Proposals to use private school vouchers, a marketplace strategy, as a mechanism by which to improve the general quality of public education have produced a lively debate. Frequently, that debate has degenerated into a disagreement about whether public schools are as good as private schools or whether a given private school is better than a certain neighborhood public school.
Other issues raised in these discussions include the appropriate use of public funds, the role of competition in improving public education, and the right of parents to choose a school for their children. Although these issues are of interest, they are not the fundamental questions which must be raised about the future of public schools in a democracy.
Two Core Issues
In their rush to the marketplace, the proponents of private school choice supported by public funds have chosen to ignore two core issues. First, the advocates of private school choice studiously avoid any discussion of the relationship between public schools and the common or public good in a democracy. As an example, the Governor of Wisconsin asserts that “any school that serves the public is a public school” and should therefore receive public funds through a voucher system. There is no recognition in this proposal of the distinct and unique purpose of public education in serving the public good. This rhetorical sleight-of-hand does not mean that a private school of choice becomes a public school in purpose simply by so defining it. The claim is merely a device to divert public funds for private purposes.
The failure to recognize that public schools have a central responsibility in a democratic society is further evidenced by the work of John Chubb and Terry Moe, who argue that improving the efficiency and quality of public education will require the replacement of democratic governance by market mechanisms.
The authors state, “The most basic cause of ineffective performance among the nation’s public schools is their subordination to public authority. … The school’s most fundamental problems are rooted in the institutions of democratic control by which they are governed”.
Chubb and Moe deny the historic purposes of public schools when they reject the idea that educational policy should be directed by a common vision or purpose. They assert, “It should be apparent that schools have no immutable or transcendent purpose. … What they are supposed to be doing depends on who controls them and what these controllers want them to do”. The Thompson proposal for Wisconsin’s schools embraces this belief system it is a denial of the fundamental role of public education in affirming the public good.
A second issue which remains unexamined in the rush to the marketplace concerns the claims offered in defense of private school choice. Choice is offered as a “lesson learned” rather than a proposition to be examined. Advocates of private school choice have ignored its history. Despite the claims made for a market-based school restructuring strategy, the history of choice does not support the claims of its proponents.
A Declaration of Crisis
Willingness to abandon strong support for public schools and to turn to marketplace solutions is driven by a crisis rhetoric. This rhetoric, which suggests that public education is failing, is not only misleading, it is dangerous because it may erode public confidence in the very institutions on which our capacity for a democratic response depends.
Criticism of public education has continued unabated since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. Stimulated in large part by new international economic realities, by a domestic economy based on traditional production models, and by changing domestic demographics, the critics have sought solutions to these challenging problems by turning to schools and educators. The data cited by critics of public schools were accepted at face value until the late 1980’s. However, since then, a variety of research reports have revealed that much of the criticism has been simplistic and has distorted and misrepresented the conditions of public education.
The credibility of the crisis-in-education claim, in fact, rests not on immutable evidence of school failure but, rather, on a linkage which has been established by critics between education and other social problems such as violent crime, drug use, family instability, and economic uncertainty. Although schools are not charged directly with creating these problems, the public is turning to public education for solutions to broad and complex social conditions. This occurred in the 1950’s in response to the Russian scientific and military challenge, in the 1960’s in response to the challenge of racial segregation, and again in the 1980’s in response to the challenges of international economic competition and changing social circumstances.
Economic interests have emerged during the last decade as vocal and persistent advocates of school change. These critics have framed the issue in terms of economic competitiveness, job creation, profit, and preparation for the work place. The purpose of public education has been redefined by economic interests so as to put schools in the service of capitalism rather than democracy. They are not the same. This dramatic reframing of educational purpose has gone relatively unchallenged in the dialogue about school improvement.
What does it mean to put schools in the service of an economic philosophy rather than in the service of democracy, a political and social philosophy? To define students as merely economic beings is to deny them their basic and essential humanity and is to render our political freedom subservient to the interests of those whose purpose is profit. What, then, is the role of the school in a political democracy where, for the moment, the dominant economic interests remain consolidated in large corporate structures? The answer is to be found in an examination of what it means to educate for the public good.
The Public Good
The growing public sentiment that government has failed and is doomed to fail when it attempts to develop collective solutions to broad social problems is a measure of the success of economic interests over the past fifteen years in redefining the public good. Public good is increasingly defined and measured by the extent to which private interests are allowed to extend the reach of the marketplace. Although choice, as a general principle, is worth protecting, “its effectiveness in addressing social problems depends on its being used in the context of confident and legitimate government authority, not as an alternative to such authority”.
Lost in the crisis quality of the debate about private school choice is an understanding that public schools are not merely service providers. Public schools are not merely places where the individual’s or the society’s economic needs are met. Public schools have a special status as producers of values, perspectives, knowledge, and skills which are fundamental to community.
Historically, this public function was widely celebrated. More recently, with the emergence of marketplace and consumer analogies, individual customer satisfaction, rather than the public good, has become a primary consideration.
Individualism, the promise of individual freedom and personal happiness, has been a central tenet of the American dream and is fundamental in American society. The danger we face is that individualism, as exemplified by private school choice, may further isolate Americans from each other and undermine the conditions of freedom. Kelly summarizes this sentiment:
“Hopes for short-term gains have largely eclipsed any sense of long-range national goals or principles. It is thus small wonder no one can agree on how to ‘fix’ systems of public education – which by their very nature are future oriented”.
The question, ‘Education for what?’ crystallizes the issue of public good. A fundamental tension exists between two polarities. On the one hand, education for democracy views education as fundamental, with the responsibility of transmitting values and skills which sustain democracy. In a democracy citizens play two roles: as informed, intelligent arbiters of issues and as protectors of values. While a democracy may be viewed as an open forum of values, not all values are equal. A few are central: respect for minority opinions, freedom of statement, 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. 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.
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.
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.
Kelly, Elizabeth A. Education, Democracy, and Public Knowledge. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.