All recent efforts to thwart choice in education are based on a fallacy and an insult. The fallacy is that looking at existing private schools tells us what private schools would look like if they were not hampered by unfair competition from state-subsidized schools. The insult is that parents cannot be expected to make educational choices that are in their children's best interest.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is probably the most thoughtful critic of school choice. Yet his columns on the subject, published in The New York Times, reveal these two basic misunderstandings. Shanker seems to assume that competition will not result in new entry by innovative entrepreneurs or even the takeover of unsuccessful institutions by new managers. He repeatedly argues that the number of excellent schools must remain fixed and small.
"Given the poor results in private as well as public schools," he writes, "it's hard to see how getting the two sectors to compete will improve the education students are getting."
To back up this claim, Shanker cites the results of a standardized math test on which 12th-graders in private schools (unlike younger students) do not perform much better than their public-school counterparts—if you adjust for the fact that those in private schools take more advanced math courses, such as calculus. Yet one advantage of private schools is that they offer or even require such tougher courses. Moreover, a frightening proportion of kids in inner-city schools—often 40 percent or more—never make it to the 12th grade. So testing graduating seniors amounts to comparing the top survivors of the public-school system with the average or the private system, in which nearly everyone graduates.
Nor does Shanker appreciate the ways in which dynamic competition caters to diverse needs. For example, he argues that private schools would have no incentive in a free market to serve (as the public-school system clearly does not) students who require remedial education or have discipline problems. Shanker's claim that private schools refuse to deal with disciplinary problems seems particularly strange, since this is precisely why many parents pull their kids out of public "blackboard jungles" and put them in Catholic or military schools. And many private institutions have arisen to help children who suffer from dyslexia, or loss of sight or hearing.
Similarly, Shanker claims that private schools will "cream" the best students from affluent families, leaving problem kids from low-income neighborhoods to the public schools. "Excellent schools (and the supply is limited) are very selective; mediocre and lousy ones are not," Shanker writes. "But whatever their quality, it is the [private] schools that do the choosing.…Private schools are not interested in taking poor and minority…students who are in big trouble in their current schools.…They prefer kids who are doing well in school."
This is not only wrong but backwards. Intact families with decent incomes already have some degree of choice, since they can afford either to send their children to private schools or to move to suburbs with relatively safe and effective public schools. Low-income and single parents have the least choice under the current system, since they often have no option but to send their children to unacceptable, even dangerous, urban schools. Under any system that allowed such disadvantaged students to take their subsidy to a school of their choice, new local schools would arise to meet that demand, more-distant schools would offer transportation, and schools that lost many students would have to be restructured or closed.
Suppose we were talking about cars instead of schools. To follow Shanker's line of argument, we would have to believe that the poor quality of Plymouth Horizons, Ford Pintos, and Chevrolet Vegas in the 1970s meant that quality could not be improved by opening the market to Honda, Mazda, and Mitsubishi. According to Shanker's reasoning, competition would just result in Cadillac and Lincoln dealers picking their customers from a long waiting list, with nobody trying to sell either better or cheaper cars.
When not resorting to the mistaken assumption that competition can only take place among existing schools run by existing administrators, Shanker instead resorts to the professional educator's snobbery. In this view, parents—particularly those with low incomes—are simply too ignorant, racist, lazy, or apathetic to make intelligent choices.
"There is little reason to believe that choice is going to get most parents to select schools with rigorous standards instead of schools that have easier programs and give better grades," Shanker writes. "We can expect schools with sports orientations patronized by sports-loving families, schools with orientations toward particular racial or ethnic groups for members of those groups, and so forth.…There are probably some parents who would want their kids to go to schools established by the likes of David Duke."
Shanker also wonders how parents could possibly keep track of the available educational options and avoid being swindled by crooked school operators. But choice and competition would inevitably result in a contest for reputation. Choice would also encourage publishers of magazines and books to provide credible ratings of elementary and secondary schools, as they now do with colleges. Competing chains of schools would soon become familiar brand names whose owners and managers would have a powerful incentive to build and defend the integrity of their trademarks. To expect fraud to prevail, as Shanker does, is to completely misunderstand how the market for information works.
In general, Shanker has a very narrow conception of what parents should look for in a school. In "Minnesota's choice plan," he notes with concern, "40 percent of students who went to a school outside their district did so for reasons of 'convenience,' like easy transportation or the availability of day care." It's easy to belittle convenience, but that is a perfectly legitimate desire among those who would prefer to see their children spend more time at home and less time on a bus. Under a truly competitive school system, successful schools would move to where their students are, not the other way around.
Shanker's alternative to school choice is "national standards." This idea frightens me as much in education as it does in the Postal Service, national health insurance, or the IRS. We have far too much centralization of government power already, and federal credentialism could easily stamp out what little choice remains through regional rivalry and diversity.
Shanker disagrees: "It is about time we stopped saying that local control is so important." Instead, he wants the feds to decide "what our kids should know and be able to do." In the name of such "standards," the National Education Association even wants to set up union-dominated licensing boards to decide who will be allowed to teach. It's hard to imagine a more obviously self-serving attempt at cartelization.
The point of choice is to provide parents and students with what they want, not what a federal bureaucracy or education czar decides would benefit some ill-defined national crusade, such as "competitiveness." John Chubb and Terry Moe grasped this point in their powerful Brookings Institution book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools: "It should be apparent," they wrote, "that schools have no immutable or transcendent purpose. What they are doing depends on who controls them and what those controllers want to do." Schools controlled by unions and bureaucracies want, above all, to expand their budgets and authority, while competitive schools would have no choice but to provide what parents and students want, and do so in a cost-efficient way.
In a competitive school system, many families will indeed seek schooling that is attuned to the job market, while others will prefer traditional liberal-arts, vocational, professional, or specialized training. As with any other market, though, no bureaucracy—least of all at the national level—can possibly "plan" how much of which types of schooling to supply to which students and locations. Only the people most directly involved can know enough about their own circumstances to make these choices.
Since 1975, enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has fallen by 9.8 percent, while enrollment in private schools has risen by 7.8 percent and now constitutes 11.7 percent of total enrollment. This abandonment of inferior public schools is politically significant for two reasons.
First, there is an increasingly sizable minority of parents who are paying taxes to support public schools they do not use. This creates a growing constituency for tuition tax credits, vouchers, or simple tax rebellion—unwillingness to be plundered to support this inefficient state enterprise.
On the other hand, many of those not yet sending their children to private schools are likely to be increasingly upset by the proliferation of superior private schools that, due to these parents' soaring school tax burden, they are unable to afford. These people are also part of the constituency for genuine reform.
Signs of change have already appeared. In Indianapolis, J. Patrick Rooney, head of the Golden Rule Insurance Co., is paying half of the tuition, up to $800, for more than 700 elementary-school students from homes with modest incomes. Parents rushed to take advantage of this opportunity for their children, even though they must still pay both taxes and tuition. Similarly, bills in New Hampshire and Delaware would offer vouchers at only half the cost of public schooling, which has to be enormously attractive to both groups of parents and to the 80 percent of taxpayers who have no kids in school.
"The big problem on the horizon," Shanker announced at last year's AFT conference, "is the push for private school choice.…This is a life or death battle, and it is going to be a big fight." He particularly worries about "increasing pressure within the black communities because of the dissatisfaction with the results of public schools," citing court battles and legislative proposals by blacks favoring privatization in Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Rooney's private voucher in Indianapolis, which only covers half the cost, shows that Shanker has good reason to worry.
Alan Reynolds is director of economic research with the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Education: Al in Wonderland".