Schools of Thought

The school choice movement is divided over tactics and faces enormous establishment resistance. But it may still get what it wants.


During the first presidential debate on October 6, President Clinton made a startling admission. "I support school choice," he said. "If a local school district in Cleveland, or any place else, wants to have a private school choice plan, like Milwaukee did, let them have at it." While the president has often talked one way and governed another, he usually allows himself more wiggle room. As Reagan administration education official Chester E. "Checker" Finn Jr. wrote in The Wall Street Journal a few days later, Clinton's unambiguous statements on education made it appear that the only differences between the two candidates were whether to subsidize vouchers with federal tax dollars (Bob Dole's plan) and whether to abolish the Department of Education. Supporters of school choice seem to have won the debate.

Over the past five years, vouchers and other significant education reforms have moved from presidential debates, think tanks, and academic conferences to thousands of school districts nationwide. And no wonder. Since 1960, test scores and other measures of achievement have taken a downward spiral even though inflation-adjusted spending on elementary and high schools has more than quadrupled. In most inner cities, the schools resemble prisons and the crime rate on school property approaches that of the neighborhood at large. And teachers' unions, backed by the bureaucratic establishment, go ballistic any time reforms are suggested that threaten the status quo. The intellectual marketplace has been ripe for new ideas.

Parents, with the help of education reformers and a few politicians, have pushed through a number of school choice initiatives. Cleveland has joined Milwaukee to offer tuition vouchers to a couple of thousand low-income students. Twenty-six states have established or are setting up "charter schools"–publicly funded schools with specialized curricula that are exempt from many union and other regulations. New York City's John Cardinal O'Connor offered to enroll 5 percent of the city's most difficult to educate students in parochial schools; Mayor Rudolph Giuliani accepted the offer, originally floating the prospect of using vouchers to fund the transfers. (The money must now come from private sources.) New York's effort would be far from unique: Nationwide, more than 100,000 "difficult to educate" students–young people with physical handicaps, learning disabilities, emotional troubles, or involvement with the juvenile-justice system–are already enrolled in private secular and religious schools at taxpayer expense.

While all this ferment is under way, debate about the direction of education reform is raging within libertarian circles, where most of these ideas originated. School choice supporters face a dilemma: Universal vouchers may be the only way to assure a complete overhaul of the government schools, but any political momentum vouchers now have is concentrated on those plans that would help only low-income parents. Hence the disagreement.

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who invented vouchers, criticizes proposals that target only low-income parents. He has always advocated making vouchers available to all parents who remove their children from public schools. Limiting vouchers to poor children, he says, prevents an effective private alternative to government schools from developing. Meanwhile, Institute for Justice President William "Chip" Mellor and Vice President Clint Bolick defend means-tested plans in court. They believe choice plans that target low-income families can weaken the teachers' unions and transform the education monopoly while saving a generation of children from hellish inner-city schools. Friedman and the institute represent the poles of the debate, with other school choice advocates falling somewhere in between–liking the purity of universal vouchers but attracted to the political viability of means-tested experiments.

Even as these internal debates intensify, the primary danger vouchers pose to the schooling monopoly may be indirect. As a response to the threat of vouchers, the system of compulsory schooling is undergoing subtle but potentially far-reaching changes. Supporters and critics of vouchers concede that it may take a generation to break the public school monopoly. Yet, at the margins, changes are just beginning that may be as effective in eroding the system of tax-financed common schools, perhaps without a single large voucher program ever being enacted. And charter schools, which are increasing in both numbers and popularity, might offer the greatest possibility to transform elementary and secondary schooling.

Original Intent

Milton Friedman first proposed school vouchers in a 1955 academic article. His original idea was to provide any student who left a public school a voucher equal in value to the average amount spent per student by the local school district. In the intervening years he has modified his position slightly, arguing that the private sector should be able to provide schooling for less than the government; he now thinks vouchers valued at about half the per-pupil expenditure would be sufficient to entice private schools to take students from the government schools.

From the start, Friedman has argued that the government's monopoly on schooling could be challenged only by "the rapid establishment of an industry [in private schools] that's large enough to have clout." He invented vouchers as a mechanism to generate funding for the creation of this alternative market, which might include for-profit schools as well as religious or secular schools operated by nonprofit organizations.

Friedman says he got part of his inspiration for vouchers from fellow Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek, "who taught me that every major advance in society originated from the top down rather than the bottom up." This doesn't mean central planning. Rather, from the automobile to television to the personal computer, new products with a widespread impact must first be tested by "early adopters"–those individuals with enough money or technical skills to try something new and see if it might appeal to a larger group of consumers. These early adopters both supply the initial market test, and they finance the development and learning that enable producers to create things more cheaply, making it possible to bring these innovations to people of more modest incomes.

The "early adopter" phenomenon is one reason Friedman has promoted universal vouchers over those targeted specifically at low-income students. "The key," he says, "is to provide an incentive for private entrepreneurs to fight the education establishment." He predicts that the first commercial education efforts will result in high-tuition, for-profit "Rolls Royce schools," primarily targeted at wealthy parents, where innovations in curricula, teaching, and technology will be tested.

Friedman acknowledges that we can't predict what shape a competitive education market would take. "We know from the experience of every other industry how imaginative free enterprise can be, what new products and services can be introduced, how driven it is to satisfy the customers–that is what we need in education," he wrote in a Washington Post column. But he does have a vision: He believes that vouchers would stimulate demand for "Rolls Royce" schools. "We know that 37 percent of parents in the top income brackets in California educate their children privately," he says. "With a real [universal] voucher in place, that number could easily reach 50 percent." And these new schools would differ from today's exclusive academies because they would be commercial enterprises as well as centers of learning–and because the prospect of a universal market would create pressures to replicate successful experiments, and to bring the cost down over time.

Friedman believes those parents who send their children to these high-priced commercial schools will become the early adopters who demand top-notch schools for their children–and that the most innovative features of their schools could eventually be replicated in more modestly priced "McDonald's schools," profitably providing quality education at a price people with lower incomes could afford.

The potential market for entrepreneurial schooling is enormous. "The cost of government elementary and secondary schooling in the United States is about $300 billion a year," Friedman says. "Total worldwide spending on the computer market is $150 billion." If even half the money spent on government schools were to enter a competitive marketplace, "you're talking about establishing a new, major industry." Friedman and his wife Rose, a fellow economist, have decided to invest most of their time–and much of their fortunes–promoting their vision of education reform. They have established the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation to study and support universal voucher programs.

Inner-City Rescue

Neither a bill nor an initiative establishing universal vouchers has passed in a legislature or won on a statewide ballot since Friedman developed the idea. Instead, vouchers have been means-tested, targeted at low-income parents. It's over the composition of vouchers that Friedman says "the real and very important debate is currently under way."

Friedman has always opposed what he calls "welfare vouchers," arguing that they separate individuals because of their incomes. He reasserts that as long as public schooling remains an entitlement, tuition vouchers should be considered a form of tax relief, and "people of all income levels are entitled to get some of their taxes back if they relieve the government of the burden of providing schooling for their children."

He also believes the widespread implementation of means-tested vouchers would create a new poverty bureaucracy that would exist to perpetuate itself–case workers whose main concern would become maintaining their budgets rather than educating students. If school choice is identified as an anti-poverty program, rather than an initiative for systemic reforms, momentum for structural change may be stifled. Even if inner-city performance improves under a system of vouchers, middle-class parents might not demand similar changes in their schools. "A program for poor people is a poor program," he says.

But the political momentum is solidly behind means-tested proposals. And no wonder: The grim statistics of inner-city schools, says Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, are "off the charts." In Milwaukee, 85 percent of students on public assistance don't graduate from high school. In Cleveland, only 7 percent of inner-city students graduate on time; 14 percent are crime victims while on school property. If vouchers improve the educational performance of disadvantaged children, they may help reduce crime and welfare dependency.

So while vouchers may have originated in the ivory tower, many of their most passionate supporters are such community leaders as Democratic state Rep. Polly Williams from Milwaukee, Cleveland school board member Genevieve Mitchell, and Dallas-area Democratic state Rep. Glenn Lewis, who is lining up support for a 1997 voucher bill. How much longer, ask voucher advocates, must inner-city youngsters be condemned to a schooling experience that approaches incarceration? It may take years, if not decades, to generate the necessary broad-based support for a major universal voucher initiative. In the interim, aren't the rewards of rescuing a few thousand kids worth the risks of supporting even flawed means-tested voucher proposals?

The Institute for Justice's Mellor and Bolick are quite clear that they intend no quarrel with the Friedmans. But they eagerly defend means-tested voucher programs in court, arguing that even low-income programs could entice entrepreneurs to create schools that would serve students bearing tuition vouchers. In the interim, vouchers could rescue impoverished students from violence-ridden inner-city schools and break the death-grip of teachers' unions and powerful administrators on public-school governance. "Milton Friedman is right that his [universal] voucher proposal would most completely transform the education market," says Mellor. "But the battles are now in a different arena. The fate of vouchers will be decided in the courts."

Fighting the Unions

Along with Ohio and Wisconsin, Vermont has its own voucher-like program, called "tuitioning." In Vermont, those towns that are too small to finance a public high school let their school-aged children attend private schools; the town's taxpayers pay at least part of the tuition. All three plans have been taken to court by civil-liberties groups and teachers' unions, citing the First Amendment's Establishment Clause to challenge the use of vouchers to subsidize students who want to attend religious schools. The Institute for Justice has represented parents in all three states, hoping to establish a precedent that would allow any school to accept vouchers. Its rallying cry echoes the advertising slogan of a D.C.-area personal-injury attorney: "If you have a school-choice plan," says IJ, "you have a lawyer." By defending school choice plans, the institute hopes to establish legal precedents that will let all sorts of voucher proposals, universal or means-tested, go forward.

Teachers' unions have been the institute's most obstreperous opponents in court. The 2.2-million-member National Education Association and its state affiliates have thrown time, money, and expertise into opposing every educational reform that would inject competitive pressures into schooling, no matter how minimal. From merit pay to charter schools to measures that would relax teaching certification requirements, the NEA's recalcitrance has earned it the title bestowed by Forbes in 1993: the National Extortion Association. In every case the institute has litigated, says Mellor, "the unions' opposition has bordered on hysteria."

In August, the institute's Cleveland case advanced the legal argument for including religious schools. The voucher program there gives 2,000 students vouchers worth $2,250 so they can choose among religious and secular private schools. In a state trial court, Judge Lisa Sadler ruled for the parents, saying vouchers (much like collegiate Pell Grants or scholarships under the G.I. Bill) primarily benefit students rather than schools. The Ohio Court of Appeals refused to overturn Sadler's ruling, making the next battleground the state Supreme Court. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, which has made no definitive statement on the constitutionality of tuition vouchers, will decide if religious schools can be included.

School choice advocates consider the inclusion of religious schools crucial. Vouchers would give low-income parents the wherewithal to gain complete control over the upbringing of their children, including the option to take advantage of a religious education. Almost 80 percent of the nation's private schools are religiously based; excluding them from voucher plans would reduce the competitive pressures on public schools. And religious schools are often heavily subsidized by church members, so they can offer much lower tuitions than their secular counterparts.

To date, means-tested voucher programs have been limited to a small number of students in a few cities. Few existing private schools have large numbers of vacancies. If a larger plan went into effect, would it offer enough money to entice new school operators into the education marketplace?

While nothing is certain, the voucher programs now in place would cover tuition costs for most private schools in the country. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about two-thirds of the nation's private schools charged tuitions of $2,500 or less in the 1993–1994 school year. A March 1996 Cato Institute survey of private-school tuitions by David Boaz and R. Morris Barnett shows that in the four cities surveyed–Indianapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Jersey City–the median private elementary school tuition was between $1,775 (Jersey City) and $3,312 (Atlanta) and the median private high school tuition was between $1,850 (Indianapolis) and $7,200 (San Francisco). Even with vouchers of a relatively modest amount, the Cato authors conclude, "Schools would expand; new schools would be established; some schools might lower their tuition or offer scholarships; new teaching methods would be tested and new technologies employed; and government schools would compete to stay open."

New schools may open. But Friedman is concerned that they would not differ much from the ones already operating–they would certainly not be the pathbreaking institutions that would be created by a new marketplace in commercial schools. Under these circumstances, he fears, a market for commercial "Rolls Royce" schools might never emerge. "Where will the innovations [in education] come from–Rolls Royce schools or McDonald's schools?" he asks.

Mellor and Bolick won't predict what market-based private schools would look like; their goal is to gain legal sanction for the broadest possible application of school choice. Mellor envisions "a dynamic education market in which consumer choices drive the provision of services. We can only speculate on its future shape."

Regulatory Concerns

Over the past quarter century, several opponents of the public-school monopoly have voiced objections to vouchers, fearing that they would lead to additional regulation of private schools. (See sidebar "The Separationists Weigh In," page 34.) Public choice scholar Dwight R. Lee, an economist at the University of Georgia, argues that the political process would inevitably taint any voucher program and allow unions and education bureaucrats to impose new regulations on private schools that accept vouchers. For instance, voucher-accepting schools might have to comply with anti-discrimination laws (a provision in Bob Dole's "opportunity scholarship" proposal), preventing, say, single-sex classrooms or forcing religious schools to separate spiritual instruction from the rest of their curricula.

Lee first made his case in an article for the July 1986 Freeman. He considers vouchers "another entitlement program that may be better than the status quo, but only marginally so." In the early stages of a voucher campaign, he thinks "a groundswell of support will develop for the basic idea. Then the details will be taken over by organized interest groups." For example, teachers' unions might insist that only schools hiring certified teachers could receive vouchers or that no teachers could lose their jobs in a district that implements vouchers.

Meanwhile, he says, "the general public will say, 'Good, that's done,' and concern themselves with other things. By that time, the organized interest groups would have taken over the process." Lee uses a surfing analogy. "My fear," he says, "is that long before we get to the beach, [the education establishment] will take charge of this surfboard and will guide it in their own direction."

Friedman knows the danger. To realize his vision, he writes, "it is essential that no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment, to explore and to innovate." He concedes that the teachers' unions and their allies will be irresistibly tempted to impose new regulations on voucher-accepting schools. "There is no air-tight defense against that," he says. "It is a real and present danger."

But the public choice perspective could cut both ways. Private schools and their customers form an organized interest group, too, defending schools against new regulations. And they're likely to have statutory help. Proposition 174, the unsuccessful 1993 California universal-voucher initiative, included provisions freezing current school regulations and requiring a supermajority vote by education officials before any new regulations could be added. Several states that permit charter schools have similarly imposed a regulatory freeze or even exempted charter schools from many regulations.

Additionally, voucher programs will be implemented and administered by local or state officials, one jurisdiction at a time. It will take years, if not decades, for vouchers to spread across the country. If regulators in one location overreach, watchdogs in other areas can alert local private school supporters. And public interest groups like the Institute for Justice would eagerly contest any new regulatory burdens that may be imposed. Clint Bolick pledges that the institute would dash to the courthouse door to sue any educational officials who try to circumvent these regulatory freezes. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

If you doubt the effectiveness of the feedback loops that exist among independent schoolers, recall the 1993 federal education bill. A provision that could have forced all teachers to obtain government certification–including those parents who home school their children–caused an immediate uproar. Advocates of home schooling tied up Capitol Hill switchboards with hundreds of thousands of phone calls. Within a matter of days, a bill that normally would have sailed through the House on a voice vote lost, 424 to 1.

Political Obstacles and Opportunities

As voucher advocates and opponents debate and litigate, vouchers continue to face major political obstacles. California's Proposition 174, which the Friedmans endorsed, would have provided vouchers valued at $2,600 (about one-third the state's per-pupil expenditure) to students who left public schools and attended private schools. The initiative lost by a 70–30 margin. Its major opponents–aside from teachers' union activists–were suburban parents. Subsequent attempts to qualify less-stringent voucher initiatives on the Golden State's ballot have failed. Similar initiatives in Oregon and Washington lost, as did school choice legislation in Pennsylvania.

This should not be surprising. As then-Manhattan Institute analyst John Miller pointed out in a 1993 Wall Street Journal column, the political constituency for school choice appears limited to free market and religious ideologues, the inner-city poor, and people who are already educating their children privately. Suburban parents, who cast more votes than all of these groups combined, have treated vouchers with indifference or hostility.

Suburbanites lack sympathy for several reasons: Many consider the quality of local schools one of the primary factors in deciding where they will live–in many cases paying more for real estate to get better schools. These suburban communities often have few public services other than schools, so they see their property taxes (and real-estate prices) as de facto tuitions; they don't want poor kids whose parents haven't paid those taxes to enroll in their schools for "free." And there may be racially charged motivations at play. For whatever reason, suburbanites seem to prefer pressuring school-board members, administrators, and teachers to get results rather than embracing such procedural reforms as school choice.

In addition, notes Janet Beales, until recently an education-policy analyst with the Reason Foundation, there are cultural obstacles to overcome. Tens of thousands of public-school teachers are doing a wonderful job; hundreds of thousands of parents and students have a terrific relationship with them. That's a big reason there's little groundswell outside the inner cities for such sweeping reforms as vouchers.

Even though performance levels in the government schools continue to plummet, there has been no massive flight to private schools, except in those urban areas with tax-funded vouchers or private scholarship programs. About 88 percent of students attend public schools, a figure that has changed little in decades. Dwight Lee says that when he wrote his 1986 Freeman article, "I thought by now maybe 25 percent [of students] would be in private schools. The numbers have stayed pretty much the same."

Are Vouchers Necessary?

Vouchers may not win often at the ballot box or in the state legislature. To date, only 4,000 students in two cities receive means-tested vouchers, and a few hundred students in Vermont attend private schools at taxpayer expense. But vouchers may be as useful as a threat to the education establishment as they'd be as a full-blown policy. The process of publicizing the failures of the school monopoly–and of offering a tested alternative–seems to be forcing unions and their establishment allies to grudgingly give ground and accept less-sweeping reforms. Consider:

? Milwaukee gets a lot of attention because nearly 2,000 low-income students there are getting tuition vouchers. But Clint Bolick points out that there's little controversy over the city's decision to pay the private-school tuitions of almost 3,000 difficult-to-educate students–more than in the controversial voucher program.

Milwaukee is not alone. In a policy study published in August, the Reason Foundation's Beales reported that more than 100,000 difficult-to-educate students obtain public money to attend private schools. At least 17 states provide tax funding to educate "at risk" students privately. "Where public schools lack specialization," writes Beales, "they have invited private providers to educate special-needs students."

? Last year the Houston Independent School District had about 3,000 students who couldn't attend their neighborhood schools because of overcrowding. The district moved these "capped" students to public schools that had openings. This year the number of capped students exceeds 6,000. Just before the school year started, Superintendent Rod Paige proposed "contracting" the tuitions of those students to private schools. Initially, the tuitions of only about 100 students were privately contracted. In January, however, if private secular schools can provide enough openings, all 6,300 capped students could be educated privately.

? Public schools are privately contracting dozens of services, from janitorial and food services to classroom teaching. Educational Alternatives Inc. (EAI) has had rocky experiences in its attempts to operate schools in Hartford, Connecticut, and Baltimore, primarily as a consequence of political and union meddling. But Chris Whittle's Edison Project, which originally intended to open commercial private schools, is operating public schools in four states and has applied to open charter schools in several others. The American Association of Educators in Private Practice, a trade association for freelance, or "private practice," teachers, has hundreds of members, ranging from individual teachers who might teach a single foreign-language class in several schools to corporations like EAI.

Voyager Expanded Learning operates after-school programs that teach art, economics, and science in 150 public schools nationwide. While these are after-school programs for which parents pay enrollment fees, Voyager provides a substantive curriculum, unlike traditional day care. It hopes to offer instruction programs during the school day starting next school year.

? Since beginning in Minnesota five years ago, charter schools have spread to more than two dozen states. Charter school advocates talk about "weak" state systems–in which the schools are barely indistinguishable from the "magnet" schools set up in the 1980s–and "strong" systems. Like the one in Arizona.

Charter schools started operating in the Grand Canyon State last academic year. There is no limit on how many schools can locate in a school district. Any government body, private organization, or individual can apply for a charter; the schools have a blanket waiver from most state regulations; charter school teachers don't have to be certified; and the application for a charter takes up only one page. Forty-six charter schools opened in the fall of 1995; by last fall, that number had more than doubled, with additional applications pending for other schools. Around 15,000 students–about 2 percent of those who attend schools–are enrolled in charter programs.

Arizona easily has the most dynamic charter school system. A Hudson Institute survey of seven states with charter schools notes that in several locations, the education establishment has been able to hamstring the embryonic movement with regulations. For instance, some states place an absolute ceiling on the number of schools that can operate: 25 in Massachusetts, 40 in Minnesota, 60 in Colorado.

The Hudson study, co-authored by Checker Finn, found that charter schools did indeed introduce competitive forces into the education marketplace. Charter schools also encouraged much more parental involvement than traditional public schools. The study concluded that, despite facing differing regulatory burdens, "genuine educational innovation is occurring in charter schools," and "charter schools serve the public more like the voluntary institutions of 'civil society' than like conventional public schools."

Many of the sorts of innovations voucher advocates envision–especially those that go beyond traditional classroom settings–are already in place in some charter schools. In Perris, California, for instance, the charter school Choice 2000 On-line is a computer bulletin board offering instructional tools and software by fax and modem to 130 middle and high school students and adults. The City on a Hill Charter School in Boston teaches a college prep curriculum to 65 ninth-and 10th-grade students. The school, which is located in a YMCA, exposes its students to the arts by working with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet. Livingston Technical Academy, located near Detroit, offers 100 11th and 12th graders a basic academic program along with technical training and 10-week apprenticeships.

It's possible that, as more states consider strong charter school laws, they could have much of the same impact as vouchers on conventional public schools. Consider Seattle, where one-third of the parents educate their children privately. Retired Army Major General John Stanford, the school superintendent, has tried to ease the union's hegemony over school management since being appointed in September 1995. One idea: Require principals to compete for teachers and give them the flexibility to contract for security, maintenance, and food service. This would require rewriting the union's contract with the school district. Negotiations have been tense.

One thing initially helping Stanford, however, was Initiative 177, a charter school initiative on the state ballot. Even though Stanford's employer, the Seattle school board, opposed 177, Stanford told Forbes, "It can be an effective tool. That's why you don't see me speaking out against it." Last summer, when the initiative appeared likely to pass, Stanford was able to get the union to agree to no more than a one-year extension of their existing contract. Had 177 passed, he would have had a lot of leverage to implement his vision of "principals as CEOs." But thanks to lots of money and "volunteers" provided by the NEA, Initiative 177 lost, 37 percent to 63 percent. The establishment can temporarily breathe a bit easier.

Changing the Culture

Aside from their instrumental value, charter schools also have a cultural impact. Says Martin Morse Wooster, author of the history of high schools Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds, "School choice will only succeed when parents have schools to choose from." If charter schools indeed develop independent identities, they will let typical parents realize that every public school doesn't have to be the same. After all, despite the existence of FedEx, faxes, and e-mail, the U.S. Postal Service still delivers about 170 billion pieces of mail a year. Sure, the post office guarantees part of its volume because it retains a monopoly on some classes of mail. But much of its continuing appeal is little more than habit, tradition, and convenience. For most parents, sending their kids to the neighborhood government school is as natural as dropping a note in the nearest mailbox.

If charter schools become more widespread, however, new habits and traditions could develop. Over time, perhaps a generation or so, families might get accustomed to sending their children to tax-funded schools that specialize in the arts, vocational training, or in a more traditional curriculum. When specialty public schools become the norm, entrepreneurial education might not seem so foreign.

And Beales points out that a "strong" charter school law very closely resembles a Friedman-style universal voucher proposal, with two exceptions: No state lets charter schools charge tuitions (precluding Friedman's "Rolls Royce" schools), and religious organizations cannot sponsor charter schools. Even so, since charter schools can receive as much as the per-pupil expenditure, or twice the amount per student the Friedmans would recommend for vouchers, a charter school might be able to offer some of those "Rolls Royce" features. It's possible the Edison Project, or such critics of monopoly schooling as Steven Jobs, will use charter schools to create innovative commercial educational institutions.

Charter schools may not be the silver bullet that slays the school-monopoly beast. But before market-oriented education can win in the political arena, it has to appear sufficiently nonthreatening to PTA members, the Rotary Club, and the president of the local Chamber of Commerce. That victory must be won culturally. Changing the culture takes time.

While school choice supporters hope for a Berlin Wall-like event that will sweep aside compulsory schooling, most concede it may take a generation to change attitudes about public schools. While radical reformers push to change parents' minds, the structure of public schools will continue to change, thanks to such marginal reforms as private management, private education of difficult-to-educate students, the "contracting" of tuitions in overcrowded districts, private-practice teaching, and charter schools.

A generation from now, attitudes about the role of public schools may have changed. And by then, there may already be a vibrant market of entrepreneurial schools in place.

SIDEBAR: The Separationists Weigh In

As the debate about vouchers rages between the education establishment and school choice supporters (and between universal vouchers and means-tested programs), a tiny organization based in Fresno, California, is out to stop them on other grounds. The Separation of School & State Alliance opposes any tax-funded steps that try to reform schools at the margins–including vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools, or other open-enrollment plans. Founded in 1994 by libertarian activist and former computer salesman Marshall Fritz, it argues that any transitional policy that maintains compulsory funding of education will never lead to fundamental reforms and may indeed threaten the future of independent private schools.

While he says his group's primary goal is to end the government role in schooling, and welcomes voucher proponents as members, Fritz has become personally linked to the anti-voucher movement. A large, gregarious man with an infectious laugh and a ferocious debating style, Fritz tends to be a polarizing figure. Much like the libertarian recruitment organization he founded a decade ago, the Advocates for Self-Government, the Separation Alliance combines sales and motivational-speaking techniques to push radically anti-statist policy prescriptions. Fritz sells audio tapes containing sample speeches showing others how to package his message; he is also circulating a "proclamation" for separation for which he has collected about 1,000 signatures from libertarian activists, home schoolers, and other government-school opponents. His goal is to get 25 million signers, thus indicating the widespread support he believes the separation position can obtain. Think of his approach as introducing the philosophy of Ludwig von Mises on an Anthony Robbins infomercial, with some evangelical religious tracts thrown in.

Among the more prominent anti-voucher separationists are Ludwig von Mises Institute President Llewellyn Rockwell Jr.; longtime libertarian writer and editor Sheldon Richman; syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran; David Henderson, a former staff economist for the Reagan administration's Council of Economic Advisers (and a REASON contributing editor); and National Scholarship Center President Douglas Dewey, a Bush administration Education Department official. Their activities have consisted mostly of writing articles and giving speeches.

Separationists argue that no one has a "right" to an education, especially one coercively funded by taxation. Yet everyone–even the childless–must pay for the education of today's school-aged children. Fritz and his allies say all of the horror stories cited by voucher advocates–low performance, violent classrooms, stultifying bureaucracies–are a direct consequence of mandatory schooling. Compulsory attendance and coercive funding, he says, have allowed parents to shirk their responsibilities. "The issue isn't schools," says Dewey of the National Scholarship Center, a clearinghouse for information on privately funded vouchers, "but families."

Fritz calls public schools "welfare schools," and says vouchers would be nothing more than a new type of welfare for parents who now educate their children privately, paying tuition on top of their tax bills. Those who would entice private-school parents with vouchers, he says, are no better than the anti-poverty advocates who try to convince people who work at menial jobs but qualify for welfare to stop working and sign up for benefits. Once "hooked" on vouchers, says Fritz, parents will be completely dependent on them.

Fritz considers any government program welfare for somebody, since taxation coercively redistributes wealth. For that reason, he rejects the traditional concept of education as a public good, a program that benefits the entire community even if some individuals don't directly participate in it. Those who don't have children must pay school taxes, but they may consider themselves better off if the people in their community are educated. Fritz calls public good "a nice term to describe covetousness."

That's a tough argument to win support for. It is possible to imagine an educational marketplace in which all schools receive their funds entirely from tuitions and voluntary contributions–although that's not part of the American tradition. Publicly funded schools have existed in the United States since the days of the Northwest Ordinance, nearly a century before "common schooling" became universal. Most taxpayers, including the childless, believe they benefit from tax-financed schools. So it's likely that some form of taxpayer support for education will remain.

Meanwhile, Dewey, Fritz, and other separationists urge parents to remove their children from the government schools and either home school them or educate them privately. On the political front, they push for tax relief and rolling back or repealing compulsory attendance laws. They also support private vouchers, or "precollege scholarships," to help low-income students leave public schools.

Milton Friedman also supports these efforts wholeheartedly. But he questions whether these small but important steps would be sufficient to create the educational transformation he envisions. The economist openly acknowledges the public choice perils any voucher proposal would face, but otherwise refuses to be drawn into the separationist discussion.

"There is a real and very important debate about vouchers," he says. "It is between those who advocate welfare vouchers and those who favor universal ones."

Rick Henderson (DCReason@aol.com) is Washington editor of REASON.

SIDEBAR: Mandatory Schooling
A Teacher's Eye View

I teach ninth- and 10th-grade English at a large high school in a New Jersey township about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. In most ways, I'm in a pretty enviable position: The school district is growing rapidly; it's more or less flush with cash; the area is solidly middle- to upper-middle-class and, while ethnically diverse, generally free of racial tensions.

Even given those circumstances, though, my school does have problems–the problems that are left over in any classroom once you strip away more-obvious distractions like violent crime or lack of teaching resources. My school, like all public schools, has a small percentage–in my experience, as small as 1 or 2 percent–of uninterested, apathetic, troublesome students who disrupt the learning process for the rest of the student body. The bad eggs are there, every year and in every class, making life miserable for teachers and students alike.

Over a 10-year teaching career, I've wondered about why they are there and what you can do about them. I've come to the conclusion that the problem ultimately stems from compulsory schooling laws. Or, to put it a little differently, many of the problems in public-school classrooms–especially at the high school level–would disappear if attendance were voluntary.

I realize that this sounds so nuts that I'm reluctant to use my own name. (I also don't have any interest in getting my fellow teachers–or my union–mad at me.) Although my colleagues constantly complain about trouble-making students, most of them would never seriously consider questioning, let alone gutting, compulsory school laws. In New Jersey, students can sign themselves out of high school at age 18; with their parents' permission, they can leave two years before that. I don't know that I'm 100 percent against mandatory schooling–especially through at least eighth grade–but I think it's worth pursuing alternatives. The system would work better if teenagers with no interest in school were allowed–or even encouraged–to bug out earlier still.

Last year, I had an experience that brought home the difference between compulsory and voluntary attendance. During the school year, I had a marginal student I'll call Kevin. On those occasions when he handed in assignments, they were almost always below passing. In fact, most of the time he did absolutely nothing in class, often forgetting his books, notebooks, pens, etc. But at least he was quietly nonproductive. There was a group of actively disruptive students in the class with whom I spent most of my time dealing–getting them to shut up, sending them to the vice principal's office, that sort of thing. So Kevin was something of a reprieve. At least he didn't take anybody else down as he failed the class.

That summer, I taught a voluntary class designed to boost basic skills–writing, reading, critical thinking–for remedial students. The kids (no doubt encouraged by their parents) had to choose to give up some of their summer vacation to take the class. Kevin was among the students and, to my great surprise, he did all sorts of work for me. He participated actively in class discussions, and his take-home work was much better, too. Free of the need to constantly discipline cut-ups and worse, I was able to focus on marginal students like Kevin who would respond to more attention.

The class was, in general, free of the petty distractions that crop up during the school year. You always have to work to engage the students–that's teaching–but I didn't have to put up with anyone who didn't want to be there. There were times when the kids didn't want to work, but I could always trump them with a simple question: "Then why did you sign up for this?"

That kind of rhetorical question falls flat during the school year because my students have a ready answer: "I didn't ask to be here. I have to be here."

With most students, you can always hold their grades over their heads: If you don't listen up, if you don't do your work, I tell them, you're going to have to go to summer school. Or, even worse, you're going to have to repeat the class during the next school year. I should stress that it takes a lot for a student to fail a class: Essentially, they have to do no work and put forth no good-faith effort during the school year. Kids clearly differ in background, raw intelligence, and skill levels, but if they work at it, they can earn a passing grade in my class. In my experience, I have encountered virtually no students who did not have the ability to squeak out a passing grade.

In my school, if a student's final grade is between 60 and 69 out of 100, he can take a six-week summer course to make up the difference and earn a passing grade. If the grade is 59 or below, though, the student has to retake the class during the next academic year. Those two possibilities usually bring kids into line.

But they don't work with a kid who is mathematically eliminated not only from passing the course but even getting into summer school–a fate sometimes decided even before the middle of a marking period. Once that happens, you have no way of reeling him in.

And you normally can't kick him out of the class. School administrators want to keep that kid in the classroom because they say whatever he gleans might help him next year when he takes the class again. But that isn't what happens. For short periods of time, you can remove him from the class–which takes time and energy–and place him in what's called the "restriction room," a sort of detention hall held during regular school hours. But you still have to make assignments for him and follow up on those, both of which take time away from actively working students. And when he comes back to the class, he is usually just as disruptive, and likely to drag marginal students down to his level.

If he's a good kid, he sits there writing letters to his girlfriend or quietly dozes off without putting his head on his desk or calling attention to himself. Of course, even though that's not as disruptive as talking, laughing, shouting, or fighting, it's not a particularly good example to have a kid lounging around the classroom. The third option is that the kid becomes a sort of class idiot who performs a kids-don't-let-this-happen-to-you function. I had one student like that who, every time I announced an assignment, would volunteer loudly to complete it. The class would laugh at him because they knew both that he wouldn't and that it couldn't change his fate anyhow. It is, to put it mildly, disturbing to see a high school student drawing his only identity from being a fool to his peers.

It would make much more sense to put failing students in a study hall where they could work on the classes they have some chance of passing (in my experience, they're usually flunking at least two or three of their classes). And, in a larger sense, it would make much more sense to put kids who show little or no interest in school out into the real world.

There, at least, they could ponder their choices without draining time and resources from other kids who want to learn. Teachers would have more time to teach, and principals would have the opportunity to meet responsible students instead of dealing with the same problem kids over and over. I'm sure some of the dropouts would do well in the work world, especially those who got into a trade that emphasized experience over book learning. I'm equally sure that others would come back to school with their attitudes adjusted.

So what would a voluntary school look like? The major objection to such a plan is that, given a choice, few kids would choose to school themselves. Given my experience, though, I don't think that's right. Most kids, in fact, recognize that they need to learn, that they like going to school (if only because their friends are there), and that they'd be willing to work if it was demanded of them.

Sometimes when I proctor our restriction room, I ask the kids why they bother showing up for school. These are, remember, students who are doing no work and following few rules.

"What do you mean?" they inevitably reply. "You gotta go to school."

"Well, you do and you don't," I say. "If you're 16, why don't you get your parents to sign you out?"

"My parents won't let me drop out," they say.

"That's because your parents think you are working. But you're here in this room because you're not doing anything except cutting up. Why aren't you working?"

"I dunno."

"So you're just going to fail?"


"So we're back to my original question: Why are you here?"

"This is where my friends are. It's air-conditioned. It beats working."

"Suppose you had a job and told your boss, 'I'm not going to do any more work. You don't have to pay me, but I'm just going to hang out because I like the atmosphere here.' Then you start bothering the other workers so they can't get their work done. What do you think the boss would do?" I ask.

"Kick me the hell out."

"Now suppose that he said you could come back if you did some work–and you really, really liked hanging out there. Would you do some work so you could stay there?"


You always need to be careful about taking students at face value, but I've had similar conversations with all sorts of kids. I have, for instance, asked my regular freshman and sophomore English classes, "If you didn't have to, would you take this class?"

"No," they respond.

When I say, "Oh, really?" and arch my eyebrows, they always backpedal.

"Well," they say, "not every day. English is important. You have to know how to read and write, but you don't have to have English every day."

"Suppose," I say, "the system were different. Suppose that I would teach an English lesson each Monday, every hour on the hour. You wouldn't have to come, but you could drop by if you wanted to. On Tuesday, I would teach another lesson, one that built on Monday's lesson. And Wednesday's lesson would be based on Tuesday's, etc. What would happen then?"

My students quickly realize the jig is up, that they would be showing up whether or not they were required to. Compulsory education laws obscure the fact that most students would choose to be in school anyway–and that choice is a major motivator in learning. Perhaps more important, in the end, such laws make willing students pay the freight on unwilling ones. And those charges are pretty steep.

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a member in good standing of the New Jersey Education Association and a lifelong Democrat. He can be contacted via e-mail to Senior Editor Nick Gillespie (ngilles123@aol.com).