There is something disquieting about the school choice debate. It all too rarely involves the people who have the most at stake in its outcome. I do not say this as a criticism of the present forum, which I join gladly. I am making a more general statement. Parents whose children get stuck in chronically failing public schools ordinarily do not have the means and skills to participate in the public conversation. They depend on others to sort out what is best for their children; the others, for the most part, already have what poor parents increasingly are saying that they want. That is, more choice. I can’t imagine what it is like to be in such a helpless position, but I have to assume that it is exasperating for these parents to listen to us quibble over regression analyses or decide that we should not give them what they want because there are people who support their position whom we may not like. You know who I mean: people who voted for George Bush in 2000, political conservatives, or, worse still, those odd folks who are devoutly religious. By the way, many of the latter group do not support choice either, because they fear that it will compromise their religious freedom. Which it should if they are as loony as Wasow and Kahlenberg thinks they are, although most are not.
When we move the discussion from the intellectual to a political arena, the predicament that poor parents face is more disconcerting. Here the players actually have the power to make decisions that affect the lives of the nonplayers. Many policy makers are lukewarm on the issue of school choice, and the great majority of them vehemently oppose vouchers that pay tuition at private or religious schools. Here the irony—hypocrisy is a less kind word—is again startling. So many of those politicians who stand in the way of allowing poor children to escape failing schools send their own children to private schools. In New York City, where I have spent most of my professional life, both the current and the past chancellor of schools sent their children to private schools. Six of the seven members of the now-defunct Board of Education had also sent their children to private schools at one time or another. One might add to the list other notables in New York—the governor, the mayor, the leaders of both houses of the legislature, and the junior U.S. senator (and former first lady). In fact, I cannot remember a mayor of the city who sent his children to public school. But the other characteristic that this distinguished group, with few exceptions, shares in common is their outspoken opposition to school vouchers. These public officials seem to think that public schools are places where other people’s children ought to go whether they like it or not. But why should poor people have to send their children to schools that most middle-class people would never contemplate for their own? That is the underlying moral question of the debate.1
Even when policy makers support school choice, either in the form of charter schools or vouchers, the programs do not receive ample support. Charter schools, which are a form of public-school choice that Wasow and Kahlenberg support, on average receive 80 percent of the funding that regular public schools receive. Children who participate in voucher programs are also required to accept a funding penalty when they enroll in a private or religious school. In Cleveland, where the Supreme Court recently approved a voucher program,2 each voucher recipient gets $2,250 in funding, compared to $7,746 appropriated to their public-school counterparts. This is the price exacted by choice opponents in the give-and-take of the legislative process. As a matter of principle this disparity is an inequitable and indefensible form of public policy that hurts disadvantaged children the most. It also puts into question social-science evaluations that compare the performance of students in voucher programs with that of public school students.3 If the worst that can be said of these programs that operate under such adverse conditions is that their students do no better, then one must wonder how much better the same students would do if they received adequate funding.
I support the authors’ call for wider public-school choice, but in the end his opposition to vouchers is also a compromise to the notion of real choice. While well-intentioned, it tells poor parents that they can choose the schools their children attend so long as they do not choose schools that the gatekeepers of public policy don’t want them to choose. It sets limits. Unfortunately, there are not enough seats available in desirable public schools to accommodate the number of children who need to exit failing institutions. Real choice would not only extend the range of educational opportunities to disadvantaged families; the ability of parents to control a substantial amount of funding through the exercise of choice would furnish them with political and economic leverage in urban school districts that have taken their children for granted and not served them very well. Real choice would give poor parents both voice and power in the education debate.
We should not pretend, however, that choice for the poor would solve the intractable problems that prevent African American and Hispanic children from learning at the same pace as other, more advantaged children. Choice is not an excuse to abandon meaningful reform in public schools, where a great majority of our young people will be enrolled in the foreseeable future. Even under a regime of robust choice, all schools—public, private, and religious—that accept government funding should be held accountable for the performance of their students. Those schools that do not perform at an adequate level should run the risk of loosing public support—again, whether they are public, private, or religious.
There are no magic remedies in education, but granting choice to the poor is a crucial step in the right direction. As a matter of principle it is more equitable than the present policy arrangement, which reserves choice for the advantaged and confines some children to schools that most parents do not want for their own.
1 For a symposium on the moral question see Alan Wolfe, ed.,School Choice: The Moral Debate (Princeton University Press, 2003).
2 For an analysis of the Cleveland decision and its implications see Joseph P. Viteritti, “Reading Zelman: The Triumph of Pluralism and its Effects on Liberty, Equality, and Choice,”Southern California Law Review 76 (2003).
3 For a critical examination of the research in history, political science and economics see Joseph P. Viteritti, “Schoolyard Revolutions: How Research on Urban School Reform Undermines Reform,” Political Science Quarterly 118 (Summer 2003).