Challenging the Public School Monopoly

Are vouchers the answer to restoring choice to American education?


Parents, Teachers, and Children: The Prospects for Choice in American Education, by James S. Coleman et al., San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies. 1977. 333 pp. $5.95 paper

Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control, by John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1978. 249 pp. $10.95

Education vouchers are suddenly back in vogue. Milton Friedman's simple idea that education tax monies should be spent by parents rather than the State was taken over by egalitarian liberals in the '60s, turned into a tool for social engineering, watered down to the point of unrecognizability by HEW (for a test that proved nothing), and then quietly dropped.

But throughout the '70s, something else was dropping—achievement test scores, as well as parents' faith in the monolithic public school system. Once more the idea of choice in education began to be heard, as exemplified in the two books reviewed here and, in California, in an attempt to qualify for the ballot a proposition instituting a voucher system devised by authors Coons and Sugarman.

According to the preface of Parents, Teachers, and Children, it attempts to take "the narrow subject of educational choice into the broader reaches of cultural pluralism and social trust" (emphasis added). For some of the 16 contributors, however, especially the economists, educational choice is clearly assumed to be the broad (important) subject while other issues are secondary. According to the dictionary, to choose means to take by preference out of all alternatives that are available. Choice cannot be substantially constrained, coerced, or predetermined, and remain choice. Yet the writer of the preface and several other contributors would have it both ways.

An interesting illustration is given in James Coleman's introduction. Since he considers choice a means to a social end, if it does not lead to the "right result" it should be constrained. The "right result" has to do with optimum social integration. If mechanisms such as busing will work to achieve integration they should be employed. In fact, busing failed for practical reasons—it cannot cope with white flight. So choice should now be allowed, for it will enable those who are "segregated against" to fight back.

Among other contributors who see choice as a means to a similar social end are Andrew M. Greeley: "Our Commitment to Integration"; Nathan Glazer: "Public Education and American Pluralism"; and Stephen D. Sugarman with John E. Coons: "Choice and Integration: A Model Statute." The latter, according to the preface, shows how choice may be used "to encourage social policies to which society is committed without resorting to compulsion." At the center of the Coons/Sugarman plan, however, are government subsidies, based on taxes. And since taxes cannot usually be escaped, compulsion is resorted to. Further discussion of the Coons/Sugarman position will be postponed until the review of the second book.


Turning to other writers, William McCready leaves us in a state of suspense if not bewilderment with such conclusions as, "the issue becomes what kinds of choices and pluralism we are willing to permit." There is some missing dimension of argument, if not circularity, here. If "we" permit then it is "we" who do the choosing. The same obfuscation mars Michael Novak's "Social Trust," which ends with the mystical opinion that "unity in diversity is the highest possible attainment of a civilization," an attainment that is made possible "through passionate concern for choice in an atmosphere of generous social trust."

The most entertaining chapter is by John O'Dwyer. In relating his teaching experiences in a public school, he brings us back to earth by looking at the choices and responses of the kids themselves. "By day ten, a pencil with eraser is highly valued and a major source of social conflict." But there is a tragic side as well. Improvement in education is possible, O'Dwyer argues, but there is no incentive for it. "Teachers' pay scales are based on a formula which considers longevity of service and additional education rather than performance." The teacher who has most intimate knowledge of the child's educational needs typically has no influence. "The administration seems satisfied as long as you manage your class efficiently—turn in your register on time, maintain student files, attend meetings, keep the children quiet and annoyed parents appeased."

Yet, betraying some professional prejudice, O'Dwyer has similarly harsh things to say about family heads. Parents seem to relate to education with resignation. "School just happens to kids." It is this typical professional teacher's view—that parents cannot be trusted—that seems to be the worst enemy of voucher systems and ultimately of true choice in education. But O'Dwyer does acknowledge that "the administration does little to promote a more active parent role; the system tends towards inertia."

The most outspoken and moving essay, by E. Babette Edwards, is entitled, "Why a Harlem Parents Union?" The two main purposes of the union are explained to be: first, to challenge the widespread notion that home conditions are responsible for poor academic achievement; second, to help parent groups know about the public school system and survive in it. Although principals, teachers, and their unions decry lack of parental contact, any sustained involvement by enlightened parents is in fact viewed as a threat by school officials. The kind of involvement that they have in mind for parents "takes the form of participating in cake sales and other kinds of busy work designed to give parents the illusion of participation."


Returning to the question of real choice versus constrained choice: there is much evidence that those writers who prefer the latter, or who are generally unsure, have been influenced by a particular version of history. James Coleman, for instance, seems to have accepted the bureaucratic "party line" that American public education was, from the start, a single system founded on a single "common school" to which children of all backgrounds were sent. Whether this was fact rather than the ideology underlying American development is very debatable, as is the view that before government education people could not practically provide it for themselves.

The chapter that challenges these notions most strongly (and is the liveliest of all) is that by Thomas Sowell. The belief that parents cannot be trusted, he argues, is obviously self-serving for the educational "experts" whose services are thus made to seem more needed. In fact, the empirical evidence does not bear them out. The half-million "free persons of color" in the United States before the Civil War, Sowell reminds us, were not subject to compulsory attendance laws and were, in most cases, not even permitted in the public schools or the private schools, often under penalty of law. Yet more than half of them were literate in 1850!

These facts alone strongly challenge Coleman's belief that the common schools were open to all, as does the fact of the parochial schools that handled vast numbers of immigrants. (While Coleman acknowledges these 19th-century alternatives, he dismisses them as "aberrations.") One important fact about early 19th-century history is that the common schools were not typically "free." Positive tuition everywhere gave parents much more choice in their selection of private schools; that is, they were not compelled to "pay twice" for their children's education when they chose a private school—as they must today. This feature alone explains the vast number of private school competitors with common schools in the period.

Sowell concludes that "the wholesale disasters of ghetto schools today are a product of modern fashions, promoted by the education 'experts' who expressed fears that parents' decisions would not be good for the children's education. Parents' decisions will certainly not be perfect; but if the alternative is not perfection but what the education establishment is likely to do, the parents have, by far, the better track record."


In "The Politics of Choice: A View from the Bridge," Denis Doyle chronicles the exact record of the attempts to launch voucher schemes in America down to the middle '70s. The crucial distinction between Friedman's and the later Jencks voucher system is elaborated. While Friedman's original plan was based solely on the liberty to choose, Jencks's version spliced on to it some strong and complex conditions in the name of equality. The first vouchers that were attempted from the Office of Educational Opportunity were of the Jencks variety. In attempting to satisfy everyone, they in fact satisfied no one.

The fatal flaw in the voucher plans, Doyle explains, was their failure to anticipate the political obstacles. Nothing could be better calculated to trigger the defenses of the bureaucratic monopolists in public education than the implicit claim of the voucher system that the consumer had a better sense of his own self-interest than the provider. Eventually having to compromise, the OEO Voucher Office emasculated the whole voucher system. Selection among schools (including private or public) involves real choice, while selection among subjects within schools is a constrained choice; and the final versions of vouchers stressed the latter. Since a wider choice of "menu" could be offered within a reformed public system, claimed the public bureaucracy triumphantly, the need for choice between public and private becomes superfluous.

Economist Richard Wagner makes the important point that it is not necessary to argue that the parent knows more about education than its providers. The whole argument should be set in the agent-principal relationship. The fact is that, with full freedom to choose, the typical family would select information and guidance from agents. With public education, however, everybody has to accept the findings of a compulsory monopoly agent. Where Denis Doyle describes these aspects of vouchers—competition, accountability, rewarding success and punishing failure—as "the rhetoric of the market place," Wagner analyzes them in a much more sustained way and does far better justice to Friedman. He drives home his point about the inefficiencies of monopolies by envisioning a world where groceries are provided free "by experts" and available only at the local municipal store. Such a system damages all consumers, whether rich or poor.

This, in fact, is all that Friedman had in mind. Keeping everything else constant, could the system not go further and achieve greater efficiency? By this is meant simply greater educational output (effectiveness) per dollar unit of cost, an achievement that would benefit poor and minority families most of all.

Parents. Teachers, and Children is on the whole good value for money. It certainly contains variety and often considerable freshness. To many, it will be worth buying for the chapters by Sowell, Doyle, and Wagner alone.


With respect to the Coons and Sugarman book we are reminded that their previous volume, Private Wealth and Public Education, was instrumental in the decision of the California Supreme Court in Serrano v. Priest, which found local property-tax financing of public schools, because of geographical variations in property values, unconstitutional for violating equal protection of the law. Several state legislatures subsequently revised their school-aid formulae in attempts to achieve more geographic equality within their public education systems.

The book jacket of this new work describes Coons and Sugarman as turning their skills to the painful question facing the next generation of reformers: How can we allow ordinary parents to decide how their children are educated? Further announcement seems to promise one glorious "gallop" for family freedom, and much of the first part of the book indeed lives up to it in an exciting way. In the last part, however, we find two slightly winded horses trotting back into the same Serrano stable from whence they emerged, a stable bearing the notice: "State Engineered Equality—Fully Private Persons Keep Out."

After the interesting opening chapters on the intellectual history of choice in education, we reach the most eloquent Part 2 of the book, "The Best Interest of the Child." Whereas the public system purports to follow the child's best interest, the real objective, Coons and Sugarman argue, is usually the interest of the suppliers—the teachers and administrators.

In any case, there is seldom a consensus about what "the child's interest" is. Can the family be trusted to educate according to it? Compared with what or whom? The alternative is the State, advised by its army of experts. Yet "Each generation of American experts produces nostrums galore for the teaching of elementary skills and basic social behavior. But most quickly fall on evil days, and none has ever generated a true consensus even among educators."


Choices on behalf of the child should, ideally, incorporate the young person's own choice within a decisionmaking community that is knowledgeable and concerned. In selecting the chief decisionmaking agent, one should respect the principle of "subsidiarity," which holds that responsibility for dependent individuals should belong to the smaller and more intimate rather than the larger and more anonymous communities to which the individual belongs.

Coons and Sugarman accordingly proceed to make strong claims for the family as the best candidate and, in robust legal style, the authors rebut an anticipated parade of arguments against their client. Will, for instance, the responsibility and affection of the family create anxieties that destroy their good judgment? Answer: "There is no evidence that such debilitation is widespread among families now choosing their children's doctor, or among the clientele of private schools. We would be surprised if the non-rich were peculiarly susceptible to this form of neurosis when selecting schools." After several such deliberations the authors conclude in favor of giving the family first choice and placing the burden on the State to demonstrate any educational failures.

The most philosophical, and perhaps the most persuasive, part of the book is Chapter 5, which argues that the main objective of education should be autonomy. This objective implies the full development of the child's latent capacities for independent reflection and for judgment on issues of personal morality and social justice, and it is best conducted in the family environment of caring and affection—"Autonomy is not rescue from mother and father."

The public school system, however, which is a functioning monopoly, "cannot faithfully pursue the autonomy of its captive audience." And the present system cannot possibly be neutral, as bureaucracies have their own "agendas." Within these, high priority is given to a "civil religion" that includes the virtues of hard work, accumulation, marriage, small families, thin girls, aggressive boys, reverence for applied sciences, health through professional medicine and, above all, "belonging."

The instrumental use of children is common in the public system, for it seeks objectives distinct from pupil welfare. Different parts of the system, meanwhile, have conflicts among their own objectives. There are varying views, for instance, on integration. In any case, those who pursue integration vigorously are usually prompted by reasons other than a consensus concerning the child's interest. And this applies to integration by economic class as well as by race. Some districts have schools that take in all ranges of families, while others have rigid separations along economic and ethnic lines. There is no reason to expect that disintegration would be greater in schools of choice than in the present system of compulsory integration. Indeed, the authors argue (in Part 3) that racial, and presumably economic, segregation would decline with free choice.


And so Coons and Sugarman proceed to the practical aspects of reform. Any system of State-financed choice, they insist, must include private schools. "The public system needs the prod of good example, but there will be no prod unless there is an alternative." (Interestingly, J.S. Mill pushed the converse argument.) Teacher certification, union power, and bureaucracy are all most stoutly challenged.

But then we come to the last chapter, Chapter 11, where the "proper and practical design" of the voucher is discussed. It is here that the tension, if not contradiction, between liberty and egalitarianism stands fully revealed.

Coons and Sugarman are at pains to separate themselves from the Milton Friedman argument for vouchers, although they cannot deny that their contention that racial integration can best be achieved through "voucher choice" is straight from Friedman's earliest claims. What upsets them about the latter's precise proposals is that his vouchers would allow tuition add-ons. This feature, Coons and Sugarman argue, would encourage segregation by income class. "However much it improved their education, conscious government finance of economic segregation exceeds our tolerance." This statement is conspicuously at odds with the earlier arguments for "autonomy" and for the need to get away from the instrumental use of children's education. The authors now begin to use children as instruments for their particular goals. The criterion now is to avoid what Coons and Sugarman will not tolerate. What they will tolerate is government-planned egalitarianism.

In this ultimate judgment Coons and Sugarman have to adopt a system that keeps most of the trappings of the existing bureaucracy and all its excessive cost overheads. Their complicated voucher scheme would indeed seem to invite even more bureaucracy. Their selected favorite is a scheme they call "The Quality Choice Model" (QCM). Participating schools would be allowed to charge whatever tuition they wished. Each family would pay a portion of its income toward the fees, while the State would finance the remainder with a subsidy based on family income. A middle-class family sending its child to a $1,200 school, for instance, might have to pay $800 (two-thirds of the full cost), the State providing only $400. A poor family that chose such a school would be given a much larger subsidy. The avowed purpose of the scheme is to prevent the rich from fleeing the public school system, which they allegedly would do under the Friedman voucher scheme with its allowed tuition add-ons.

Coons and Sugarman do not seem to appreciate that their scheme would do this, and probably in a stronger fashion. The main consideration today preventing most middle-class families from deserting the public system is what economists call the opportunity cost. Transferring a child from a public to a private school today involves the forgoing of the opportunity of a "free" government schooling worth, say, the same amount quoted in the previous example—$1,200. Under the QCM system the middle-class family's opportunity costs of transferring to the fully private (non-voucher-receiving) system would be drastically reduced to a mere $400 forgone (and even less for the rich).

Bearing in mind that schools in the fully private sector can educate at less cost because they don't bear the bureaucratic overheads (as the authors acknowledge), the temptation to patronize the latter and desert the former would, in all probability, be far greater than under the Friedman voucher system. Coons and Sugarman, in other words, would drastically lower the costs of entry to the fully private schools.


It would be churlish, however, to dwell upon these (among other) inconsistencies in the economic arguments. There is much to be learned—especially in the earlier philosophical and legal arguments. In the future, all interested parties must meet the many challenges given here. And interestingly, the strongest of these is embedded in the more consistent part of the economics. Coons and Sugarman would abolish "free" education. In their world everybody has to buy education, as they buy groceries. "Even the desperately poor would be required to pay something, however, if only $10 towards a $1,000 tuition and $20 towards a $2,000 tuition, to establish a personal stake in the choice."

This is not quite so radical as it might seem. Even under the present system the poor will have to contribute to the future increases in education costs through the taxes that they, like everybody else, pay. They will have to contribute through their property tax or the accommodation rents they pay (which reflect property tax), and through the various other taxes that persons of all income groups contribute.

The virtue of obliging the users of the system to pay their taxes directly, in the form of tuition fees, is that it would, at last, promote some effective competition. Under the Coons and Sugarman plan, a family's decision to transfer a child from school A to school B will automatically cause money (the fee) to be transferred in the same direction. Nothing better can be calculated to clear the minds of the education suppliers and to restore at long last some effective communication between them and their customer-patrons. Coons, Sugarman, Friedman—what's the difference? They all unite under this particular flag.

As for the present book's eloquent words of championship of the family, the authors' resemble those of Sir Robert Lowe, the 19th-century follower of Adam Smith and chancellor of the exchequer under Gladstone's government:

Parents have one great superiority over the Government or the administrators of [school] endowments. Their faults are mainly the corrigible faults of ignorance, not of apathy and prejudice. They have and feel the greatest interest in doing that which is for the real benefit of their children. They are the representatives of the present, the living and acting energy of a nation, which has ever owed its sure and onward progress to individual efforts than to public control and direction. They have the wish to arrive at a true conclusion, the data are before them, they must be the judges in the last resort, why should we shrink from making them judges at once?

E. G. West teaches at Carlton University, in Ottawa. He is the author of many books on education, including Economics, Education and the Politician and Education and the State.