Stacking the Deck for the Poor: The New Politics of School Choice

Few ideas provoke more controversy in American education than school choice. In a profession tempered by a moderating politics, it stirs real passion. The concept can be traced back four decades, when Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman proposed a free market model of education as an alternative to the government monopoly. Friedman believed that providing parents with vouchers would foster competition among private and public schools, providing an incentive for better performance and improving the achievement of students.

Choice was reintroduced into the public dialogue in 1990 when John Chubb and Terry Moe published their landmark Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. The book generated much discussion and drew considerable fire, not only for its policy recommendations, but for its indictment of a political and institutional arrangement that had lost touch with the needs of many children. President George Bush responded by calling for a “GI Bill for Children,” promising to provide federal aid to states and localities allowing middle- and low-income children to attend schools of choice— public, private, or parochial. The proposal went nowhere. The education establishment, led by the teachers’ unions, reacted with predictable outrage. They warned, most direly, of the demise of public education, based on the cynical premise that when given an alternative, most parents would not choose to send their child to a public school.

Other critics raised fears of a skimming effect, whereby the middle class would abandon public schools, leaving the poor to suffer amidst the ruins of underfunded government-run schools. Still others raised the Constitutional argument. Legal scholars pointed out that providing government funds to religious schools, either directly, indirectly, or by accident, violates the First Amendment requirement for the separation of church and state.

The debate that attended Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools continues to thrive in policy circles. But it has become essentially irrelevant. To the extent that private school choice programs have made their way into the councils of government, they bear only a slight resemblance to the market model. If there is any evidence that choice has benefited more advantaged families, it is most apparent in public school choice programs, now extant in 29 states, where students compete for limited places in sought-after schools, often favoring those who are most articulate, most informed, and least in need of improving their lot. And in recent years the U.S. Supreme Court has defined standards that would allow government to provide financial assistance for parents to send their children to parochial schools.

A new model of school choice has begun to emerge in state legislatures and in Congress. One might call it the “equal opportunity model.” Its goal is to give children who could not otherwise afford it the chance to attend a high-quality private or parochial school. The first such plans were enacted in Wisconsin and Ohio, but others have received serious consideration elsewhere. All provide public assistance to students on the basis of economic need. There is no skimming here, for the target population is students who are most underserved by public education, the lowest achievers. Nor do these initiatives portend an end to public education, for only a small portion of the population can meet the means-tested criteria for eligibility.

The Problem: Separate and Unequal

Defenders of the present government monopoly can conjure up whatever images they may of a future shaped by greater choice in education. But the system they propose in its stead offers little hope for many children who come from minority and poor families. Notwithstanding the promise enunciated by the Supreme Court in the Brown decision 42 years ago, the condition of public education in the United States still can aptly be described in two words: separate and unequal. David Armor gives an account in his recent book, Forced Justice: despite the best efforts of civil rights advocates and the federal courts over the past four decades, most black children today attend de facto racially segregated public schools, the condition improving minimally since 1968. Moreover, a substantial body of empirical research and a flood of litigation in the state courts (in nearly two-thirds of the states) shows wide disparities in per-pupil spending between poor and middle-class districts. No resolution to either situation appears in sight. Public schooling, for all its virtues, just hasn’t been very kind to some children. The same system that helped assimilate generations of European immigrants is not working very well today for the most disadvantaged members of society.

Yes, there has been some notable progress in American education. De jure segregation has been all but eliminated. Ambitious compensatory programs have been spun out of Washington and the state capitals. After a precipitous 15-year decline in national test scores that began in 1964, student achievement is beginning to show signs of gradual improvement. But these victories tell only part of the story. Our system of public education betrays a persistent gap in student performance defined by race. In 1995, black students trailed white students on SAT verbal scores by 92 points. The disparity in mathematics was 110 points. The data on Hispanic students is only slightly less discouraging. If we are serious about education reform in America, then the first order of business is to meet the needs of those students whom the existing system has failed the most. We must move aggressively to close the learning gap between the haves and the have-nots.

School Choice: The Policy Front

In 1990, Wisconsin lawmakers approved a bill that provided a state voucher of $2,987 for students in Milwaukee to attend nonsectarian private schools of choice. Eligibility was restricted to families whose income did not exceed 175 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill was passed at the urging of black parents and political leaders who were dissatisfied with the poor quality of public schools available to their children. In 1995, the law was amended to include parochial schools, and the value of the voucher was increased to a maximum of $3,200. Last year the Ohio legislature enacted a similar plan for low-income students in Cleveland, whose hobbling school system had already been placed under state receivership. Like their counterparts in Wisconsin, Ohio lawmakers were responding to demands from minority parents, who in this case had become frustrated with ill-conceived desegregation programs that resulted in no marked improvement in education.

Within the past year means-based proposals have been advanced by the governors of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and California. Similar programs have been introduced in legislatures in Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico. Leaders in both houses of the U.S. Congress have supported private-school scholarships for poor students in the District of Columbia, where the public school system has had a long history of failure. Last March, Kurt Schmoke, the innovative mayor of Baltimore, spoke out about the need to provide alternatives to parents and “liberate American students from the public school monopoly.” Education, he regretfully noted, “used to be a poor child’s ticket out of the slums; now it is part of the system that traps people in the underclass.”

There is something inherently democratic about letting parents choose the school their children will attend, giving poor people the same options as those ordinarily exercised by the middle class. From a public policy perspective there are also very compelling educational reasons to do so. Since the seminal work of the late James Coleman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago in 1982, we have known that private and parochial schools, by and large, are more educationally effective than public schools. These conclusions have been supported by more recent research by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland, summarized in their book Catholic Schools for the Common Good. Their most significant finding is that Catholic schools have been especially effective in educating inner-city minority populations. Many successful parochial schools have student profiles resembling those identified with failing public schools. On the whole, however, they are less racially segregated. And, on average, they operate at a cost between 50 percent and 60 percent of the per capita rate of a public school. One would think such evidence difficult to overlook in the search for effective ways to deal with our most stubborn educational and social dilemma. But it has been only grudgingly recognized and applied to inform policy.

The Legal Issues

One major obstacle to full choice in education is mounted on the Constitutional question. The Milwaukee and the Cleveland programs are both being challenged in state courts by the American Civil Liberties Union, teachers’ unions, and other organizations. Strict separationists like to cite the Nyquist case handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, which invalidated a New York law that offered tuition allotments to the poor and tax credits to other parents who sent their children to private and parochial schools. Referring to the so-called Lemon standard set down in a 1971 decision, the Court struck down the New York statute because it was found to have the “primary effect” of advancing religion. Taken together, these two rulings anchored a decade of First Amendment jurisprudence that erected a high and impregnable wall of separation between church and state and had a profound effect on the relationship between government and sectarian schools—not to mention parents who want their children to attend such schools.

The wall began to fall in 1983 when the Supreme Court in Meuller v. Allen upheld a Minnesota law that provided tax deductions for parochial school students, as well as all others, for expenditures incurred for tuition, textbooks, or transportation. In 1986, the Court, in the Witters decision, permitted a student to use a public scholarship to attend a Bible college. In 1993, the Court in Zorbrest upheld the right of a Catholic school student to receive the services of a sign language interpreter at government expense. And last year, in the Rosenberger case, a majority of justices ruled that a religious student organization at the University of Virginia was entitled to the same privileges and support as other clubs on campus.

The Rehnquist Court has overseen a serious reexamination of the First Amendment. Although it has, for the most part, remained steadfast in proscribing direct public assistance to religious institutions, it has begun to define standards that would allow parents to receive aid to send their children to religious schools. Such assistance is permissible on three conditions. First, support must be provided to the individual parent or child rather than the institution. Second, any benefit accruing to a religious institution must be the result of individual choices made by parents or children. And, third, funds must be appropriated on a religiously neutral basis and be made available to all whether they attend a public, private, or parochial school. The High Court has emphasized that parents who choose to have their children attend sectarian schools are entitled to the same rights and privileges as those who do not. In relaxing the Lemon standard, it has resolved that the state has no legitimate interest in compromising these individual rights and privileges to prevent religious institutions from enjoying an ancillary benefit from programs that advance them.

As is evident in the Milwaukee and Cleveland cases, opponents of choice are now seeking to rest their arguments on provisions found within the state constitutions. States vary greatly in their approach to the church-state question. Some have revised their constitutions to adjust to more permissive federal criteria. Some have deliberately rejected the standards emerging from the Supreme Court, imposing aid restrictions that are much more limiting toward religious schools and the families who choose them. However, to the extent that these state provisions interfere with rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, such litigation will require a final hearing in the federal courts. In this sense the state suits represent a temporary legal detour rather than an insurmountable obstacle to school choice. Poor people are entitled to a quality education. Those whose religious beliefs require them to place their children in sectarian schools should not have that choice foreclosed by severe economic burdens imposed through rigid interpretations of the First Amendment.

The history of First Amendment jurisprudence, as written by some 20th-century scholars, could leave readers with the impression that the Founders harbored a deep fear, bordering on animosity, toward religion. To the contrary, throughout the early years of the young republic, education was entrusted to the ministry of various congregations. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were crafted by men who believed that a robust religious pluralism is consistent with the principles of strong democracy. That conviction is supported by contemporary social science research. The monumental work recently completed by Sidney Verba and his colleagues, Voice and Equality, identifies a strong connection between religious involvement and civic involvement, both behavioral characteristics associated with the virtues of republicanism.

Politics, As Usual

It is hard to make sense of it all. Why such rancor over the issue of school choice in its contemporary form? Means testing has eliminated the risk of elitism and the danger of evacuating the public schools. The Supreme Court seems to have discovered an approach to accommodate choice, while at the same time guarding against a form of establishment that offends the Constitution. Parochial schools, for those who desire them, are a cost-effective way to offer poor children an opportunity to receive a quality education in a less segregated setting. The availability of public funds through means-tested scholarships can lead to the growth and development of new schools—parochial, private, and public. Even if taken to its logical conclusion, and the competition engendered by choice results in the closing of some failing public schools, the outcome is not a bad one for public education. Coupled with the evolution of the charter school movement—now flourishing in 22 states, resulting in the birth of hundreds of innovative public schools nationally—choice will ultimately raise the performance profile of public schooling in America. We need to close failing public schools and provide meaningful alternatives to those unfortunate students who have been forced to occupy them. School choice represents good public policy; yet it draws serious opposition.

A large part of the explanation became apparent in Jersey City last winter when PepsiCo announced its intention to fund a private school scholarship program for low-income students. The Jersey City school district was about to be taken over by the state after a dreadful experience with mismanagement, corruption, and poor quality instruction. The Jersey City teachers’ union, a subsidiary of the National Education Association, greeted the PepsiCo initiative with a threat to boycott the company’s products. The press reported instances of vandalism against Pepsi machines. There were no public monies at stake in this case, no hint of a Constitutional dilemma. At issue was jobs, union jobs within the public school system. The union understood that if students began to leave the public schools to attend private institutions, it might eventually lead to a decrease in the number of teaching positions in Jersey City, an unacceptable precedent. Lost in the controversy was the fact that for the first time in their young lives, some children would have had a chance to escape the despair of a school system that had become a public disgrace. Under union pressure, PepsiCo terminated its plans.

Teachers’ unions are an important voice in the policy process. They have played a crucial role in protecting the rights of teachers, improving working conditions in schools, and attaining more competitive salaries for one of our most essential professions. Union leaders such as Albert Shanker have been at the forefront of initiatives to upgrade teaching and performance standards in education. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association exercise extraordinary political power in Washington and the state legislatures. They have a long history of political involvement, and their agenda has often been shaped on behalf of progressive causes. But in the case of school choice, their influence has been used to oppose a policy that could enhance the position of disadvantaged students.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect teachers’ unions to support programs they believe undermine their interests, just as one could not expect the well-intentioned executives at PepsiCo to continue a program that would compromise theirs. But school choice presents elected officials at the state and federal levels with real, albeit tough, alternatives. Sometimes acting on behalf of the disadvantaged, the have-nots of the political process, requires unusual courage, a willingness to incur the disfavor of the truly powerful. It comes down in the end to determining our public priorities—politics, as they say.

No, the politics of school choice has not changed very much, but the reasons once offered to oppose choice have begun to fade, exposing the process to more open scrutiny. Politics notwithstanding, many government leaders have begun to reexamine the old assumptions underlying an institutional arrangement that has condemned many poor students to a place in our worst public schools. The momentum has erupted from a diverse coalition of activists that includes blacks, whites, and Hispanics; liberals, conservatives, and libertarians; Republicans and Democrats. Change is in the air, and the new approach to school choice promises to create a level of opportunity for all children that was once the exclusive prerogative of the middle class.