School Choice

Interview with Christopher Jencks


Christopher Jencks, Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University is one of the leading advocates of the voucher system in America. As Co-director of the Center for the Study of Public Policy in Cambridge, Jencks was one of the principal authors of a comprehensive study of the educational, economic, sociological, and legal arguments for and against education vouchers. This study, along with several earlier articles—"Is the Public School Obsolete?" in THE PUBLIC INTEREST of Winter 1966 and "Education Vouchers" in THE NEW REPUBLIC of July 4, 1970—has done much to enlighten the liberal community on the merits of competition as opposed to monopoly.

To learn more about Jencks and his views, REASON dispatched former editor Lanny Friedlander and contributing editor Mark Frazier to interview him in his Cambridge office.

Reason: In your work, you have criticized the American school system. Yet your study did not consider the possibility of abolishing public schools and leaving education entirely to private schools. Why was this? Do you believe there is a necessity for public schools?

Jencks: I'm not sure that we made a decision that there is or is not a necessity for it. What we really assumed was that a parent's choice to send his child to a public school should be respected in the same way that the choice to send a child to a private school would be respected.

Reason: What is it about a public school that would lead some parents to choose it over a private school?

Jencks: Well, I suppose initially the thing would be that they would choose a public school because it's there and because they're familiar with it. You start out with a system that is all public or ninety percent public—the buildings are there, the people are there, and so forth. In many communities, the notion of having a school which is in some sense the common property of everyone in that community is something which people are very committed to. And in so far as that's true, it seems to me that it would be a reasonable thing to continue.

Reason: Would education continue to be tax-supported or would it be voucher supported?

Jencks: The tax support would come in the form of vouchers, of course, under the system. But the schools would continue to be controlled by a locally elected or appointed board of education. They would not be controlled by some private board which is self-perpetuating. Their financial situation, however, would be the same as that of a privately controlled school.

Reason: We would like to explore another topic—educational needs. In your report, on page 74, you say, "…low-IQ children and children with behavior problems would probably be left to the less desirable schools (in an unregulated voucher system). These schools would have ever-increasing difficulties in attracting staff and offering an adequate program. The more segregated the system became in terms of ability, the less likely a disadvantaged child would be to learn anything at all." Why wouldn't there be special schools set up, as a function of supply and demand, which were geared to children with behavior problems or low IQ, making extensive use of mechanical aids and specially trained teachers?

Jencks: I think there would be, if you were paying substantially more money. But if you have a voucher system which gives everyone the same amount of money then you're confronting a school which goes into the market with the option of either trying to get a relatively easy-to-educate child, for which they would be paid a thousand dollars, or a more-difficult-to-educate child for which they'll be paid exactly the same amount of money. In that kind of situation, naturally people will opt to do the easy job instead of the hard job, because there's no price incentive to go with it.

Reason: Are you familiar with George Dennison's First Street School?

Jencks: Yes.

Reason: Well, for about $850 per child, this school seemed almost incredibly successful in educating lower class children with behavior problems that had taken them out of the city public schools.

Jencks: I think that you could get some schools like that. But George Dennison is an unusual person, and the basic problem is that we can have one, two, fifty, or a hundred schools like that, which reflect the fact that there are people with special gifts, but there would be vastly more students who needed a school like that than there are, at least at the present time, teachers available and willing to do that kind of thing.

Reason: Some people involved in rethinking modern education seem to have a more mechanistic view of education than, say, someone like Holt, who doesn't look at how much money is involved but at how good the relationships are. Do you agree with that?

Jencks: Well, I think that the voucher system is a mechanical scheme, a legal scheme, an economic scheme, and it doesn't really address the question: "What is a good school?" It simply says that you are more likely to get a good school, whatever that might be, if financial arrangements and the ways in which people choose schools and get into schools involve more voluntarism than is the case now. The way I see it, at least, is that it's a precondition for doing the kinds of things that Holt, for instance, is interested in; but it doesn't assure that they'll be done or state how they'll be done. Somehow you've got to devise a system which doesn't say "You gotta do it like Summerhill" or "You gotta do it like First Street School" or "You gotta do it like John Holt says" or "You gotta do it like anyone else says." It has to give people room to maneuver and room for the feeling that they can control it and change it, so that when they don't like A they can go to B.

Reason: There is a whole series of questions that are somewhat interrelated. It concerns the desirability of letting parents supplement their children's vouchers. The report came out pretty strongly against letting them do so. First of all, can't those who couldn't supplement their vouchers get a good education nonetheless?

Jencks: There are two views of supplementation that are really quite separate. The first questions deal with whether you can do something for less money than somebody else is doing it for; it's kind of a question of whether it's fair to have more money spent on child X than on child Y. I do not have any question in my mind that cost is very indirectly related to the quality of education people get. I think it has some relationship, not because absolute levels of expenditure are all that important but because schools which get the least money can have a harder time getting all the things that money buys, and that in turn makes it harder for them to get good teachers and so forth. But that doesn't seem to be clear-cut; there are plenty of exceptions. You can point to lots of good schools which run on low budgets.

The second aspect of supplementation is the one I am much more concerned about. If you have a system where parents can supplement their vouchers, then that leads to economic segregation in the schools. A school sets its tuition at a given level; but, if that exceeds the level of the voucher, people can only get to that school if they're willing and able to pay the difference between the voucher and the price of attendance. And the natural process in that kind of situation is that every school will raise its price as high as it can, because it can always think of ways that it can use more money. There would be a few exceptions, but by and large, if you look at the way schools work, there are always pressures inside the school for money, more resources…

Reason: But at the same time, there will be a demand for low-cost education.

Jencks: Right, absolutely.

Reason: And there will be people who will meet that demand.

Jencks: Right, but what you will get then is a set of schools at different prices…

Reason: Offering different qualities of education?

Jencks: They may not be offering very different qualities, but they will be charging different amounts of money. And then we've got a situation where, if you believe as I believe, that the most important thing in the character of a school is the character of the other students you go to school with, then the question of price—how much teachers are paid, what the cost of the building is, and that sort of thing is not so important. I don't want to set up a situation in which kids from low-income families can only go to school with kids from other low-income families, and conversely, where kids from upper-income families in fact go to school only with kids from other upper-income families.

Reason: Doesn't this equate character value with the amount of money your parents have? What is the value of an economic mix?

Jencks: I think there are two values. One: there is a good deal of evidence that a low-income school has a special set of problems associated with it…

Reason: Low-income public schools.

Jencks: Yes. There isn't much evidence one way or another for low-income private schools because it's very hard to operate them. And the people who do operate them are usually very highly selective in one way or another. It's not that one cannot imagine a school which would work that had an overwhelmingly low-income student body. But there is a series of pathologies that begin to work, each of which makes more problems in other areas, until you end up with a situation that is the characteristic school that Kozol describes. If you assume that the kind of people who go into teaching now continue to go into teaching and that the types of pressures on schools are and will be pressures that now exist, then a school which is structured on a certain set of attitudes on the part of the kids (the kinds of things they do and don't bring from home) is more likely than not to start on this downward spiral. It doesn't have to, but it is very highly probable that it will, unless there is some extraordinary person or situation to prevent that. And, conversely, it seems to be very much easier to keep a school running in at least a sort of semi-human way if you have a relatively limited number of children who come into the school with severe problems from home. And that is equally true if they come from poor, rich, or middle-class families that have serious problems at home. It's just that there's a problem with concentrating too many problems at the same place, and it gets worse and worse and worse.

Reason: The next question is a moral question. If you're allowing segregation on the basis of religion, because there is going to be support for parochial schools, how can you say that you will not allow segregation by behavior or intelligence or race?

Jencks: You have to be clear about what we're allowing in terms of religion. We're not allowing a school to exclude kids who are not Catholic. That's one of the reasons why Catholics are not entirely enamored of this system. The emphasis is on the right of every parent to choose any school, regardless of any characteristics of the child, and on restricting the rights of the school to exclude. It's clear that if a school sets up some types of progress, it's not going to get anything like a random sample of the population. If I set up a school that is conducted only in French, for instance, I'm not going to get a typical cross-section of the public represented in my students. But anyone who wanted to send his child there could do that.

Reason: Even if you outlaw segregation on any basis, won't subtle and uncontrollable manifestations of prejudice segregate certain schools just as effectively? For instance, white administrators could keep blacks out of their school, couldn't they?

Jencks: There are a couple of things to bear in mind. One is that in terms of all-white academies, there is a requirement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that not only the student body be non-discriminatory, but also that the faculty be integrated. Assuming that a bureaucracy is not a very efficient organization—that they can count heads and do simple things but that they can't do very subtle or complicated things—government officials can look at a school and see if a faculty is all-white. And, if the faculty is all-white, that is reasonable grounds under the Civil Rights Act for withholding Federal aid—and also, under Supreme Court decisions, would probably be reasonable grounds for declaring any state or local aid to such a school as unconstitutional. Now that doesn't prevent someone from saying, "Well, I'll hire a couple of black people" and having their token blacks like everyone does. That's true in the south now. But there are limitations and pressures put on the extreme manifestations of a lot of these things, which would make it a lot harder to run a racist institution than it would be if you didn't have these limitations. But they don't make it impossible. The people who are most committed, and willing to devote the most energy to running a segregated institution, are very likely to find ways to keep their kids segregated, just as they do now. The point about the pressures is that in effect you say to people, "If this is your number one priority in life, not to have any black people around, there are ways you can do it. And if you'd just as soon not have any black people around, but you're not willing to put all your energy to it, then you're going to have to live with the fact that there are strong pressures in the society towards integration."

Reason: Don't these pressures, inescapable legal pressures, tend to create resentment? Hasn't experience shown that antagonisms then persist through great lengths of time?

Jencks: I think there's no question that under some circumstances it generates antagonism, and there's no question that under other circumstances it seems to have the opposite effect. You can cite lots of examples either way. It is not at all clear that simply tossing different people in the same school automatically makes them get along either better or worse than they did when they were separated. One of my assumptions is that when you put kids in the same school, where they have to live with each other, it becomes the interest of the school itself to try to create an atmosphere in which students get along with each other. It is in fact easier for the school, in the long run, to operate successfully if it doesn't have a lot of racial tension. Now that doesn't guarantee that they'll do that, particularly if you have a very strong tradition in that community "to keep the blacks in their place." But in the long run, again, you have a situation where school bureaucrats want no trouble. So one thing they don't want is racial acts in the school. And over any period of time they probably will try to begin to promote an atmosphere in which the black and white kids can get along with each other, rather than one in which the black kids get put in the back of the bus, in any manner of speaking There's going to be a lot of grief along the way, just as there has been in the integrating of public schools in the south—a lot of pain and push and pull, but the basic assumption is that if you put people in relative proximity to each other it increases the pressure for them to make peace with each other in some genuine way, in a way that the existing segregated system doesn't do.

Reason: What about Roy Innis' idea of black separatism, where black people run their own schools and decide what they want their children to learn? Would this foster increased racial understanding—maybe not in the short term but in the long term, when the races are not in the position of one having grievances and the other being responsible for these grievances?

Jencks: In the long run, I guess, anything which gives people a sense of confidence in themselves and an ability to control the world around them, to be responsible for their own lives, makes it easier for them to get along with other people and for other people to get along with them. If the kinds of schools Innis wants to promote have that kind of effect on the students attending them, it seems to me that in the long run it will be easier for us to develop some kind of society where blacks and whites can live together on a reasonably equal basis. The short run effect is obviously very problematic; a lot of those things which get done in the short run may increase antagonism. But in the long run I think the effect is very likely to be good. The analogy I intend to use is the parochial school system. You take a group of Irish Catholics coming into the United States—bottom of the heap, dumped on—they create a school system, their own school system. Kids who go through it, it turns out, are sort of "more American" than the "Americans" in a lot of ways. And not only that, they are relatively speaking, more successful within the existing system than were comparable Catholics who went through the public schools which continued to be run by non-Catholics. If you pursue the analogy, it is at least plausible that you could get the same kinds of results with black education. It's a long-term thing. The parochial school system did not create love and amity at the time it was started; in fact there was tremendous tension around it for several generations.

Reason: One other item about discrimination. What are the effects of mixing bright kids with slow kids? Likewise, well-behaved and not well-behaved kids? Would it encourage the development of inferiority complexes and resentment, or would there be more "exemplary" behavior and learning development than otherwise?

Jencks: There is a vast research literature on this subject. I guess perhaps a simple summary of it is that it does both, at once, which makes it very hard in a particular situation to say which one will be the most important effect and which one won't. But the common sense interpretation is that on the one hand people will emulate the people who do something better than they do, and learn from them, but that on the other hand they will have problems when they have to compete with those people. The question is to what extent any particular situation is competitive as against cooperative, if you will, and secondarily, to what extent the competition is between people who can compete. The best analogy I can think of is athletics. If you play tennis a little bit out of your league, you get better; if you play too much out of your league, you just get smashed.

Reason: How can one determine the intelligence or behavior characteristics of a five-year-old child? How can a school decide which children are "desirable" and which are not?

Jencks: Well, of course the first problem is that it is not easy to do this accurately. But the second half of the answer is that a school that wants to end up with a predominantly high-ability student body, let's say, although it can't be sure about any particular child, can still have a very substantial effect on the averages it ends up with by using, for instance, Metropolitan Readiness Tests on five-year-olds. They're wrong in a lot of individual instances, but still you'll wind up with higher averages in the sixth grade if you pick all the kids who did in the top quarter of the MRT, higher than if you just picked kids at random. You'll end up with substantially higher averages. It's just like the college admissions business—you give a test, you look at the grades, you read the recommendations. You're still wrong in lots and lots of individual cases. But on the average you can get a better student body if you use all that information than if you ignore it. The same thing is true of five-year-olds: you can't be very effective with any individual child, and that's what's so unfair about it but from the school's point of view it isn't very important whether they're right about individual children. They're struggling to build an overall atmosphere and an overall average that will be a plus.

Reason: Does your report in any way recommend that compulsory attendance laws be repealed?

Jencks: We don't deal with that at all in the report; it's always state legislation. My own feeling is that the compulsory attendance laws are probably much more rigid than they should be and that they're lousy particularly in terms of teen-agers. There ought to be a lot more flexibility and more options available.

Reason: Government programs tend to be very much concerned with a "problem" without bothering to integrate that with other problems. Is it perhaps part of the political structure for bureaucrats to look at things as if they were units to be shuffled around like with kids, to be shuffled around…

Jencks: I think it's natural for bureaucracies to do that. It's not so much natural for a political process to do that; in fact, I think, where you look at the political process, it often tends to be too much the opposite. People's reaction to an education proposal will not be in terms of what it's going to do for schools but in terms of a whole set of ideas that they've got about conservative or liberal politics, or their anxiety about drugs, or whether they think their kids are behaving right. In politics, it seems to me, ideas and feelings interpenetrate a lot. The technical issues don't so much because people just don't know that much. But when you administer something you've got to have a bureaucracy to make sure that the mail gets out on time, the payrolls met, and people have continuity and order in their lives and all the things that it turns out people secretly want, you can get the kind of compartmentalization that you're talking about.

Reason: There is a lot in the report about giving control to the parents of the children not a distant board, but what about the children? They're the ones who should be getting this money…Maybe that's super idealistic, but what about the vision of kids running their own lives, still being kids and crying and leaning on the parents and things like that, but still running their lives from a very young age. Why does the government dictate up to whatever age this program specifies that the parents are going to be the ones who make the choices?

Jencks: We're talking about elementary school kids. One of the reasons we're talking primarily about them is precisely that there are ambiguities, when you get to the high school age, of who should be making the choices. I think that legally there's no likelihood that we could get through a program which gave legal control of these choices to kids…But at the same time, if you want to maximize the choices that students have, it is clearly more likely you can do that if the choice is in the hands of the parents than in any other circumstance. Kids are much more in a position to get their parents to do what they want than they are to get the school board or some bureaucracy down town to do what they want. Kids are good at browbeating their parents, by and large; if you want to go to some school, you raise a lot of hell, and they'll probably let you go there.

So if you're thinking about effective choice for kids, the first thing you need to do is put the people who make that decision close enough to the kids so that there can be some kind of pressure exercised on them. The more removed, the more formalized and bureaucratized it gets, the less effect that pressure can ever be in influencing a process.

Reason: Let's talk about teenagers—you're going to give eight hundred or a thousand dollars a year for their schooling but that only continues their dependency, which is what these free schools are trying to get away from. You end up with the problem that it's someone else's money they're getting while you're trying to teach them at the same time to be responsible for their lives. Your report probably doesn't deal with this, but what is your personal opinion?

Jencks: There are two pieces in it. The first is that I think it's very important that people start to work young…

Reason: But what about child labor laws?

Jencks: Yes, I think that the child labor laws are for the birds. Well, that's not true. I think the child labor laws as they were originally constructed made a lot of sense…

Reason: You know what they're for; they're for adults who are afraid that ten-year-old kids are going to take their jobs away. That's what they're for.

Jencks: It seems to me not unreasonable to say that children can't work ten hours a day—that there are situations which get to be very exploitative. On the other hand, it seems important that people get very early to feeling that they can earn money, that they can carry their weight in the world, that they can do something: that they're grown-ups in some sense. And not that they should sit around and say, "Gee, if I keep sucking, it'll keep dripping in." You see people around here (Harvard) who are twenty-five years old and still living off handouts from their parents, and that gets very bad psychologically, to feel dependent that way. However, it is all very true that if you're fourteen years old and you're trying to get an education and at the same time you work, you can't normally find a job that'll pay you enough money to pay the cost of the education.

Reason: What is "an education"? If you're learning the trade you're interested in and studying at home, where…

Jencks: That's no problem. But it's clear that it's very hard to do that.

Reason: It is hard because people still hold the traditional view of education: that you have to go to another place and spend eight hours a day watching someone write on a blackboard.

Jencks: I wouldn't assume that. Suppose you take the classic kind of situation you used to have before the child labor laws. Let's say someone wants to be a lawyer. It used to be the case when you wanted to be a lawyer that you went out and got yourself apprenticed to a lawyer…

Reason: Does that make sense?

Jencks: Yes, that seems not unreasonable, but it may be more effective in some cases to spend some time in a law school, because one of the things ineffective about it is that if you've got to work for somebody as an apprentice he's quick to give you the work that he doesn't want to do and that doesn't teach law. So there are problems about protecting the rights of someone who has come in to learn the law by working for somebody, to make sure that he gets a chance to learn the things that are interesting, instead of just getting to empty the water cooler.

Reason: A law student, for instance, usually has a great deal of interest in teaching someone else. So the question is how to get people together in these new relationships where people just learning something, who are very eager, teach others from their (meager) store of knowledge.

Jencks: I think that makes a lot of sense. But you still come back to the problem that, if you conceive of jobs in the traditional way, something that you get paid for if you have a socially useful product that someone else is willing to buy, it's very hard for most people who are young and inexperienced to have enough product that is worth money to the society to sustain themselves when they're young and also get an education, in some cases they may be able to borrow against their future—you know, where they say, "I'm going to study something now, then work to pay back later." And it's worthwhile now for society to support him so that at some later point…

Reason: So that is the purpose of the public assistance…

Jencks: Yes. And there are a lot of ways you can do that. You can do it through loan funds, which make a lot of sense. You borrow a lot of money, and then you pay it back. That way you can support yourself at least partially from fourteen to eighteen, doing something you want to do and learning some sort of skill—and at a later point in life you support someone else.

Reason: What would you think of IBM, for example saying to a teenager, "You seem to be interested in computer technology. We'll be willing to give you room and board and pay for your education if you'll work for us for five years after you get out." What type of potential does this have? And how can you construct a system that will permit this?

Jencks: The problem with that is that people of forty, let alone fourteen, really don't know what they're going to be like five years from now.

Reason: What about some other plan, though. Not many kids today would take anything with a five year contract. Something with less demands on young people…

Jencks: But then it doesn't become attractive to IBM, you see, and that's why we get back to the public subsidy of education or some mechanism which instead of putting the burden on a particular corporation or group to subsidize something which is designed to serve their particular interest (the only plausible thing they'll subsidize) is going to serve the general interest of the society in some way.

Reason: Well, the "general interest" has to mean someone's interest, that of the individual people who have an interest in that kid. In reference to individual contracts, you could also have escape clauses: when I become nineteen, I could say to IBM, "I'm not interested in computers anymore, but I'll pay you back with interest."

Jencks: But when you do that, you're at a point not very different from one where you say "We're going to set up a state loan fund like the national defense education act from which you can borrow the money to go to school, and then you pay it back." In effect, now you're borrowing it from IBM rather than borrowing it from the government.

Reason: The difference between the two is that in one case you know that there's someone who really expects something of you; in other words, he's an interested party. People always get the idea that the interested party is the one you've got to watch out for, but it's the disinterested ones because they're always likely to standardize everything and not really be concerned with you. Which brings us to the subject of the Free Schools—schools with absolutely minimal amounts of bureaucracy. What future do you see for this sort of non-institutional institution?

Jencks: I think they're likely to spread. The Free School movement reflects a change in mood. It's hard to stop institutions; they always grow when they find a mechanism. It's like cancer—when you find a dynamic whereby an institution can feed on itself it starts to grow like mad. lt gets to tap the public till. Or it becomes profitable. Or it gets to serve the interest of some group of people in some way, then multiplies itself like mad. The Free School movement hasn't figured out a way to do that. It's still operating at the level where people are: they want free schools, they create them to serve a purpose for as long as it serves their needs, and then they let them go, so they don't have a long-term existence.

Reason: Perhaps that's what the movement is all about—things last as long as they're needed.

Jencks: That's right, but that almost means, by definition, that it's a movement and not an institution. It's like rock songs; they'll be popular for a while and then people get bored with them. And that doesn't mean that the phenomenon of popular music isn't a big phenomenon—just that no particular form of it has much durability. It's very different from a school system in that sense.

Reason: So where do you go from here? Is your work finished in a few months?

Jencks: We're trying to get a demonstration project set up, so I spend all day contacting people.

Reason: And you'll be running that?

Jencks: We won't be running the demonstration; some local community will be running it, if we can get them to do it. We don't want to run things even if we could.