be used to send their children to a public school of their choice or to defray at least some of the cost of tuition at a private school.

Advocates of such voucher plans argue that the public schools will improve only when they are forced to compete with "more efficient" private schools in the market for students. And that competition involves yielding more control over educational decisions to the consumers of education: children and parents. In essence, under a voucher plan parents will be able to "vote with their feet" by sending their children to the school they find most suitable. In theory, "good" schools will prosper and "bad" schools will be forced to improve or shut down. The idea can be stated as a reverse variant of Gresham's Law: good schools will drive out the bad.

Opponents of voucher plans reject the notion that choice will lead to better educational outcomes and worry about the possible demographic consequences of vouchers. In particular, they fear that such a policy will lead to further segregation of the schools by race and income.

Today, our public policies seem to be heading in the direction of public/private choice. Given that public/private choice programs have a built-in appeal to diverse political groups, this is not surprising. For instance, in November 1993 California voters declined to pass Proposition 174, a statewide initiative that would have allowed parents to send their children to a public school or would have covered $2,600 toward the cost of private school tuition.(3) This initiative was backed by conservatives such as Jack Kemp and William Bennett, as well as by many traditionally Democratic constituencies in inner cities.

The Case for Public/Private School Choice

The widespread and growing appeal of public/private school choice may be attributed to several key factors. First, on average, private school students outperform their public school counterparts in terms of standardized test scores, graduation rates, and the probability of attending college. Proponents of school choice argue that these results can be explained by the greater efficiency of private schools, which don't have the bloated bureaucracy and rigid set of rules that impede good teaching and make public schools less effective. However, an alternative explanation is that differences in performance between students in public and private schools can be explained by differences in school resources or in the backgrounds of students. For instance, private school students tend to come from better-educated families with above-average incomes. It seems likely, opponents of private school choice argue, that these factors would contribute to a good educational environment in the home. Still, the fact that private school students generally outperform their public school counterparts lends credence to the notion that private schools are doing a better job of educating students than are public schools.

Second, vouchers would give more control over educational decisions to parents. When more control is yielded to the consumers of education, those who presumably have the best knowledge of the educational needs and desires of the children are allowed to use that knowledge in selecting a school. …

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