Parents and School Choice: Beyond the Rhetoric

Flying the banner of parents’ rights, advocates of school vouchers have launched an assault on the very concept of public education. The rhetoric of parental choice is seductive and, in some cases, legitimate. But the world is more complex than simple slogans would lead one to believe. Furthermore, there are clear links between the rhetoric of parental choice and the agenda of privatizing our schools and removing them from public accountability. In the long run, marketplace approaches to education will significantly reduce choices, particularly for those with less money and resources. Following are some of the most common rationales for parental choice in education, with a look at how the rhetoric fails to do justice the complexities of public education in a democratic society.
— The editors of Rethinking Schools

School choice is based on a simple but radical idea: breaking the power of the educational establishment and giving parents freedom to send their children to a private school. What’s wrong with that?

Parental freedom is a great concept. But freedom is more than an individual concern. It also involves safeguarding the democratic freedoms of society as a whole.

This society often pays lip service to the need for community and civic commitment. But we rarely discuss how to make that real. During the 1980s, this country all but stopped thinking about how we could collectively solve our social problems and turned instead to highly individualistic approaches of looking out for number one — the poor, homeless, and unemployed be damned.

It’s impossible to think about public education without understanding its relationship to democracy. Schools are the place in this society where children from a variety of backgrounds come together and, at least in theory, learn to talk, play, and work together. Schools are by no means equal and play a significant role in maintaining our highly stratified society. At the same time, public schools are less unequal than any other institution. There is no comparable arena in this country where there is a vision of equality — no matter how much this vision may be tarnished in practice — and where people of different backgrounds interact on a daily basis. Certainly it doesn’t happen in our highly segregated neighborhoods. Nor does it happen in the workplace, where there’s no pretense that people come together as equals. Nor does it happen in our churches.

It was clear to early thinkers like Thomas Jefferson that education was a public responsibility that was essential to creating and sustaining a democracy. They understood that in a truly democratic society, all citizens have to be trained to rule. They understood that schools were integral not only to preparing all children to be full participants in society, but to be full participants in this country’s tenuous experiment in democracy. We seem to have lost that vision.

Parents are responsible for their child’s well-being and should have the right to choose the school they think is best, whether it’s public or private.

Essentially, such an approach is a marketplace formulation that doesn’t work when it comes to schools. Education is not a consumer good, like buying a car, where you take whatever money you have, enter the marketplace and buy whatever you can. Some people have the money to buy Cadillacs and some people to buy Yugos, and there are not any major social consequences. But there are social consequences if education is viewed merely as an individual concern and only some people’s children get a good education.

Further, it’s not simply a matter of parents choosing a private school, but of private schools choosing students. And the school’s choice always wins. If a private school doesn’t want your child, whether for academic, discipline, religious or financial reasons, there’s nothing you can do.

People forget that for many of the more privileged parents in this country, they don’t have to choose to get an education of quality. They go to the well-funded public school in their affluent, suburban neighborhood. Seen in this context, choice is being proposed as a way to wiggle out of tough decisions about providing the money needed for quality schools in our urban and rural areas.

There never has been, nor ever will be, a system where everyone is able to choose a school that perfectly fits their needs. The only viable solution is to improve the entire system of public education so that parents aren’t forced to compete for a few select schools. Reformers know that the easy part of school reform is building a few good schools. The hard part is reforming an entire system. Such systemwide school reform is not only complicated — involving everything from teacher training to curriculum reform — but requires immense amounts of time and money. Unfortunately, for politicians, it can’t be reduced to a simple slogan that can be proclaimed as a cure-all.

Private schools do a better job educating children. So why not make it possible for more parents to send their children to private schools?

There’s absolutely no data to support claims that private schools are necessarily better than public schools. That’s a myth. In particular, there is little data on private schools that serve low-income students. Unlike public schools, private schools are under no requirement to release information on test scores, expulsions, drop-outs, attendance, and so forth.

There are excellent private schools, but also excellent public schools. For example, Rufus King High School in Milwaukee is widely considered the best high school in Wisconsin, public or private. And it’s a public school that doesn’t charge tuition and doesn’t have academic entrance requirements.

It must also be remembered that there has always been a hierarchy among private schools. Elite private schools, especially at the high school level, not only cost more but are very selective. Some elite private schools cost $10,000 or more a year — out of the price range of all but the very affluent.

Most voucher proposals talks of a figure of roughly $3,000. But what happens to the parent who wants to send their child to a school that charges two or three times that amount? The answer is simple: the parents don’t get to “choose” that school.

Even in private schools that serve low-income parents, there is a screening process. The parents are those who are especially persistent and aggressive in pursuing a quality education for their children — potentially the same parents who might ensure an excellent education for their children from a public school.

I have a child in middle school right now, and I don’t want that child to be a martyr to the noble cause of public schools. The only way I can send my child to a private school, where she will have a safer environment, is if I get help from vouchers.

We have a lot of sympathy for such parents, and find it hard to fault them for doing what they think is best for their child. But we have little sympathy with those who advocate vouchers as anything more than a temporary solution for some people and who instead claim it is the answer to our education problems.

Further, it’s not at all clear that parents would get a better school through a voucher system. In the long run, those with more money will be able to supplement that voucher and go to a more elite school, and those without any additional money will be forced to choose a less expensive and probably inferior school.

Because there never has been a full-blown voucher program, we don’t really know what would happen to parental choice or to the quality of private schools under a voucher approach. What would happen, for example, if private schools accepted all students with vouchers? Wouldn’t the nature of the school change if it is open to all?

What we do know is that a voucher system would allow public schools to decay further, and so choices in the public system would be additionally limited. What’s more, the possibility for democratic discussion of what is best for all our children would virtually disappear under a voucher system.

Some of your arguments don’t apply to the Milwaukee Choice program, which must accept students regardless of their academic qualifications and which must accept the voucher as full payment for tuition.

There are vast differences between the experimental Milwaukee program, which has some protections built into it and affects less than 1,000 students, and the longterm goals of voucher advocates. Those with the money bankrolling voucher efforts have made it clear they want vouchers for all, not just low-income students. And they don’t want restrictions on a private school’s ability to reject students.

Even within the limited nature of the Milwaukee program, there are problems. First, there’s no evidence that students have improved academically. Second, while the schools cannot reject students based on their academic background, there’s no requirement to keep the students if they don’t meet academic requirements or if their parents don’t meet requirements such as participating in fund-raisers. Third, individual private schools are not accountable to the public. Private schools, for instance, do not have to abide by Open Meetings and Records laws, or publicly release their drop-out rates, test scores or financial audits.

Academic accountability standards for schools in the Milwaukee program are minimal. The only assurances are that participating schools must operate as a private school and meet only one of the following standards:

  • At least 70% of the students advance one grade level each year.
  • The average attendance rate for students is at least 90%.
  • At least 80% of students demonstrate significant academic progress, as determined by the school.
  • At least 70% of the families of students meet parent involvement criteria as established by the school, which may be as little as signing a student’s report card.

The Milwaukee program has been supported by a range of people, including many genuinely concerned with the education of minority children. But the true powers behind the Milwaukee program have a much larger goal of complete privatization based on a marketplace approach. And under a marketplace approach, those with more money and resources always come out ahead. In the marketplace, you get what you pay for.

Those with more money can pay more — and thus will more.