The Common Good
January-February 1998

School Vouchers: Expanded Choices

by Charles L. Glenn | January-February 1998

The social benefits of empowered parents.

Nothing could be more futile than to debate—as so many do—about whether an abstraction called "school choice" is a good or a bad thing. Choice is massively present in American education, and those who exercise it would not willingly give it up. But like many of the goods we value, it is unevenly distributed in a way that reflects the income, influence, and sophistication of different groups in society.

For that reason, it should be no surprise that the support for school choice, as reflected in many opinion surveys, is strongest among those who have the least opportunity to exercise it, and for whom the stakes are highest. Again and again, the strongest support for parent choice of schools, including private schools with a religious identity, was among urban and minority respondents with school-aged children.

Those who oppose public policies that would allow poor parents to choose what schools their children will attend, claiming that this would undermine the common public school and thus divide American society, do not apply that argument consistently. After all, if the unity of our society requires that children from different backgrounds attend school together, why should we allow the affluent to enroll their children in private schools or escape to the suburbs? Why not forbid private schools and mandate metropolitan school desegregation?

We have not heard such proposals from the defenders of the public school monopoly, nor are we likely to. After all, big-city public schoolteachers are twice as likely as the general public to put their own children in private schools, and have strongly resisted residency laws requiring them to live within the school districts that employ them. Few, if any, of their allies in Congress send their own children to the District of Columbia public schools.

Those who oppose public policies allowing poor parents to choose their children’s schools claim the unity of our society requires children of different backgrounds to attend school together. I agree that integrated schools are a very good thing. They were my primary concern for 21 years in state government, and I have chosen to entrust my own seven children to the desegregated Boston Public Schools.

But concern to promote equality and justice must be balanced against concern to protect liberty and the role of parents—and especially poor parents—as the primary educators of their children. The Supreme Court held, in 1925, that the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.

SCHOOL CHOICE IN the United States, in contrast with most comparable democracies, is exercised primarily by parents who can afford to choose where they will live; this is substantially more common than choice through paying tuition to a private school. Middle-income families are the most likely to use non-public school, since those below them in income are less able to pay tuitions, and those above them more able to live in areas with the most desirable public schools. Of families with incomes over $50,000, 72 percent had their children in private schools, public schools of choice (such as magnet schools), and schools that had been selected through residence decisions.

Contrary to a widespread impression, the public schools in affluent suburbs and not private schools—except for the minority of "prep schools"—represent the elite option in American education. It is, after all, much less expensive to send a child to Phillips Andover Academy—even without the scholarships often provided to low-income students—than to the public high school in Andover, which requires you to be a resident of that expensive community. A 1986 Scottish study found that "for those who cannot choose [a] school through house purchase or private schooling the legislation [creating a voucher-like system] does seem to have provided an attainable mode of choice."

Parent choice of schools, as it operates in the absence of a policy framework, has contributed powerfully to the

residential segregation of our cities. No competent observer doubts that the quality of the schools is one of the two or three most significant factors preventing young parents with good jobs from staying in urban neighborhoods. Bruce Fuller and Richard F. Elmore, editors of Who Chooses? Who Loses?, a collection of studies on parent choice programs, provide an example of the "spin" that characterizes their collection by charging that "school choice implies...that if young white professionals want to have schools serving their particular educational interests, they should have a right to a share of public resources to pursue their private interests." Of course; that’s what suburban schools are!

Families with sufficient means tend to leave urban neighborhoods for many reasons, but the fact that doing so is the primary means by which they can exercise some control over the schooling of their children ranks among the most important. So, the question is not whether to have choice, but how to ensure that choice has equitable and socially beneficial effects?

Parent choice of schools has generally been advanced as a policy either by those primarily concerned with individual liberty and rights of conscience or (more recently) by those convinced that market forces will lead to educational reform. Almost all of the actual practice of officially sponsored parent choice among American public schools, however, has been designed and implemented in the name of racial justice, as a means of school desegregation.

Some advocates of a more just education system, indeed, contend that parent choice can make a vital contribution to creating such a system by breaking the link between residence (and thus income) and access to educational opportunities; under a well-designed choice plan, geography is no longer destiny. In Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control, John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman insist that choice "is in many instances the only hope for integration....Integration that occurs by choice is stable and enduring."

WHAT WOULD BE REQUIRED to design a structure for schooling that permits each school to enjoy a high degree of autonomy to serve particular families very well, while ensuring that the common public interest is served? At a risk of over-simplification, let me suggest four elements that must be kept in balance.

First, a legal structure would be required so the emphasis could be placed upon the individual school (rather than upon the school system as at present). It could provide for full public support of any school, under any sponsorship, that met the common standards set for an adequate educational program. Vouchers and other forms of public funding for non-government schools, while long overdue in the United States, should be provided only within a context of public accountability.

Second, clarity about the non-negotiable standards for schools is essential. Such standards should be limited to essentials and especially to educational outcomes, while leaving broad discretion to those responsible for each school to determine how the standards will be met.

Third, a structure for school autonomy and parent choice requires a concerted effort to reach parents who ordinarily do not participate effectively in making decisions about the schooling of their children, including immigrant parents, so that educational freedom does not work against educational justice. In our efforts to expand choice among public schools in Massachusetts during the 1980s, we found it necessary to establish and fund about 25 parent information centers that counsel parents and handle the application and assignment process, putting all families on a more equal footing.

Fourth, outside support for existing and proposed schools are required as educators, parents, and governing boards seek to define each school’s distinctive identity and to make it the basis for every aspect of daily life.

This brief enumeration of elements required to balance common purposes with real school autonomy and distinctiveness should be an indication that the task is not a simple matter of "trusting market forces," but requires thoughtful design and difficult policy choices. There is a constant danger that government will extend its grasp too far, just as there is a danger that some schools will educate children badly or mistreat them. Of course, some public schools do both now, and poor parents can do little about that.

Under American law, government has a right and a duty to ensure that every child, whether in a government-operated school, a private school, or educated at home, receives an adequate education. As the Supreme Court wrote in its historic decision upholding the right to provide non-government schooling, this right also includes the duty of the state to regulate all schools reasonably; to inspect, supervise, and examine them, their teachers, and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship be taught, and that nothing be taught that is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.

"Reasonably" is the key word here, and what is a reasonable reconciliation of the claims of school distinctiveness and moral coherence on the one hand and common educational standards on the other can only be determined through a patient process that will require those concerned about the schooling of poor children to stop talking past each other about an abstraction called "school choice" and get down to the concrete nitty-gritty of doing it right.

CHARLES L. GLENN is a professor of educational policy at Boston University and an ordained minister living in Boston. Under Gov. Michael Dukakis, he was the Massachusetts state official responsible for urban education and civil rights.

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