• by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1994 •
As legislative sessions draw near, debates get louder. In Texas, the 74th Session of the Legislature convenes in January 1995. School facilities funding will be a major topic due to a court deadline to develop an equitable plan by September 1995. In addition to facilities funding, school choice will most likely surface as one of the major and certainly one of the most controversial topics. What is school choice? Why is choice emerging as a serious alternative to the state’s long-standing approach to public education? What are the assumptions and expectations that underlie people’s perceptions about choice programs? And most importantly, can choice deliver what many assume or propose it can in improved student performance and school accountability?
Proponents tout school choice as the panacea for the ills that currently plague our public schools: the apparent inability to provide excellent education, the lack of responsiveness to parental concerns, and the seeming impossibility of changing schools from within or from the outside. They offer school choice – particularly the re-allocation of public education funding from local schools to privately funded schools – as the way to excellent and responsive education.
Led by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, choice advocates argue that all schools can be made more effective if they are subjected to “marketplace forces” of competition. They argue that if schools, like businesses, are forced to compete, free market forces will automatically weed out the poor performing schools, and the new competition will raise all schools’ levels of performance. Choice proponents also state that when parents can “choose” their children’s school, parental interest in education will increase. A common thread in proponents’ public relations spin is the proposition that economically disadvantaged and minority students would be among the major beneficiaries of choice, as new options which are currently beyond their reach would be made available to them. To further cement their argument, choice proponents underlay their argument with an explicit or implicit notion that providing public funding to private schools is a zero cost option, as money is simply shifted from one depository – the local public school fund – to the parents. They in turn simply transfer funds to another school setting of their choice.
It is a beguiling notion: all American students in competitive and excellent schools that are responsive to parents who can vote on their feet by using vouchers to select any public or private school of their choice. At best, however, school choice is myopic. At worst, school choice is a deliberate and cynical attempt to create a two-tiered system of education – one for the wealthy and one for the rest, with scarce public monies being siphoned as subsidies for private education. From research and experiences to date, the following scenario is likely: schools will have a choice of students while families and communities will have fewer choices. Left with fewer choices will be families without transportation, without knowledge of how schools work, with different language needs, without money to supplement a minimum level voucher, or with children who are unable to meet the entry criteria that will almost surely be used in private school settings. In turn, entire communities will have fewer choices. By providing mechanisms for the empowerment to abandon public schools, public schools in the community have less chance of improving without public support for local schools, particularly by those families whose children are no longer enrolled there. While some propose that poor performing schools will be closed down, choice proponents fail to discuss where the students from those settings might end up.
The assumption that the provision of vouchers automatically increases levels of parental participation is also an untried proposition, based only on the unique groups of parents who currently enroll their children in private schools. No doubt some of the same issues that plague public schools’ abilities to involve varying types of parents would be mirrored in the private school setting, particularly if those schools use the same ineffective parental involvement methods used in many existing public school settings.
A major question related to choice involves the extent to which real access would be available to all students wishing to attend alternative school settings. Most choice plans ignore student transportation issues, or side-step them with phrases such as “to the extent that tax revenues allow, every effort will be made to provide transportation for students.”
Related also to access or “true choice” is the question of whether and if private schools will recruit or accept students who are different, e.g., students with special needs, minorities, low income children, disabled students, students who do not speak English. Lacking federal incentives or disincentives, many private schools routinely exclude special populations through entrance exams or others strategies. It is doubtful that many schools would offer much of a choice to special needs pupils, particularly if the choice plan made no provision for the extra funding required to effectively address the unique instructional needs of these populations. The use of vouchers, it has been said, is more akin to seeking country club membership than to using gift certificates at a department store. In the former, they decide whether they want you (are you the right class, the right color? the right religion? will you “fit in”?); in the latter, you decide where and what you buy.
It is clear that a critical look at the questions surrounding the working of a “choice-driven” funding scheme raises more questions than answers. One of the major underlying questions not raised often enough in the choice debate is how it will produce the grand results its proponents’ promise. While some research does reflect that private schools do well in some cases with certain types of students, an analysis of private school family profiles suggests that groups currently using private schools are already unique. It may be their tendency to self-select that produces the results so often touted by choice champions. Will private schools retain their past track record given a very different clientele? No comprehensive study exists that provides that answer.
Who ultimately, then, has the choice about who enrolls at what schools? Any choice plan that provides specific dollar limits on the amount of the voucher will automatically limit some families to the funding level provided. Some families will be able to supplement the base; others will not. Yet the cost of providing a voucher equal to whatever the highest tuition is currently charged would increase the need for education funding at least tenfold. Even if unlimited funding were provided, schools would at some point be faced with their capacity/facility limits. Faced with 200 applicants and only ten openings, who would make the choice about who enrolls? If past trends hold, accepting schools would themselves exercise overt or covert mechanisms for making choices, leaving rejected students an opportunity to seek second, third, and fourth “choices” of enrollment.
Whether it’s called choice, parental choice, free schools, vouchers or whatever euphemisms become fashionable, use of public funds for private education is prohibited by many state constitutions. The framers of those documents intended for the states to exercise their obligation to educate their citizenry by providing public, free schools to all children. If the public schools need improvement, and we at IDRA agree that they need great improvement, then let us do that.
False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future . A special issue of Rethinking Schools. (1992). Milwaukee, WI.
Gorwin, R.G. & M.R. Dianda. (September 1993). “What can We Really Expect from Large Scale Voucher Program.” Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 67-74.
Glenn, C.L. (November/December 1992). “What’s really at stake in the choice debate?” The Clearninghouse Vol. 66. No. 2, pp. 75-78.
Houston, P.D. (September, 1993). “School Vouchers: The Latest California Joke.” Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 61-66.
Kozol, J. (1991). “Savage Inequalities.” Children in American Schools. New York: Crown.
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the executive director of IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1994, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1994 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]