It seems like a dream come true. To longtime advocates of competition in American education, the much-publicized adoption of Polly Williams's voucher plan in Milwaukee and the release earlier this year of President Bush's choice-driven education strategy seem to form the crest of a long-awaited wave of reform, soon to crash through the rickety edifice of the public-education establishment. New Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and Deputy Secretary David Kearns are strongly pitching a parental-choice program encompassing private and religious schools, using terminology cribbed from Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, a highly praised choice manifesto by John Chubb and Terry Moe. And state and local policy makers are enacting new programs, with varying degrees of early success and acclaim, to give parents choices among publicly funded schools.
But judging the size and power of an approaching wave is often difficult at long distances. You have to be close to it. That's why it's important for us not to drown in the homilies and hype surrounding choice, and not to ignore the still powerful undercurrent of opposition beneath the surface. The adoption of truly meaningful reforms isn't guaranteed. It requires a calm and honest assessment of the choice experiments to date and a realistic view of the political and legal obstacles that lie ahead.
Teachers' unions and other groups with a vested interest in the current system wield tremendous power in state legislatures and local school politics. Their lawyers have a number of weapons to employ, from questions about re-segregation to constitutional challenges to state aid for religious schools. And the general public, while favoring the concept of choice in education, is still largely unfamiliar with the specifics of voucher plans. Their support is broad but not deep.
Even given these caveats, advocates of choice can triumph—but not all at once, like a crashing wave. Instead, they will need to work gradually, eroding the education establishment's own power base and letting news of choice's early successes trickle down further into the public consciousness. They need to examine the practical, legal, and political obstacles to choice, and determine ways to overcome them. And they need to make allies among educators, business leaders, politicians, and power brokers in both parties, and the news media. If choice advocates go too far, too fast, their reforms—vital to educational improvement and therefore to America's future—could fail.
So far, most choice programs have been limited to public schools, with competition further restricted by bureaucratic barriers. The momentum to establish such "controlled-choice" programs is growing. In Massachusetts, for example, a statewide public-school choice plan proposed by new Gov. William Weld passed the legislature in early 1991, with the crucial backing of State Senate President William Bulger and other Democrats. In Michigan, bills authorizing intradistrict choice among public schools and experiments with interdistrict choice made it out of the education committee in the state Senate, although they ultimately failed on the floor. And influential Democratic politicians, from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to Arkansas Gov. (and potential presidential candidate) Bill Clinton have endorsed school choice in varying forms.
One reason for the popularity of public-school choice initiatives is the record of a few long-term choice experiments. These programs give advocates successes they can point to—examples of systems that, while far from perfect, offer a better education, more freedom, and greater flexibility than the typical no-choice public-school system.
One of the oldest public-school choice programs is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city of 100,000 located across the Charles River from Boston. Under court orders to desegregate its schools, the city phased in a choice plan over three years, beginning in 1979, as an alternative to the busing that ripped Boston apart. Without the choice plan, it seems likely that the school system, which still operates under cumbersome court decrees, would have exploded long ago. Certainly many observers believe the choice system has helped the city avoid at least the magnitude of white flight and school decay that occurred next door in Boston. Chubb and Moe report that in 1987, after six years of controlled choice, 89 percent of new elementary students in the district were enrolled in the public system, compared with 78 percent in 1979.
In Cambridge, elementary and middle schools compete for students (with considerable bureaucratic intervention), and several different programs operate within the city's single public high school. Parents select at least three elementary schools for their child, ranked in order of preference. The school system's student assignment officer then intakes those preferences and evaluates their compatibility with racial balance, available space, and other controls. The system is far from a true market, since unpopular schools don't close down and popular schools don't expand to reflect demand. But, according to Cambridge officials, 87 percent of kindergarteners entering the system receive their first choice.
Cambridge's schools of choice divide into "traditional" and "alternative" camps, with some programs unique to Cambridge. For example, the K–3 Maynard School, formerly considered undesirable by many parents, became one of the most popular schools in the district by starting the "Amigos" program, in which students speak English half of the day and Spanish the other half. The program is a favorite of Cambridge's middle- and upper-middle-class white parents, many of whom are employed at nearby Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But what about the city's less privileged population? A major objection to choice, even controlled choice among public schools, has been that poor parents aren't knowledgeable or responsible enough to make good choices for their children. Cambridge takes this objection very seriously. It operates a Parent Information Center to provide information packets and to answer questions about school choices. The system also employs 13 parent-liaison officers and a number of part-time and volunteer people (speaking every major language in the city) to serve as intermediaries between parents and the school system.
"It takes a conscious, active effort on our part" to provide all parents the information they need, says the system's parent coordinator, Margaret Gallagher. She and other officials visit Head Start centers and public housing projects, mail information, and make phone calls to parents to tell them about school choice and remind them of deadlines. "Poor parents are often overwhelmed by school choice," she says.
More educated or affluent parents may ask about a school's teaching style, atmosphere, or past performance, says Gallagher, but low-income parents seem most concerned about how far the school is from their home or whether their children will fit in with other students who may be better dressed, better fed, and generally better off. Of course, most schools don't differ that much from one another, at least within the "alternative" or "traditional" categories.
Cambridge's parent information efforts provide its critics with plenty of ammunition with which to snipe at the "controlled-choice" approach. Most recently Abigail Thernstrom, an adjunct associate professor of education at Boston University, evaluated the Cambridge system in a report on school choice in Massachusetts for the Boston-based Pioneer Institute. She specifically criticized parent information centers in Cambridge and other Massachusetts school systems for advancing the school system's interests over those of parents and for over-selling their success at informing disadvantaged parents.
"Parent information centers too often steer parents into those schools that have room for members of the racial or ethnic group to which they belong," she reported. "Often those will be the schools with space precisely because they are regarded as problem institutions."
Thernstrom also questioned the entire effort. Low-income parents, she wrote, are by definition poorly educated and disciplined—otherwise, why should they be in their present predicament? More important, it's inherently difficult to tell schools apart by just hearing about them or visiting them once or twice. "Schools are not quite like a grocery store in which products can be easily compared," she contended.
Although she stretches the argument a bit too far (suggesting, for example, that teaching styles and classroom environment, qualities parents value and officials can explain, aren't really part of a school's educational mission), Thernstrom does raise some important questions about the capabilities of both parents and information officers in a choice system. Printed materials on Cambridge's schools of choice are bland and pointlessly repetitive. Most school descriptions use the same phrases and codewords to describe their programs—such as "developmental" education, "diversity," "individual needs," "mutual participation"—and provide little useful information with which to choose among schools.
Furthermore, the perfect marketplace for educational quality envisioned by some simply doesn't exist in Cambridge. Gallagher told me that most parents, regardless of education or socioeconomic class, don't put much of a premium on finding out the test scores or other qualitative measures associated with each school. "The schools with the highest test scores are the conservative, traditional ones," she says, "but most of the population is liberal and likes the open school." While it's difficult to attribute performance to any factor, including whether a school is traditional or open, the fact is that Cambridge parents—and, if inflection and emphasis is any guide, school administrators such as Gallagher—don't seem to evaluate schools by results, formally understood, though that has been one of the promises of choice proponents.
Still, this proposition doesn't suggest that even this limited market for education is destined to fail. To point out that regulated markets—or markets in general—are imperfect is not to say they aren't superior to alternatives. While parent information centers and other formal mechanisms for promoting informed choice may have limited effects, the most important source of information is word of mouth—how neighbors' kids did at a given school or later in high school or college. Over time, parents will gravitate to schools that produce successful students.
We already have a model for how this informal selection process might work: private schools. They don't just attract parents who understand educational terminology and the theories of Montessori or who scrutinize school reading lists to make sure the classics are included. They rely on reputation, neighbors recommending neighbors, etc. Having some parents who know what they're doing is probably enough. Just as consumers who can intelligently compare cars or computers drive the market toward quality, benefiting car or computer buyers (like me) who have no idea what they're doing, so also might parents, operating without perfect information or expertise, still be able to demand quality in education. One proof of this is that a large number of poor parents are able to name the best public or private schools in their communities, at least as measured by the success of those schools' students. They just can't afford to move into the right district or pay the tuition necessary to get their own child into them.
The record in Cambridge suggests that 1) the system implemented public-school choice mostly to avoid takeover by the courts on racial-balance grounds; 2) the public schools didn't fall apart, and, on the contrary, choice-driven improvement may have prevented further white flight; 3) formal and informal measures of school performance have improved (achievement scores are up, and parents, students, and staff seem excited about their schools); and 4) parents seem at least mildly capable of finding a school they believe will serve their children well, and they will send their children to schools outside their neighborhood if necessary. More than 40 percent of parents chose non-neighborhood schools last year.
But the Cambridge experience also holds some lessons about the limits of controlled choice among public schools: The current alternatives aren't very different from one another and must operate under many uniform regulations, from racial balance to class-size limits, which may impede rather than advance student learning. Rigid racial quotas, for instance, often hurt minority students by keeping them out of a successful school in their neighborhoods because of the need to attract more whites.
Most of the shortcomings are hardly a secret, however, and the fame of Cambridge's system doesn't seem to have led to complacency. According to David Thompson, a parent of a Cambridge second-grader, the main complaint about the choice plan among parents is that there isn't enough choice. "There's a groundswell within the parental community," he recently told the Christian Science Monitor, "to provide more curriculum choices."
One way to provide more choices to parents would be to expand government-funded choice plans to include private and religiously affiliated schools. Vouchers (known now by the more politically astute term scholarships) and tuition tax relief are two mechanisms for accomplishing this. But these ideas, with all their promise, represent a significant qualitative change in choice, one that many public-school choice supporters are loathe to embrace. Consequently, while public-school choice plans have passed in many jurisdictions with minimal legal fallout, the few pioneers of broader choice have found themselves the targets of lawsuits alleging misuse of public funds, violation of the separation of church and state, and other serious illegalities.
The most prominent choice experiment involving private schools is the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, proposed by state Rep. Polly Williams and passed in the Wisconsin legislature with strong support from Gov. Tommy Thompson. In 1990–91, the plan gave vouchers of $2,500 each to 259 participating students, all from low-income, inner-city families, who attended one of six private schools in the city eligible for the program. Next year a new school, Milwaukee Montessori, will enter the program, and a total of 546 slots in private schools will be available to eligible students—assuming, of course, that the state Supreme Court overturns an appeals court ruling that the plan is unconstitutional because it was passed as a last-minute amendment to the budget. (The Wisconsin constitution requires that local bills be passed separately by the legislature.)
Opponents of the choice plan, such as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, welcomed the news that the Supreme Court would review the case. They want the plan struck down on more substantive grounds—such as educational inequity. Grover calls the Milwaukee plan "educational Darwinism." He triggered a countersuit by parents of choice students when he tried to apply state regulations concerning special education and teacher certification to the participating private schools, arguing that without such regulations students would be unprotected. He also says that the choice plan would cause the best students to abandon public education.
Participants in the choice plan challenge this assumption. Sister Callista Robinson, principal of the Harambee Community School, which will take 180 choice students next year, says that while critics feared the private schools would skim off the cream of the student crop, "what we got were some very good students, some poor, and some average."
Defending the Milwaukee experiment in court is Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., a public-interest law firm promoting private property and individual rights. Bolick says that U.S. Supreme Court cases have established some criteria for choice plans that, if met, should guarantee that they will survive challenge in federal court: A choice program can't discriminate in favor of religious schools; state aid must go to parents, to be spent at their discretion at schools they choose: and the program can't create a permanent and pervasive state influence in religious schools.
State constitutions and laws present other obstacles. Bolick points to the Milwaukee case as proof that "the battle for choice programs will not be easy." The education establishment will devote enormous resources to challenge choice programs in court, often on technicalities.
In the low mountains of central New Hampshire, about 10 miles east of the state capital of Concord, the small town of Epsom (population 2,800) has become an important test case in the legal battle for broad school choice. Last December, the town's Board of Selectmen approved a "property tax abatement" plan worth up to $1,000 for parents or "sponsors" who send their children to a high school other than the nearby public school, Pembroke Academy, including private or religious schools.
The Epsom plan, says Bolick, "has tremendous potential significance for New Hampshire and the United States." Because it was drafted and passed by a town rather than a state legislature, he notes, the Epsom model could be duplicated in other states with similar tax-abatement or tax-credit laws.
Jack Kelleher, an Epsom resident and until recently a member of its Board of Selectmen, first came up with the tax abatement idea in 1982. At the time, hardly anyone else supported the idea. "You would have thought I had the plague," he says. But Kelleher persisted, arguing that an abatement plan would save the town money, because the cost of sending a student to Pembroke is much higher than $1,000. In fact, Epsom pays "tuition" of $4,600 to the high school in neighboring Pembroke for each Epsom student who attends the school.
Eventually, other board members and town residents came around, and Kelleher and other choice proponents drafted a plan. Expecting a legal challenge, the Epsom choice coalition asked the New Hampshire Revenue Administration and attorney general about the legality of their plan. The coalition received no objections. Kelleher says the plan is particularly suited to New Hampshire, which has given local governments broad powers to grant tax abatements for public purposes. "In New Hampshire, tax abatements have been granted for everything under the sun," he says, such as encouraging business development or helping a taxpayer with sudden financial woes.
Before going through with the plan, however, the Epsom board signed a contract with Bolick to give the town legal representation: the town's legal budget of $15,000 wouldn't be enough in case of a lawsuit by the deep-pocket organizations that oppose choice. By January, the board had approved 12 abatements for Epsom students attending schools other than Pembroke. And, sure enough, in March, Epsom was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Epsom School Board, represented by the New Hampshire School Board Association. Among the charges against the plan are that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state and that it discriminates against residents who do not own property.
The battle over Epsom's tax-abatement plan demonstrates how important clearing every legal hurdle, no matter how superficially innocuous, can be. To qualify as an abatement, for instance, the tax break must be given on a case-by-case basis, not as an entitlement. Otherwise, it would be a tax credit, something towns cannot grant as easily. So along with their more ambitious constitutional challenges, opponents are trying to pin the "tax credit" label on the plan.
Bolick gives the anti-choice suit a 50-50 chance at trial and expects an appeal to the state Supreme Court. The trial should be over by mid-September. The Epsom case, like the Milwaukee one, illustrates what challenges lie beyond the relative safety of "controlled choice." In most states and localities, the path to private-school choice will almost invariably pass through the courtroom.
Before choice plans are adjudicated, however, they must first be passed by state legislatures, local boards, or, in some places, voters by initiative. The elements of the education establishment who oppose choice, particularly when it encompasses private or religious schools, are at least as powerful in these political arenas as they are in the courts.
In New Hampshire, opponents of a state voucher plan sponsored by former U.S. senator and now state Sen. Gordon Humphrey banished it to a study committee until 1993. "We desperately need choice in education to spur excellence," Humphrey told the Senate. But citing constitutional questions and the possibility of "eroding the public school system," a majority of senators killed the proposal. The state teachers' union and commissioner of education had strongly opposed the bill. This pattern has recurred in a number of statehouses where broad school-choice plans have been introduced. Some of the major players in choice debates across the country include:
The Education Establishment. Teachers' unions, associations of principals and administrators, and even parent-teacher associations (PTAs) are the most reliable and vocal opponents of choice reforms, whether they are broadly or narrowly drafted. The most frequent argument these groups make against such plans is that they would foster segregation by race, socioeconomic class, and student ability. They also say that "universal public education" must mean state control and provision of that education, in order to promote cultural affinity and democratic values; on this point, they have some moderate-to-conservative allies who view choice warily as a new force for educational "Balkanization." And the education establishment plays up the possibility that, under broader choice plans encompassing private schools, state money would fund religious kooks or fly-by-night operators.
Setting aside these rhetorical points, the education establishment is the most vocal opponent of choice because it has the most to lose. Controlled choice among public schools may not pose a serious threat to teachers' and administrators' jobs, but it makes people nervous. Pressure from parents to expand curriculum offerings tends to rock the boat, and mediocre teachers (who, virtually by definition, make up the bulk of union membership) are afraid of falling out.
State aid for students attending private schools threatens the establishment more directly. If money travels with the student, letting someone transfer to a private school means a smaller budget for the public school. By bringing independent workplaces into the system, broad choice breaks up the union monopoly on teacher supply. And competition challenges calls for higher pay, smaller classes, and other perks—if private schools get by with less and do more, why can't public schools?
This "vested interest" explanation, though valid, shouldn't be overemphasized. Most leaders of the education establishment are ideologically opposed to an education market. They see public education as a segment of government-provided infrastructure, to which market competition does not and should not apply. Fundamentally, many are uncomfortable with parents exercising judgment over what their children will learn, because they believe a universal public-education curriculum is the primary force holding the country's diverse racial and ethnic groups together. They differ with anti-choice conservatives only over the optimal content of that curriculum, not its role. (Both groups seem to have overlooked a vastly more important force that unifies disparate cultures in one country: popular culture.)
Leaders of teachers' and state-employee unions have powerful weapons to translate this ideology into power: They are a significant source of volunteers and PAC contributions, to local and state politicians, and they can organize marches, rallies, and other events to get on the evening news. But it's important to recognize that the leaders of the establishment don't speak for all public educators. The current bureaucratic system hurts many public-school teachers, especially the most innovative and successful ones, because rewards are unrelated to their efforts. In Chicago and many other failed urban systems, most teachers either send their children to private schools or would do so if they could afford to.
Even some principals and district and state administrators support choice, or at least have begun to soften their position against it. Dale Jensen, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, was a vocal critic of that state's public-school choice experiments, particularly its interdistrict transfer program. Now he's not so sure. Most forecasts of dire consequences from choice have been proven wrong by four years of operation, he said in a recent interview. Worst-case predictions like the one that Minnesota students would switch schools to get into good hockey or other sports programs didn't really materialize. "If one wants to be honest, that was probably going on before, where a parent with a 6-foot-10 son was offered a job in a community," he said.
The News Media. Once an important source of opposition to choice, many of the country's largest newspapers, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, have endorsed the concept—though they still draw a clear line between public-school choice (good) and vouchers/tuition tax credits (bad). In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel have opposed Polly Williams's voucher plan, while out-of-state media and the black-owned Milwaukee Community Journal have supported it. Reporters on education beats in many cities are more informed about choice issues than they were a few years ago. They ask tougher questions of choice opponents than they used to and treat choice proponents as serious reformers rather than extremists.
Civil-Rights Groups. While most national civil-rights organizations oppose choice as segregation in disguise, local minority groups and political organizations are a more diverse lot. In Milwaukee, blacks are the primary beneficiaries of the voucher plan and its most eloquent defenders. Given the history of many controlled-choice reforms as first-and-foremost desegregation plans, they often enjoy more support among minorities than they do among local white liberals. In fact, public opinion surveys confound the national civil-rights establishment by finding greater support for parental choice among minorities (59 percent in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) than in the general population.
The most persuasive argument for minorities appears to be the fairness one: that wealthy, mostly white families already enjoy parental choice because they can move to the best school district or can afford private schools. Choice plans, especially vouchers, offer poor and minority families the prospect of having that power, too. Trying to counter the rhetorical appeal of this argument, choice opponents have increasingly emphasized their contention that private schools would have the real choice in a voucher system by using formal and informal means to select their students. This argument, however, makes the all-too-common mistake of assuming that the expensive, selective prep school typifies American private education, when in reality that category comprises a diverse range of schools.
Business Groups. Although you might expect business leaders to be a major source of support for market-based reform, until recently they have been co-opted by the education establishment. Public-school leaders and their allies have used "adopt-a-school" and other partnerships with businesses to cultivate political contacts. They have, in many cases, persuaded business leaders that the American education system is failing because of resources and reach (suggesting more money and expanded preschool programs as remedies) rather than because of flaws in the system itself.
As a result, business has often supported the education establishment and even opposed choice. Earlier this year, the Committee for Economic Development, a New York City group of business leaders, called for $10 billion in new federal spending on education and specifically criticized voucher plans. State associations and local chambers of commerce in such jurisdictions as California, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Orleans, and Cincinnati have supported tax increases, pay raises, and other measures without commensurate structural reforms.
At the same time, however, there have been a few glimmers of hope. In February a group of CEOs from 15 Indiana corporations proposed a package of reforms, including school choice, for the state. The plan, called COMMIT, at least made it out of committee before being bottled up on the Senate floor by the Indiana State Teachers Association and its legislative allies. In Chicago, reform-minded business leaders have attempted to do an end run around the strong teachers' union, first by helping to draft and implement a decentralization plan for the city's schools and later by putting together and vigorously pushing a "scholarship" plan much like that proposed by Brookings's John Chubb and Stanford's Terry Moe.
To be successful, business groups who want to foster education markets rather than throw money at the current system will have to organize themselves to challenge the political power of unions and to pick away at that power by enlisting the aid of like-minded educators to sell choice to policy makers and the public. So far, this hasn't happened, and the education establishment's ability to stymie broad choice reform (as opposed to controlled-choice plans, which are less forcefully opposed) in state legislatures remains largely unchecked.
In some states, such as California and Oregon, choice proponents can go over the heads of the legislature, directly to the voting public. But taking the battle for choice to the ballot, via an initiative, doesn't guarantee success or circumvent union power. As Oregon choice supporters found out in a failed 1990 initiative for tuition tax credits, translating nominal public support for choice into votes on Election Day isn't easy. The initiative lost 2-1, garnering only 32 percent of the vote. "We hadn't laid the groundwork to convince the public that we needed radical change," says Steve Buckstein, who organized support for the choice initiative in Oregon and now heads up the Cascade Policy Institute.
Among the tactical errors choice proponents made, Buckstein says, were calling the plan a "tax credit" (he plans to use the term scholarship in the future) and allowing out-of-state parents to receive the credit for in-state students. The initiative probably shouldn't have included home schooling, he adds, even though ideally no form of education should be excluded. "For voters, including home schools was a negative," he says, because they raise the specter of state support for kooks and extremists. This argument may be a red herring, but it works. Buckstein says the home schooling provision may be dropped in a future initiative.
Another red herring that nevertheless poses political problems for choice initiatives is the Richmond County, California, case. For several years, Richmond operated a highly publicized controlled-choice plan in a largely poor, minority district. It even hosted one of President Bush's workshops on school choice in 1990. But earlier this year, the system declared bankruptcy and had to be bailed out by the state.
State education leaders and teachers' unions blamed choice, a charge that is likely to reappear should a planned initiative reach the November ballot. As Richmond sank into bankruptcy, however, some 19 other California districts teetered on the brink of insolvency. Public attention eventually focused as much on financial mismanagement, the effects of the recession, and perk-filled teacher contracts as on the risks of choice. "At first there was a little flurry" of choice criticism, says Pam Riley, a Richmond parent and director of public affairs for the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. But soon, she continues, the focus became the former superintendent's management style.
Still, at every debate on school choice in California (and elsewhere) advocates must address the Richmond question: Won't choice cost more and create a management disaster? Answering the question takes time and effort. This dilemma illustrates the dangers of overselling every choice experiment that comes down the pike. Proponents should pick and choose, placing the most emphasis on those systems with the greatest amount of freedom for individual schools and longest records of success. More important, choice proponents have to stress that controlled-choice plans that exclude private alternatives and maintain state regulation over much of school operations are a compromise, to be treated only as a first step.
Some proponents of education markets think such "first steps" and compromises are sure to fail. The issue of how far and how fast to implement choice is a microcosm of a larger debate among free marketeers: whether gradualism is worth its cost. For example, one might fault the deregulation of U.S. savings and loans over a decade ago for the catastrophe that ensued because the institutions were given more freedom to act but were protected from risk by a safety net, federal insurance. Partial deregulation, in this case, may have been worse than standing pat.
Similarly, given the limited prospects for private-school choice in the near-term, is controlled choice among public schools by itself worth the effort? Many critics, including those strongly supportive of a market in education, don't think so. "The reality is so far off from the rhetoric," says Myron Lieberman, author of Privatization and Educational Choice and other books on school reform. Public-school choice doesn't challenge the power of unions and the security of teachers behind certification and tenure rules, he says. Moreover, it has often been proposed by leaders of the education establishment to forestall more-comprehensive reform involving privatization and private schools. "The problem is that conservatives lump everything with the word choice in it together," he says, "but nobody has lost his job in public-school choice. Restructuring has to hurt."
Chester Finn, who served in Ronald Reagan's Education Department under Secretary William Bennett and now operates the Education Excellence Network in Washington, D.C., used to think the same way. After all, he says, "piecemeal reform often slows the course of revolution." But he says now that since he doesn't see a strong movement toward vouchers in the near term, "I have been becoming more pragmatic about this." For one thing, public-school choice would help reform in the long term by accustoming the education profession to the principle of choice. And while controlled-choice plans such as those in Cambridge have many shortcomings, he says, "having two choices is better than mandatory assignment and having three choices is better than having two, and so on." A little competition is better than none at all.
Finn's position brings to mind a different example of gradualism: airline deregulation. Despite the lingering impediments to competition in air travel, mostly centering on the continued government ownership of airports and the air-traffic control system, the last decade or so of airline deregulation has benefited consumers greatly. There is reason to believe that even comparatively timid first steps toward education markets, including controlled choice, will more closely emulate airline deregulation than S&L deregulation in effect. If parents are given alternatives and choice among those alternatives engenders institutional change, school improvement, or at least greater comfort with the idea of competition, controlled choice will be a net benefit—while the risk that it will actually make schools worse is rather small.
So controlled-choice plans, inherently limited in scope, probably won't hurt the prospects for broader reform. But they won't necessarily help, either, without a strategy for focusing frustration on the controls rather than the choice. At least two things have to happen before broad school choice involving public and private schools can come about. First, the Supreme Court will 'have to make a clearer ruling about voucher plans and state support for religion. Without a prospect of passing constitutional tests, few people will put much political capital behind vouchers and tuition tax-relief plans. Second, the public will have to get excited about success stories such as Cambridge and East Harlem, with public-school choice, and Milwaukee, with vouchers. "Right now, the public is mildly in favor of vouchers, but not ardently so," Finn says. "But [vouchers] have very ardent opposition."
It's a classic public-choice problem—a vocal minority with access to the tools of the political trade still stands firmly in the way of reforms enjoying broad but shallow public support. As in the case of airline deregulation, radical change in education won't make it past the entrenched vested interests without a broad-based coalition of free-market advocates (and their Republican allies) and consumers with something to gain (and their Democratic allies in city hall, the state legislature, and elsewhere), along with as many educators as they can find to buck the system. To build this alliance, it will be critical to have easily understood examples of choice successes—just as deregulation supporters pointed to the low air fares in the unregulated intrastate markets of Texas and California.
So choice proponents may have to swallow more gradual reform than they would otherwise seek, with all the limitations and risks that entails. But the alternative—to be right but outmaneuvered—is worse. The trick is not to overestimate the rhetorical appeal of choice or to underestimate the power of its opposition. Catching a wave, metaphorical or otherwise, is all in the timing.
Contributing Editor John Hood is research and publications director at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a columnist for Spectator (N.C.) magazine.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Choice Challenges".