The media have at last grasped the fact that test scores and graduation rates improve where schools are freely chosen by families. But what many people still fail to appreciate is that the case for choice in education goes much deeper than market efficiency and the hope to overtake Japan. Shifting educational authority from government to parents is a policy that rests upon basic beliefs about the dignity of the person, the rights of children, and the sanctity of the family; it is a shift that also promises a harvest of social trust as the experience of responsibility is extended to all income classes. So far, that part of the message is not making it in the current great debate about schooling.
Even the work of John Chubb and Terry Moe, authors of the celebrated Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, has contributed to the lopsided picture of educational choice as an efficiency device aimed primarily at economic growth. Their book treats consumers of education as potential instruments of producer autonomy; the declared objective is liberation not of the family but the school. In their telling, choice becomes, almost by inadvertence, a tool of supply side economics: we could almost suppose that the only serious aim of school reform is to maximize those outcomes that we now measure in our econometric models. Test scores, courses taken, attendance and graduation rates are allowed to exhaust the definition of the objective.
This is troubling on several specific grounds. First, putting the focus on the school instead of the autonomy of its clientele suggests that we can achieve the same objective by giving each existing government school the powers of an independent feudal baron. Choice would be superfluous. The reasons given by Chubb and Moe for believing that such local dynasties could not survive might be right, but nobody knows for sure (indeed, Chicago’s new system of school-site sovereignty is trying to prove them wrong). Second, their arguments are largely indifferent to the participation of private schools. For reasons that I will elaborate, the possibility of parents’ choosing in the private sector is crucial both as justice and as policy. Third, and most important, in the end choice comes off merely as an interesting policy gadget, further obscuring what its earlier supporters had supposed to be its central humanistic justifications.
School choice, in short, has been treated like the teenager with the keys to the convertible. His friends see that he is useful, and for the moment he is popular. One day, however, he may need to be admired for less ephemeral reasons. Choice, too, needs to be loved for its own sake, or at least for a reason more noble than its capacity to make life better for the producers. In fact, there are larger reasons for believing in choice—reasons equal in dignity to those that underlie our great constitutional freedoms. A humane democracy, however, should not leave its realization to the vagaries of constitutional litigation. What follows is a brief sketch of some of the more obvious social and political arguments in support of legislated choice.
Our system of tax-supported education has for 150 years provided many of the primary embarrassments to America’s image as a just society. America, for example, is still resolutely unfair to the children attending government schools in those districts that are disfavored by the poverty of their tax bases. This form of fiscal discrimination is unique among Western nations; foreign visitors find it incomprehensible, and, of course, it is. It also happens to be constitutional.
So also was the official racial segregation that lasted in the schools from their beginning until the courts removed the option in our own time. Not that the reality of segregation is behind us. Those who know Detroit, Kansas City, or the District of Columbia will affirm that the same exclusive effect can issue lawfully from the impermeability of district boundaries.
Until yesterday it was also the practice of our schools to force dissenting and nonbelieving children of the poor to behave like Protestants. Eventually the courts said no. That particular tyranny is behind us only to be replaced by another: children of whatever belief now must study the gospel of secular neutrality.
Finally, we still arrange education so that children of the wealthy can cluster in chosen government enclaves or in private schools; the rest get whatever school goes with the residence the family can afford. This socialism for the rich we blithely call “public,” though no other public service entails such financial exclusivity. Whether the library, the swimming pool, the highway, or the hospital—if it is “public,” it is accessible. But admission to the government school comes only with the price of the house. If the school is in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale, the poor need not apply.
Choice is the obvious remedy for such maldistribution and discrimination. A system of universal state scholarships, properly designed, would remove the anomaly of the impoverished district and the imposition of state ideology upon dissenters. This is the primary hope for ending the balkanization of children by race and family wealth. Choice, indeed, is the specific therapy for every historic pathology of the schools.
It is also the key to redirecting the schools toward positive but neglected social missions. The real case for choice begins with the significance it places upon free expression and the effects of that emphasis. Raising our children to represent our own values is the most important form of speech most of us will ever experience. That this point is almost wholly neglected by civil libertarians and by most literate people is a puzzle. One wonders if they are blinded by the hermetic separation of their professional work from their family life. The adult members of our elites tend to experience significant parts of their daily economic roles as forms of cherished and protected speech; in a market economy their work often has a public dimension or in any case tends to provide opportunity for discourse on public affairs. By contrast, communication within the family to their own children can easily seem remote from First Amendment values. Given its natural privacy, such speech is seldom constrained by external influences; hence it is seldom evaluated in political terms. Communication within the educated family is essentially cloistered, and its organic role within the system of speech is not easily appreciated.
It is ordinary parents who grasp this point most easily. They wear no cultural blinkers in their daily work. They have little reason to fantasize that the ideas they profess will reach influential ears or be disseminated by the market or the media. For most parents it is obvious that their chance to influence the world abides largely in the message they are able to embody in their descendants. Children are the books written by the poor. One day, perhaps, civil libertarians will discover this; the ACLU might even convene a great conference on family speech and the First Amendment—but certainly not tomorrow.
Note that there are two distinct aspects to parental speech. There is, first, the communication to the child—the ordinary private act of personal speech. Second, there is the message the parent hopes to embody in and disseminate to others through the child. Later in this essay it will be argued that this latter conception of the child, not as audience but as medium, constitutes an independent justification for educational choice, and that, when schools are freely chosen, they constitute a marketplace of potential ideas.
For the moment, however, let us concentrate on the purely personal and private dimension of parental speech. Here it is sufficient to observe that a society that truly cherished freedom of expression would ensure that options were provided to the family within the educational economy. For the school itself could represent an important personal message from parents to children; that is, it could serve this function to the extent that parents are economically able to express themselves in the act of selection. Today those families with the means to do so use schools in exactly that manner; and our law supports this precious liberty while carefully arranging to deny its practical enjoyment by the poor. This aristocratic policy is especially problematic given the reigning system of tax-supported compulsory education in which government providers dispense a set of ideas that is politically filtered. Choice is the obvious therapy. Indeed, viewed as free communication from parent to child, the choice of the school is not merely a means but a significant constitutional end.
Simultaneously, choice is therapy for the family’s sense of its own dignity. It seems safe to assume that we have no present plan to replace the family as the social unit that bears primary responsibility for the child. Even the widely defamed “welfare mother” continues to bear both the right and the duty to decide everything about her child’s life. She decides everything, that is, except the institution, the teacher, and the curriculum to which the child will be bound for the prime hours of the day.
This disenfranchisement of the poor (and not only the poor) comes at a cost to both parent and child. The parents learn that they are not trusted; they are not taken seriously. Society tells them instead that even utter strangers are better judges of the school that is most suitable for their child. A more disheartening message is hard to imagine.
From the child’s point of view the picture is equally dispiriting. For five years he has experienced the parent as friend and advocate. This dependence is complete, and normally it is wholly positive. In the case of the child whose family can afford to choose, that relationship extends beyond infancy when the parent selects the institutional agent—public or private—that will provide him with formal education. For the ordinary family, the opposite obtains. The relationship of trust and confidence terminates when the child sees the parent subordinated to strangers who command his presence for purposes of their own.
This is horrendous social policy, and it could be reversed without great technical difficulty. Over time, much of the damage to the family could be undone simply by a social commitment that human dignity be respected through an intelligently designed system of choice. No doubt the new experience of responsibility will prove painful for low-income parents; it generally has for the rest of us. But that way lies the possibility of maturity and autonomy. Not all of us make it, but no great purpose is served in denying the poor their chance to fail. The present policy succeeds only in maintaining that passive dependence of which we all complain. Some say the poor prefer and deserve it, but how would we know, so long as we withhold their opportunity to do otherwise?
For my part, I have yet to meet a poor parent who prefers such impotence. Anyone who claims to speak for the poor should think twice about supporting a system that assumes them to be invincibly incompetent in their evaluation of educators. Obviously people who have never been allowed to choose may need access to good advice; and insuring good information and advice may usefully enlist the agency of the state. In designing information systems, we need only remember that choice is the goal and the state is only its occasional instrument.
Now, change the focus slightly and consider parental speech specifically as a collective good. Protecting the speech of all parents as we protect that of the rich is a social end that can be realized only through choice. Schools that are freely chosen are the proxies for parental ideas that seek entry to the public dialogue. Today those who can afford to do so often choose a school precisely because it preserves and projects a certain deposit of belief. The parent has two distinctive interests in that belief. Qua parent one seeks transmission of one’s beliefs to the child. Qua citizen one chooses a school that puts one’s particular beliefs into the ideological market. The school is a loudspeaker for those who freely support it with their presence and wish to cooperate in its message.
The non-rich are presently denied this medium of expression. They are conscripted for schools that impose upon them a narrow curriculum produced by a political process. By political necessity the content of that curriculum is a matter for lobbying by”and must emerge inoffensive to—feminists, business interests, gays, lesbians, unions, blacks, seniors, Jews, Christians, scientists, and Christian Scientists. In short, it must be censored. The curriculum of the public schools is whatever survives this comprehensive system of prior restraint. It is an abuse of language to describe such denatured communication as a marketplace of ideas.
If we seek the specific therapy for this monopoly of expression, it lies, again, in the extension of choice to all income classes. Such a policy would serve the common interest in a dynamic system of free speech. Society at a stroke could eliminate the censorship of family expression and establish a robust marketplace of ideas embodied in institutions that are freely chosen by parents from every corner of society.
A counterargument is sometimes made that, while school choice would produce a marketplace of competing ideas, the individual child would experience its benign effect only if the parent chose a school that strove to embody the spectrum of ideas in its own curriculum. Most, they fear, would choose a school with a particularized method and ideology. Therefore, we should conscript the poor for whatever it is that is represented in the public school.
Unfortunately, a curriculum that is politically determined—i.e., any public school curriculum—cannot aspire even to be neutral much less to be a marketplace. Its highest ambition is to avoid offense. An open market of ideas inside ES.102 is unthinkable quite apart from the insufficiency of classroom hours. If the state were to double the school day, there would be crucial ideas that for constitutional and/or political reasons could never enter the public classroom. Nor would all these censored ideas be about race, religion, homosexuality, immortality, abortion, and gender roles. There are subtler heresies abroad that suggest limits to the ambitions of science and even presuppose the objectivity of morality. On such matters the public curriculum is not merely neutral; it is silent and will remain so. If there is to be a marketplace, it will be provided by schools that teach sharp-edged ideas of the sort that are offensive to the public censors and the lobbyists; these schools will be freely chosen by parents from among the alternatives allowable only in the free curricula of a private sector.
Another response to the speech-based claims for choice might be put this way: Censorship is, to be sure, a structural feature of the government school; but, if this is an objection, it is one fairly to be levied also at a system of choice that merely enthrones the parent as censor.
Left in this naked form, the objection is obviously true. Today when a rich family chooses a school—whether public or private—this is an act of censorship. But to see this clearly is an awakening. We grasp the reality that some adult is going to be determining the content and form of the curriculum for every child; in the designing of schools young people will necessarily be dominated by older people. Insofar as it is inevitable, this is no objection; but it does allow us to see that the correct formulation of the question must be this: Who should dominate the children of the ordinary family? Ought we to strip the working parent and the poor of the censoring authority that we blithely confirm for the rich?
In saying all this, we are still discussing choice in the context of liberty—and specifically of free expression—as a central social value. In relation to children, however, liberty is a tricky idea. I have just said that children will inevitably be subject to adults, but what would be more precise is to say that adults will determine the formal characteristics of the institutions of society. It may nevertheless be possible and desirable to have a care for the child’s own autonomy. Paradoxically, if we do have such a care we must (at least in some cases) proceed by preferring the distinctive interest of the child in remaining relatively dependent and protected even against his own will. That is, even to maximize the overall autonomy of a child, we may in the short run be required to limit his opportunity to risk injury—whether physical, intellectual, or moral. What society must seek from the institutions of childhood is the preparation of an independent adult. In pursuit of that end the question becomes when to restrain and when to enfranchise the child along the way. Note, again, that in the case of wealthy parents we pursue the child’s own autonomy precisely by giving the parents complete sovereignty. At least for those families, we have concluded that patriarchy is liberating.
Where education is concerned, any general argument for parental sovereignty as handmaiden to autonomy must be sensitive to the liberty interest of both parent and child and must extend to families of all classes. This argument would have various parts—one negative, several positive. The negative step is simple enough. Any claim for systematic state hegemony assumes a preexisting social agreement about the proper content and method of education; subordination of the family rests at a minimum upon a consensus about what the state should command. Of course, no such consensus exists. This society is deeply pluralistic, not merely concerning the aims of education but even regarding the proper means to convey effectively that content on which we do agree. On this ground alone our constitutional traditions should support parental sovereignty. What excuse have we for frustrating the interest of the low income parent to select any of the experiences that we concede to be appropriate for the fortunate? Surely the public educator claims no offsetting liberty right of his own to conscript somebody else’s child for the bureaucrat’s private vision of the good life.
However, the argument for broad parental authority is much more compelling than the selfish individual liberty interest of mothers and fathers. The central—and wholly positive—proposition is that in most instances the liberty interest of the child is advanced more by decisions of the sovereign parent than those of the sovereign bureaucrat.
The reasons for the parental superiority are not difficult to specify. First, growth in the child’s own autonomy is generally in the direct self-interest of the parent; and it is not so often in the self-interest of the professional. Normal parents seek to bring the child’s subordination to an end by extending each petty liberty—the bicycle, the car, the hours—at the point where the child shows readiness for autonomous choice. Regarding selection of the school, for example, it is common at some point in the high school years for those who can afford it to let slip the reins and to honor the child’s own preference. There is no reason to predict that less affluent families would vary from that pattern. Subsidized choice thus would mean that many more adolescents would achieve influence over their own education. They would by stages enter into an adult relation of cooperation with their own parents.
Prescinding from the liberty issue for the moment, it is also clear as a general proposition that—in terms of child welfare—better decisions tend to be made by decision-makers who themselves stand to benefit by decisions that are good for the child and who conversely stand to suffer when a mistake is made. On the whole such accountability is characteristic of parents. They must live over the long haul with the success or failure of the child’s formal education. Their advantage as decision-makers is, of course, augmented by their unique personal knowledge of the child and by their natural affection.
None of these relationships characterizes the professional educator. In general, he is not accountable for his mistakes and may even prosper from the child’s continued floundering dependence. He may have personal affection for individual children, but this is unpredictable and, for various good reasons, ought to be restrained. (For one thing, given budget realities, the professional often and quite properly must sacrifice one child’s interest for that of another; sometimes we can’t have both volleyball and violin.) Finally, his knowledge of the child’s needs is relatively abstract. I do not mean that the professional’s knowledge is unimportant. What I do mean is that his proper contribution is like that of the architect; so long as the client is free to follow or disregard it, it is useful. That is what professional advice is for; the professional is our agent, not our boss.
Now these claims about the best interest of the child may seem like a reversion to the “efficiency” arguments for choice that I originally criticized. In part, this is correct. To assert that parents make the best choices of schools for their own children is to echo the findings of Coleman, Chubb and Moe, RAND, myself, and everyone else who has asked the question—including even the enemies of choice. The point has special application here, however, because the liberty interest is intimately linked to the overall welfare of the child. Both interests must be simultaneously served through an adult authority, and parental choice most nearly achieves their harmony. Please note: I have not argued that parents are necessarily good deciders. They are merely the best.
Critics of choice often invoke another set of American metaphors to justify the exclusion of nonrich families from the marketplace of ideas. They assert that, by expressing their preferences in education, the poor will foment ideas that are dangerous to society. Some of them, indeed, will prove intolerant of others. Before I address that claim, I would like to comment on the particular contribution of public schools to intergroup tolerance.
The machinery of public monopoly was chosen specifically by brahmins like Horace Mann and James Blaine to coax the children of immigrants from the religious superstitions of their barbarian parents. Today that antique machinery continues its designated role, and if this function was ever benign, it has long since ceased to be so. What has endured is the public school system’s peculiar legacy of intolerance, racial segregation, religious bigotry, discrimination against the poor, irrational fiscal distinctions among school districts, and—over and against all this—the careful buffering of the freedom of the rich to decide for themselves.
This masterpiece of social hierarchy is a source of intense mutual antagonism among those whom it throws together by their common poverty. Seeing that their own opinions count for nothing, its victims are easily moved to a similar contempt for the ways of others different from themselves. Those others they encounter at close range, conscripted like themselves for compulsory institutions. The hostilities generated among students and among parents are replicated at the macro level by conflict among organized minority groups struggling to control pieces of the educational juggernaut for their own parochial purposes. Who can blame them? By mistrusting them, society has encouraged them to mistrust one another.
Subsidized choice, again, is the specific therapy for such discord. In part this is simply because schools perform their pedagogical tasks better when families are there by choice. It is only by contract and mutual accord that families are able to form and maintain those fragile communities of learning that James Coleman has found to be the single most important stimulus to the disadvantaged child. Nor is it even relevant to object that the families in private schools are self-selected. This is true by definition, but so what? Indeed, self-selection is the very point; choice does work for those who use it.
And many more do want to use it. What we know from the polls is that most families would covet the opportunity to join or form such learning communities. Except for the wealthy few, this yen for family autonomy has until now been incapable of satisfaction. We can only guess how many families—given the chance—would emulate the pioneers.
The literature confirms that these private communities of learning are efficient, but I wish to emphasize that they are socially healing. Corrosive intergroup enmities are seldom replicated in private schools. Whatever the mix of race and social class represented by their families, hatred is not their most important product. So far as anyone can tell, their graduates are at least as tolerant of racial, religious, and ethnic differences as are their public school counterparts.
For my part, this civic virtue seems the natural outcome of an education that is allowed to focus upon a coherent set of human and/or religious values, even where those values are strongly sectarian. The child who studies justice in a simple focused model filled with live adult exemplars may be the readiest in later life to recognize that justice is a problem involving all of us. Karl Barth put it that “a will to unite cannot be developed by a people who have not yet taken themselves, to say nothing of the others, seriously.” To begin to treat ordinary citizens as responsible—to take them seriously—is an investment in social unity.
All this is not being asserted as a universal psychological law; possibly for the moral development of certain children the blandest and most irenic of curriculums is the ideal. In any case, it is an admirable thing for a school to teach the dignity of persons who disagree with its message, and not every private school does or would do so. Private school offenders, however, are not noticeably different from the public systems that systematically separate off the poor and which, by political necessity, relegate a range of religious and other values to a kind of limbo. Those who claim that compulsory state schools in general work to increase the civic virtues will find me a tolerant but skeptical listener. Meanwhile, we pass on to the particular question of tolerance among the races.
For this purpose, it will be useful to retell the brief sad tale of Kansas City. In 1986, the public school district of that city and the state of Missouri were both found guilty of deliberate racial segregation. The nearby white suburbs were found innocent. The federal judge distributed the white children in the district to achieve what desegregation he could, but they represented only 25 percent of the children. He offered the black students a free ride to the suburbs with fat tuitions for the suburban public schools, but those schools would not have them. In 1989, fifty private schools offered these same children 4,100 racially integrated places at an average cost one-third that of KC public schools. Black plaintiffs thereupon sued both city and state, asking for scholarships that would allow them to vindicate their Fourteenth Amendment rights in private institutions while saving the taxpayers money. Each defendant promptly engaged two major law firms in addition to its own legal staff to oppose the suit. The teachers’ union hired a fifth firm for the same purpose—to frustrate the choice of an integrated education for these children. So far the defendants have managed at enormous cost to avoid a decision on the merits.
The lesson is plain enough. Choice can be—and generally is—an instrument of social peace. In the case of Kansas City, it is the only instrument. One can imagine its adaptation to the predicament of black children in Detroit, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and many other urban areas in which blacks or other minorities are immured by the monopoly. Here is tolerance for the asking, if only the civil rights establishment will ask for it. So far the establishment has lined up in opposition. Civil rights lawyers in Kansas City admit that the plaintiff children would be better off if given a choice. However, they cannot in conscience support anything that might facilitate the flight of the poor from the public sector. And they augment this noble objection with the observation that most of the schools available to help the poor are religious. Q.E.D.
All these kind words for choice rest on the assumption that the particular system of subsidies to be legislated will follow certain simple operational criteria. First, the subsidy must go to families and not to schools or other institutions. In the case of religious schools, this will be sufficient to insulate the subsidy from constitutional attack under the Establishment provision of the First Amendment and, possibly, some of the state counterparts.
Second, private schools must be included as legitimate choices. This was implicit in my observations on the limited free market now constituted by private schools. Only private schools can satisfy the legitimate interests of many families in exposing their children to ideas that would be politically or constitutionally censored in the government schools. However, the presence of private schools is also necessary as a matter of elementary economics. Without them, it is unrealistic to expect the custodians of the public monopoly to purge the system. Among the recent legislative proposals for “public school choice” there is not one that would threaten anyone’s job. The “educartel” has no intention to disengage public systems from the respirator. It will harbor and promote those whom competition would instead encourage to find more suitable professions. Eliminating incompetence and redundancy is not the whole of the matter, but it is a necessary element o[ any serious reform.
Third, private schools ought to be protected from regulation of curriculum, hiring, and choice of facilities. The point of reform is not lo reduce them to the role of Leviathan’s apprentice, but to encourage their self-definition and thus their special contribution to our intellectual and social life.
Fourth, public educational authorities must be liberated to organize schools and to instruct children with the freedom characteristic of the private sector (the exception here is religious instruction). Most parents will probably wish to choose government schools and these schools must, therefore, be given the necessary opportunity to perfect their product. To that end, the various initiatives that Stephen Sugarman and I have designed over the last generation would give school district boards an option. The district could—if it chose—stand pat with its present arrangements including student assignments based upon geography or other criteria. On the other hand, the district would now be empowered to create deregulated, subsidiary, not-for-profit schools in whatever numbers the board saw fit. Each of these new schools would be a separate public corporation with articles of incorporation and bylaws that tailor the school to whatever management style and educational mission the district board wishes to try in the market.
These new government schools would survive on their capacity to attract customers, each of whom would be eligible for a state scholarship worth 90 percent of the average statewide expenditure for a child of similar grade level and circumstance. In such schools, residence could no longer be a criterion for admission. The playing field for public and private providers would be effectively leveled.
Fifth, the system must, nevertheless, tilt toward the poor. Sugarman and I reject the sunny prediction that a wholly unregulated system of scholarships would serve all classes equally well. The primary object of reform is the provision of good education to those who are presently most disadvantaged; these are the children who will be least attractive to the most popular providers in an educational market. Others may well believe that the benign intention of providers is enough to assure sufficient places for the poor in the best schools. I concede these good intentions, and I intend no offense by my skepticism about the outcome. I would insist, however, on a provision setting aside in each participating school (public and private) a substantial proportion of new admissions (say 25 percent) for low-income families. In addition, it would be crucial to insure the affordability of enrollment either by forbidding charges beyond the amount of the scholarship or by requiring that such charges be scaled according to the family’s capacity to pay These are the only restrictions that I would insist upon for those schools—public or private—that are organized to accept state scholarships in exchange for education.
Finally, the subsidy to the family must be sufficiently large to stimulate the establishment of new schools in order to provide alternatives and competition. The national average per-pupil expenditure in public schools in 1991-92 is roughly |5,800, of which $400 is federal money. An average state scholarship of $4,800 would insure formation of new producers in both sectors in most areas and could be phased in with little or no additional tax burden. Conservatives and libertarians often propose subsidies in the range of 12,500. These may be useful to let a modest number of low-income children in the inner city fill up spaces in existing parochial schools; and it will be lovely for the middle class who already use such schools in the suburbs. It will do little to expand the alternatives necessary to make choice meaningful for the mass of working-class and low-income families.
If our recent political experience means anything, several of the previous points will be misunderstood by certain professed friends of choice. For example, an admission preference for the poor will draw someone to his feet shouting “quota.” This is natural, but it is wrong, and here are some reasons why it is wrong. First, a set-aside for low-income children is utterly unlike a racial quota. Race and gender are immutable natural characteristics; hence, for various reasons—rational and historical—legal classification by race or sex is always suspect and needs strong justification (e.g., prior deliberate discrimination). By contrast, poverty is a circumstance that may occur to any of us and, by the way, occurs among more whites than blacks.
Second, poverty is by definition a disabling circumstance. It is a condition that puts undesirable limits upon the individual’s capacity to fulfill either his responsibilities or his legitimate aspirations. Race, by contrast, is not disempowering by its nature and can become so only in specific cultural settings; being black or female can even be an advantage in some circumstances. When we favor or burden persons by skin color, therefore, we run a serious risk of injustice precisely because race by itself is not a reliable indicator of anything important. Involuntary poverty is such an indicator. It specifies a significant human disability.
It is for this reason that poverty historically has been used by governments of every stripe as a legal classification. In aid of their personal autonomy, the state has made the poor eligible in countless ways (mostly ineffectual) for special public benefits. Whatever one thinks of Milton Friedman’s own proposal for a guaranteed income, it was advanced within this historic tradition. Being for human liberty does not always exclude giving the poor a helping hand on the way to independence.
Conversely, there are pragmatic considerations affecting the operation of private schools for the poor that make the resulting burden of a limited preference easily manageable. First, this is a preference respecting admissions only; it gives the child the opportunity. If either the academic work or the discipline eventually proves too much for the occasional misfit, the school can discontinue the relation. Second, many or most of the private schools already have substantial and successful experience with children of the poor. Third, by recruiting a larger pool of low-income applicants, the school can have an unencumbered choice among them. The energetic school thus could pick and choose all of its students, so long as its new enrollments each year included one poor child out of four. Fourth, since the school could advertise its specific practices and curriculum, any fear that it would attract misfits is far-fetched. In an open market with a variety of schools available, why would families hostile to its message want to enroll in the first place? Fifth, the poor desperately need precisely the kinds of learning communities that are now represented in the private sector.
Would the private schools lose some autonomy? Obviously—to some extent and in certain particulars—they would. The question is whether both they and the families of the children in them would experience an overall increase of freedom. In addition, it is unsettling to suppose that private schools would seek access to state scholarships but remain unwilling to share the common burden of educating disadvantaged children.
Having said all this in support of favoring the poor, I want to add the political observation that this issue may be the rock on which reform will founder. On the one hand, if the poor are not specifically favored, the usual suspects—the unions and the professoriat—will declare choice to be an instrument of class dominance, and the media will naively affirm this canard; the monopoly will have been handed a political stick it does not deserve. On the other hand, if the poor are in fact favored in the proposal, those now holding the political throttle will be tempted to cry “quota.” I hope both sides will be restrained in their tribal responses.
There is at present little evidence that they will. In 1991, after eight months of apparent consensus among all interested factions, a balanced ballot initiative for California was quietly dumped at the final moment in favor of a $2,500 scholarship with no protections for the poor. It will be supported by libertarians, Chubb and Moe, the Heritage Foundation, Milton Friedman, and most sectarian non-Catholic schools. At this writing, the Catholic bishops are deciding their own position. For their suburban schools, the initiative would add the scholarship amount to tuition, at last making Catholic schools financially competitive and more attractive to the middle class; in the inner city, it would allow the struggling low-tuition Catholic schools to fill thousands of unused spaces with low-income children, improving their lot considerably. The overall effect on the poor will be modest but benign.
The difficulty with the proposal is that the poor will be largely segregated in schools that spend $2,500 while the middle class will be largely segregated in schools that spend $5,000. At $2,500, few new schools will be started in the inner city. The continuing social division may be as thoroughgoing as that sponsored today by the public system. This is unsettling to some of the bishops, and the ultimate interest of the Church is unclear. The most vocal and affluent Catholics will probably approve; but the media are likely to take a dim view, with at least some justification. It is all a great pity, as the proposal could have been—and nearly was—designed to better express the interest of both the schools and the poor. It will be fascinating to monitor the arguments that get pressed in the campaigns for and against this initiative if it makes it to the November 1992 ballot.
Whatever happens to this well-intended conservative venture, there will in the future be political hope for better-designed systems of choice. That hope lies in a full-scale scholarship, phased deregulation of the public schools, and a modest tilt toward the poor in matters of admissions and add-ons. These policy impurities favoring the disadvantaged could be absorbed without damage to the identity of private schools so long as employment, curriculum, and every other educational aspect of the school’s life are left untouched. Perhaps those who worship pure competition will come to appreciate this; perhaps those who have claimed to speak for the poor will come to recognize opportunity when it stares them in the face.
John E. Coons is Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor, with Stephen D. Sugarman, of Education By Choice (University of California Press).
Image by Ben Schumin licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.