Richard D. Kahlenberg and Bernard Wasow have an excellent article on “school choice” in the latest Boston Review New Democracy Forum.
First, they state the argument for school vouchers:
Many voucher advocates accept the superiority of vouchers on the basis of a general faith in markets. Since the private sector is assumed to outperform the public sector always and everywhere, voucher schools will be better than public schools. Less ideologically driven defenses of vouchers proceed from our earlier discussion: the public school system is failing at least a segment of the population; traditional remedies have not worked; so let parents decide what is the best alternative for their children. Just as households are expected to manage their purchases of food with food stamps, it is argued, they can be expected to make good choices when they spend their school vouchers. The competitive marketplace will generate new products (schools) in response to the needs of households. Competitive pressure will force every school to deliver or lose its customers. The final line of defense for those who admit doubts to these claims but nevertheless favor vouchers is the claim that “voucher schools could not be worse than public schools.”
Then they offer three criticisms of this argument:
Their first criticism is that even if the private sector were able to expand sufficiently to meet the tremendous demand, it is far from clear that these new schools would necessarily be an improvement over existing public institutions. They draw from the lessons of Medicade, pointing to the large number of parasite institutions which “prey on poor and ignorant households, claiming to offer services but really only seeking the public dollar”.
Secondly, they worry about taxpayer support for policies that may lead to an increase in school segregation:
When the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), many communities responded by establishing a system of private segregated schools. Should we look forward to a future in which such Balkanization is subsidized by taxpayers?
Although William Galston points out in his comments that most voucher programs in the U.S. are means-tested, the authors worry about results from studies of voucher programs in Chile and New Zealand — both of which have led to increased socioeconomic segregation in the schools.
Finally, they take issue that American’s are actually fed up with the public system. They site several studies showing that while many look down on the public school system as a whole, most parents are actually happy with the public schools their own children attend, and favor fixing the system over replacing it with something else.
They then site considerable evidence that the limited number of voucher programs in existence (such programs are far fewer than all the hype would lead one to believe) are not any more effective than traditional school reforms (more teachers, more money, etc.)
The discussion so far doesn’t really move beyond the traditional debate, but then they offer an alternative model of school choice which I think is quite reasonable. Moreover, it is one that is already in place in several states, although it has received far less attention:
The polarization of the school reform debate between vouchers and traditional school reform—neither of which offers much promise for solving the pressing problem of educational inequality—obscures the best reform option we have: controlled school choice within the public school system.
Under most controlled-choice plans, families provide a first, second, and third choice of schools at the levels of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades. Information and outreach programs attempt to ensure that parents are well informed. Placement decisions are subject to fairness guidelines, to make certain that all schools fall within a range of the district’s demographic average. For instance, in a district in which 30 percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunches overall, each school might be permitted to have a mix of students with no fewer than 15 percent and no more than 45 percent eligible for subsidized lunches. Preferences are normally given to applicants whose siblings already attend the school in question and to those within close walking distance. And the actual assignment is carried out by computer, so that individual school principals cannot pick those promising students they believe will be easiest to teach.
The important thing about this kind of choice is that it could potentially reduce socioeconomic inequality, whereas vouchers seem likely to either make things worse, or do little to alleviate the problem. They argue convincingly that reducing socioeconomic inequality is far more useful than trying to reform schools in poor neighborhoods:
The key problem with fixing neighborhood schools by traditional remedies is that bad neighborhoods produce bad schools. Too many good teachers burn out or ask for transfers from schools with high-risk children. High concentrations of at-risk children increase the risk to each child. Traditional school reform has made so little progress in high-poverty schools because high-poverty/low-quality schools are in a self-reinforcing trap.
This is a powerful argument. There is much to be said about the details, and the entire exchange is worth reading (5 commentaries, and a reply by the authors), but I for one am convinced that school choice, not school privatization, is the way to go.