Neither Excellence Nor Equity For All: The Perilous Consequences of Choice

By Robert Lowe

This past June, Wisconsin State Representative Annette (Polly) Williams traveled to Washington D.C. as a featured participant in the widely publicized unveiling of a book written by two political scientists. The fanfare was over Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, a volume by John Chubb and Terry Moe that advocates private school choice.

Rarely do scholarly works become media events, but in this case the event signified the launching of a new campaign to promote educational choice and implied the existence of broad-based support for opening schools to the marketplace. This sort of choice is traditionally identified with a conservative agenda. However, the support of Representative Williams, the African American sponsor of the highly publicized Milwaukee Parent Choice Program, suggests wider appeal. So too does the liberal reputation of the book’s publisher, the Brookings Institution (though its research was funded by two conservative foundations).

It would be a mistake to conclude that support for choice represents a consensus among diverse political forces, but “educational choice” rapidly is becoming a major policy issue affecting schools in the United States today. At the cutting edge of this issue are the choice program in Milwaukee and Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. The Milwaukee Program, a modest plan that provides public funds for private education, appears to demonstrate in practice that choice expands equality of opportunity. The book attempts to theoretically justify the abandonment of all public education on the grounds that choice will produce educational excellence.

Taken together, the program and the book suggest that choice will provide both equity and excellence. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. While the Milwaukee program — a kind of affirmative action effort — may indeed provide greater opportunity for its participants, Chubb and Moe’s brief for providing all individuals with vouchers to attend private schools is both unconvincing on its face and terrifying in its implications for equality of educational opportunity.

The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program (its future now in doubt because of litigation) has received attention far out of proportion to its immediate impact. In a district that enrolls close to 100,000 students, the program was originally intended to provide 1,000 low-income students with $2,500 each so that they might attend the non-sectarian private schools of their choice. Even though more than 1,000 families applied, fewer than 400 students ultimately enrolled in the seven private schools that agreed to participate.

Despite the small scale of the Choice Program, nationally prominent conservatives have been especially vocal in its behalf. It has been praised by the Bush administration, touted by the Wall Street Journal, supported by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, and favorably viewed by the head of the Bradley Foundation.

Many advocates see the program as a first step in restoring the nation’s educational health. They believe this only can be accomplished by breaking up “the public school monopoly.”

The program also has spawned vocal opposition. Some antagonists, like Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, view Polly Williams as the unwitting accomplice of right wing business interests bent on destroying a public good. Others oppose the program because they fear that it presages an end to one or more of the following: desegregation, teachers’ unions, a common curriculum, or public support of children with special needs.

Thus, both proponents and opponents rightly see the Williams initiative as an entering wedge in a national battle over the future shape of education in the United States. Yet it is important to see the Milwaukee Choice Program on its own terms. That many conservatives are staunch supporters of the plan does not make Polly Williams their agent. Rather, she has responded to the sustained failure of the Milwaukee Public Schools to provide an acceptable education to low income children of color. In the face of miserable average grades and an appalling dropout rate, she has enabled a small number of students to seek an education elsewhere — mainly in community-based schools that have long served African Americans and Hispanics. Under the circumstances it makes little sense to berate the Milwaukee Choice Program for violating the ideal of the common school or the goal of an integrated society.

Such unrealized visions are inadequate justifications for denying a few children the opportunity to pursue an education of value.

As advocates of choice are quick to point out, the Milwaukee Program gives some options to low income families that the well-to-do have long exercised: They possess the resources to either move to their schools of choice in the suburbs or to choose private schools.

Yet the program does raise some questions. While the $2,500 dollars each student could bring as tuition to a private school did expand choice, this relatively small voucher meant that parents could not choose, if they desired, elite, overwhelmingly white prep schools. Second, those who applied for the program were probably among the most aggressive about pursuing quality education for their children and, consequently, among the most likely to wring a decent education out of the Milwaukee Public Schools. Third, although more than 1,000 families applied, fewer than 400 students were accepted.

Admission was to be based on a lottery system, but without an independent agency monitoring the process it might have been difficult for participating schools to resist taking the strongest applicants. These problems, as the following analysis will indicate, are compounded when choice expands to include everyone.

Chubb and Moe in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools say little about equality of educational opportunity per se, but claim that education can be improved for all by opening it to the competition of the marketplace. They go so far as to maintain that public schools generally are incapable of providing effective education.

Chubb and Moe point out numerous problems that afflict public education today. They observe that principals cannot hire or fire teachers. They note that teachers run a gauntlet of irrelevant certification requirements, lack autonomy in the classroom, and lack colleagues who share a common purpose. And they recognize that parents have little influence over the schools their children must attend. The authors associate such unsatisfactory conditions in schools with what they perceive as a dangerous decline in educational quality.

They further contend that many of the educational reforms mandated in the 1980s — such as longer school terms, more homework, and increased academic requirements for high school graduation — were guaranteed to fail because they were imposed bureaucratically. They see bureaucracy as the central impediment to effective schools because they believe it strangles the capacity of principals and teachers to fashion schools after their own vision.They believe bureaucracy makes schools unresponsive to the interests of parents as well. The solution to poor education, according to Chubb and Moe, is not to increase bureaucratic controls but to eliminate them.

The authors maintain that public schools are necessarily bureaucratic since bureaucracy is the means through which competing political interests institutionalize their influence. They argue that private schools, in contrast, tend to be autonomous. This is the case because accountability does not spring from bureaucratic regulation, but from the market mechanism. If a school fails to do an effective job, according to their reasoning, clients will leave it for another. Chubb and Moe consequently look to the marketplace to create excellence in education.

To summarize their argument, Chubb and Moe maintain that public schools provide inadequate instruction because they lack the autonomy necessary to create effective education; they lack autonomy because they are bureaucratic; and they are bureaucratic because politics shapes them. Thus, they claim the way to create effective schools is to substitute the market for politics. The clarity of their argument and the simplicity of their solution, apparently buttressed by the analysis of massive data bases, is likely to win many converts. But there are many problems with their formulations.

First of all, Chubb and Moe assume that data on test scores assembled in the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, provide such convincing evidence of educational decline that drastic measures are justified. Serious questions might be raised about the degree to which standardized test scores accurately gauge the nation’s educational health. Even assuming such scores have value, they do not offer a clear picture of decline. The authors of A Nation at Risk fail to note that their data suggest only a modest decline in scores since the 1960s. They do not acknowledge the upward trajectory of scores on several tests — including the SAT — in the 1980s. They also ignore tests that showed no decline.

International comparisons that suggest U.S. inferiority also fail to convince. The comparisons cited by A Nation At Risk contrast the achievement of U.S. high school seniors with those of other countries. This is inappropriate because most students in the U.S. reach the 12th grade, while in many other countries only an elite group does so. More recent comparisons look at the eighth grade — an age presumably at which few children have left school anywhere — and the U.S. still does more poorly than many other countries. This clearly indicates that the U.S. lags in providing those skills the tests measure. Such an unfavorable comparison, however, still fails to recognize how many more years of schooling children in the U.S. ultimately will obtain. In addition, it neither takes into account the indisputable superiority of higher education in the U.S. to that of Japan and other countries, nor does it recognize that U.S. graduate schools are widely considered the best in the world.

Lack of evidence indicating a national decline in educational quality in no way suggests that children of color are receiving an adequate education. But it undercuts the justification of a market-based educational system for all based on the assumption that nothing could be lost by making drastic changes. More importantly, Chubb and Moe are unable to prove that private schools do a better job than public ones. Scholars already have raised a number of questions about the data Chubb and Moe relied upon. These scholars have voiced concerns about whether a brief multiple choice test can adequately document student performance, whether students accurately reported their class backgrounds, and whether the private school sample employed over-represented elite prep schools. And regardless of the quality of the data, Chubb and Moe cannot truly determine whether higher achievement in private schools stems from the way they are organized or from the select group of students who attend them.

Chubb and Moe certainly overstate the advantages of private schools in supporting teacher professionalism. While principals tend to have greater power in private schools, it scarcely follows that teachers are more able to act as professionals. Unprotected by unions, the jobs of private school teachers are precarious. This vulnerability can exert greater constraints on teachers’ autonomy than the bureaucratic regulations common to public schools. In addition, there is nothing professional about most private school teachers’ salaries. Compensation typically too meager to support a family has meant that private school positions have been most acceptable to the independently wealthy, to members of religious orders, and to families with more than one wage earner.

Overblown bureaucracies, of course, do limit institutional change and absorb huge financial resources for little direct educational service. Chubb and Moe are right that many private schools are relatively free of bureaucracy. But Catholic schools, which enroll a high percentage of non-public students in the United States, are certainly bureaucratic institutions. More broadly, the organization of the private sector as a whole fails to confirm Chubb and Moe’s notion that bureaucracy characterizes public rather than private institutions. Intricately bureaucratized corporations produce a high percentage of the nation’s wealth. Business influence, in fact, had much to do with the development of bureaucratic, centralized systems of public education. Yet recent developments suggest that public school systems can become less bureaucratic.

Instead of relying on greater bureaucratic control, the latest reform efforts have moved toward various forms of school-based management.

If excessive bureaucracy makes public schools less sensitive to their clients, there are nonetheless elements of bureaucracy that protect the rights of minorities and the poor. Chubb and Moe exaggerate when they suggest that public schools are rendered incoherent by the variety of political influences that shape them. Their pluralistic notion of educational politics fails to recognize that from early in the century until the Civil Rights Movement the schools were elite-dominated. Recent bureaucratic regulations that have promoted desegregation, bilingual education, and education of the handicapped have institutionalized a modicum of equity in public schools as a response to the demands of those who traditionally have been powerless. That these regulations cannot adequately secure equality of educational opportunity does not mean that the market can do any better.

Chubb and Moe assume that the market will create quality education for everyone through the mechanism of choice. Yet choice certainly has not accomplished this in the private sector of the economy. If the affluent can choose health spas in the Caribbean and gracious homes, the poor must choose inadequate health care and delapidated housing. To the extent that those with limited resources have won forms of protection it has not been guaranteed by the play of the market, but from governmental regulation. The conservative agenda of deregulation over the past decade has eroded those protections and greatly increased the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in the United States. A market system of education is merely an extension of deregulation that promises to compound social inequities.

In a market system, public taxation would guarantee relatively modest vouchers worth the same amount for every student in each state. Families, acting as consumers, would then choose the schools their children would attend. But unlike the Milwaukee Program where a lottery determines admission, schools are permitted to choose as well. It is in their interest to choose those students who are already high achievers, and it is in their interest — especially for smaller schools — to accept those whose families can supplement the amount of the voucher they are given. Some versions of voucher plans would allow individual families the right to add their own cash to a voucher. Chubb and Moe would allow local districts to augment the value of vouchers through increased local taxation. In either case, the wealthy would have greater choice than the poor.

A system of choice can provide support for community-based education programs, like Milwaukee’s Harambee and Urban Day, that effectively serve children of color. But it can also sustain schools with openly racist ideologies. Furthermore, the notion that choice would create a nation of small, effective schools is as mythical a construction as the notion that the market can maintain a nation of shopkeepers. A high level of capitalization and economies of scale would be necessary to construct buildings, to maintain staffing with unpredictable number of students, and to make do with the unsupplemented vouchers those without wealth would bring. Educational versions of fast-food conglomerates would likely result.

A market-based approach to schooling raises fundamental issues of educational purpose. Should taxpayers contribute to financing schools that have no public accountability no matter how objectionable many might find their goals? Should the public subsidize elite prep schools, schools run for profit, and schools run by corporations to train future workers? Should families be regarded as entrepreneurial units charged with maximizing their children’s educational opportunities? This market ethos ignores any sense of responsibility for other children’s education, any obligation for community control of education, any need for the new common curriculum some educators are forging out of the cultural works and political struggles of the diverse peoples who have shaped the United States.

Although the public schools are inadequately fulfilling these responsibilities, a market-driven educational enterprise cannot fulfill them. At best the popularity of choice among those with the least privilege should send a powerful message to public school educators that the common school for many remains a myth. Yet the very idea of schools that educate people in common — regardless of race, class, or gender — is antithetical to the intent of the conservative corporate leaders and foundations that are advocating choice.

Early in the twentieth century corporate elites claimed to take the schools out of politics by creating expert-run centralized and bureaucratic public schools. In reality this was a political move to replace working class influence over education with their own. Today Chubb and Moe articulate the position of corporate elites who rail against the bureaucratic schools they were so influential in creating and now claim they want to take schools out of politics by opening them to the marketplace. This too is inherently a political strategy. It will enable the more affluent members of society to free themselves from the yoke of all the legislative and legal safeguards people have won through the freedom struggle of the 1960s. It furthermore will free the rich from all public educational responsibility. The consequence will be even a more drastic maldis ribution of opportunity than exists today.

Robert Lowe, a co-editor of Rethinking Schools, teaches at National-Louis University and currently is a Spencer Fellow.