The Great School Sell-Off

Long before Bill Clinton appeared on the presidential horizon, he had, as governor of Arkansas, established himself as one of a half-dozen national leaders in the public school reform movement of the 1980s. The movement was determinedly bipartisan, pragmatic, and nonideological. In addition to Clinton, it included Republican governors Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as independent Califormnia State School Superintendent Bill Honig. These reformers sought, and generally achieved, tougher graduation requirements; more rigorous curricula and textbooks; competency tests for both students and teachers; merit pay or other incentives for outstanding teachers; longer school days and school years; and better funding for K-12 schools almost everywhere.

But before the decade was over, a combination of recession, budget cuts, impatience, and political expediency helped start a deep and very ideological current running in the opposite direction-- a retreat from public education. With a lot of cheerleading from George Bush, the self-proclaimed education president, more people began to ask just what the country had bought with its school reform dollars. The greater the belief that the Germans and Japanese were beating us in the global economy, the greater the influence of international test results showing American students scoring behind their foreign counterparts. As a result, the encouraging returns from the reforms of the 1980s--they were not great, as we shall see, but they were hardly negligible--were ignored. The schools, according to the conventional wisdom, were simply failing, and stronger medicine was required.

For the Bush administration, a growing number of conservative scholars and businesspeople, and the religious right, that medicine was vouchers--tax-supported "scholarships" allowing parents to send their children to any school, public or private, in an educational free market. School choice was also one of the few issues that could replace Communism in linking the Republican Party's suburban conservatives with free-market libertarians and Christian-right fundamentalists.


The idea is hardly new. Milton Friedman first proposed vouchers more than 30 years ago. In the 1960s, it was taken up by liberal reformers such as Christopher Jencks and Henry M. Levin and by academics such as John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman at Berkeley. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan occasionally talked about private school tuition tax credits but paired the idea so closely with school prayer and even creationism that it looked more like an ideological crumb for Christian fundamentalists than a serious policy.

Bush had come to office declaring the country couldn't afford vouchers for private schools. But by 1991 the idea had become the centerpiece of his education policy, with the support of respected activists like the Department of Education's Alexander, former Xerox chairman David Kearns, and educational historian Diane Ravitch.

A further event that gave choice intellectual respectability was the 1990 publication by the Brookings Institution, home of Democratic brains-in-exile, of John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe's Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. The book argues not only that the reforms of the 1980s were inadequate but that such reforms couldn't succeed as long as schools were run by school boards, superintendents, central offices, and departments of education--what the authors disparagingly call "direct democratic control." The only way to escape that, Chubb and Moe assert, is by letting parents choose among self-governing schools, public or private, with state tax money following their children to the schools they select, thereby building into schools a market incentive to offer better service. The authors are uncompromising. "Without being too literal about it, we think that reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea....Choice is not like other reforms and should not be combined with them as part of a reformist strategy....It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways" (italics original).

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Bush's one foray into a voucher plan was his call early in 1992 for a trial federal "scholarship" program that would give 500,000 middle- and low-income students $1,000 apiece to use in any educational setting. It was dead on arrival in Congress, and given Clinton's support for public education, it will likely never be heard from again. Equally significant, on the same day Clinton was elected, Colorado voters by a two-to-one margin rejected a statewide voucher proposal that would have given every parent a $2,500 "scholarship" to pay tuition in any private or parochial school in the state--or even to pay for home schooling.

Nonetheless, the broader idea of school choice is probably here to stay: The question is whether it will be limited to the public system--or part of an open market system where virtually any provider, public or private, could participate. The Gallup Poll has traced a steady increase in support among Americans for some version of parental choice; as usual, the detailed responses (public versus private, for example) depend on how the questions are asked. In principle, Bill Clinton supports choice, the American Federation of Teachers supports choice, the Catholic Bishops support choice, the Houston Republicans support choice. There are choice experiments in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and other cities, and while their results to date are both small and ambiguous, that hasn't slowed the movement.

California residents will vote in the June 1994 primary on a broad voucher plan that includes all schools. Despite its obvious flaws, the accumulating fiscal and social troubles of the schools give it an increasingly good chance of passing. If the plan is defeated, it's likely to take all of the enormous financial and political power of the California Teachers Association to do so. (As this was being written, there was a possibility that California Governor Pete Wilson would set a special election before 1994, in order to move it from a primary election at which he himself might be challenged by the kind of right-wing Republican who would gain from the turnout of fundamentalist Christians come to support the voucher.) Perhaps more indicative yet, Chris Whittle, whose commercial in-school TV news program, Channel 1, reaches 8 million teenagers (far more than watch all three network news programs combined) is planning to create a national chain of 1,000 private schools called the Edison Project by the end of the decade. Whittle may be betting wrong, but it's hard to imagine that he expects to succeed without help from vouchers.

The issue, then, is not whether, but which kind. Will choice be limited to the public system--with sensitivity for diversity and equal opportunity as well as academic quality--or will it be privatized, divisive, and indifferent to the commonweal? There is fairly broad agreement, though hardly unanimity, that as part of a scheme of other reforms--increased school site control in particular--choice within the public system has possibilities. However, these possibilities, in turn, depend in considerable part on whether Clinton can reverse the moral and social priorities of the past decade and halt the loss of faith in community that has done so much to drive the rising interest in vouchers.


Of all the sectors of American life, none seems so driven by the myth of a lost golden age as education--time and other details unspecified--when all children went to nice bright schools, sat in orderly rows before dedicated teachers, learned what they had to know (by first learning "the basics") and then graduated, every one of them, to become productive citizens.

Just to say that, of course, is to expose its absurdity. Until the 1950s, U.S. schools were never expected to succeed with all children. Some attended only five or six months a year and quit after the fourth or fifth grade; many more left after the eighth grade to enter an economy that had plenty of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Schools, accordingly, were judged not by their failures--by dropout rates (a phrase that did not exist fifty years ago) or by how many did not go to college or fell below some standard test score--but by their successes. Blacks rarely figured into the education calculus at all.

One might even say that the golden age myth is itself a piece of vestigial racism--those nice orderly classrooms were predominantly, if not totally, white--but it's also important in explaining our pervasive discontent with the schools and the calls for radical "restructuring" that are based on it. No nation, Henry Commager once wrote, demands as much of its schools--expects them not only to teach reading and writing, but patriotism, morality, the evils of alcohol and tobacco (to which we have now added the dangers of drugs and AIDS), not to mention driver education, good citizenship, racial tolerance, self-esteem, and a hundred other things. And never have the schools been required to do it with a population as diverse--not to say troubled--as the schools do now. In 1970, one child in seven fell below the poverty line; now it's closer to one in five, and in the elementary grades it's closer to one in four. In 1970, 15 percent of the nation's school-age population was nonwhite; now it's well over 20 percent. In states like California, where whites are now a minority of the public school enrollment, one child in four is on welfare; one in four comes from a home where English is not the primary language. Los Angeles, the country's second largest school system, now enrolls children speaking some 80 different languages. Of the 185,000 new children who entered the state's schools in fall 1992, less than half came from homes where the primary language is English.

The facile response to such data is that American schools have always absorbed huge numbers of immigrants--Germans, Swedes, Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks. But never have they been expected to do it as completely and against such great odds. Today there is a much smaller market for unskilled dropouts--quite the contrary in this global economy--and thus no significant possibility that the schools can forget about their failures, much less threaten to boot them out as they could a half century ago.

That's not to say that criticism of American public schools is unfounded. Many schools are mindless; many districts are paralyzed by self-serving bureaucracies; many teachers, a lot of whom came from the lowest ranks of their college classes, do as much to sabotage curiosity and thinking as they do to encourage them. Nothing that follows should be taken as an indication that things are fine in American education. But many of the common assumptions about educational performance are wrong.

Dropouts. If one adds those who have graduated from high school (about 75 percent) and those who have a high school equivalency diploma, roughly 90 percent of young Americans are now high school graduates, the highest percentage in history. Over 20 percent are college graduates. The percentage who drop out of high school continues to decline--and that includes all races except perhaps first-generation Hispanic immigrants, who often leave for extended returns to the old country.

Academic Achievement in the "Basics." According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, much of the decline of the 1970s, though not all, was offset by progress in the 1980s. Black students, while not yet on a par with whites in math and reading, made substantial gains through the 1970s and the 1980s.

Average SAT Scores. Although they sank badly in the 1970s, scholastic aptitude test scores started to come back in the 1980s, particularly in math. This rebound came despite the substantial increase in the percentage of high school graduates (and thus the number of students not in the top ranks of their classes) who now take SATs. The number of students taking more intense academic programs in secondary school, like honors courses, advanced placement courses, and more serious math and science courses, has risen substantially in the past decade.

College Graduation Rates. Roughly 26 percent of all U.S. twenty-two-year-olds obtained a bachelor's degree in 1987, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, substantially more than in Japan (21 percent), Germany (13 percent), the UK or France (14 percent each). Similarly, we outrank other major nations in the percentage of twenty-two-year-olds getting a bachelor's degree in science and engineering. And since the institutions from which they graduate continue to draw hundreds of thousands of foreign students--we are far and away the world's leading exporter of education--the complaints about curricular inadequacy need a lot of qualification.

Collectively, the data are nothing to cheer about. A lot of students don't know in what century the Civil War took place or on what continent to find Ethiopia. American thirteen-year-olds rank at or near the bottom in most international measures of math and science proficiency. The comparisons may be somewhat misleading since most of those countries begin specialized education at age fourteen, placing more emphasis on high test performance in the earlier grades, and since some teach geometry to thirteen-year-olds (usually taught to American children at fourteen or fifteen). At the same time, however, even after the reforms of the 1980s, U.S. students appear to do less homework and have less demanded of them, either by schools or parents, than their foreign peers.

It's hard to know how much of that can be controlled by the school and how much comes from our indifferent intellectual atmosphere. Given the enormous changes in the demographics of American schools and considering the idiot culture in which our students live most of the day, it's surprising the schools have done as well as they have.


It's precisely the demographic and social factors that are driving some middle-class Americans to buy their way out of the system. Some parents honestly perceive schools to be unsafe; the schools can't deal with the diversity of cultures; the systems are distracted by the avalanche of personal and social problems that students bring and that no other institution addresses.

More and more voters are not parents, and more parents are not voters. That's one of the reasons support for public education is eroding. In 1970, white school children, who, of course, bring the most electoral clout, were fully 21 percent of the total population. In 1990, twenty years beyond the end of the baby boom, white school children were 14 percent of the population. In the suburbs, where parents are concentrated and have political clout, communities still provide lavish support for schools, but increasingly they become islands of exception.

Those groups who vote in high numbers, older people in particular, tend not to have children in the schools, while Americans who have more children in the schools have fewer votes per child and often don't exercise them. California's Proposition 13, which was passed in 1978 and which set the tone for much of U.S. social policy in the past decade, was largely a revolt of elderly people against high property taxes at the expense of local services for children: schools, parks, libraries. (This year, about 20 percent of California voters were parents of school children, roughly half of what it was a generation ago.) Even now, when local districts attempt to pass school bonds in California, they often exempt property owned by people over sixty-five from the additional taxes.

The middle class, of course, is not alone in looking for escape or in supporting vouchers. The Catholic church, whose remaining inner-city parochial schools are struggling to survive, has been seeking government help for years. And so have many inner-city black parents who desperately want some escape from the brutal schools their children are forced to attend. With a modest voucher, they could afford to attend those parochial schools; as a result, inner-city parents lead the polls in their support for vouchers. There's also support from the parents of Christian fundamentalist school children. But it's unlikely that vouchers would enjoy their widespread attention without considerable middle-class support.

For the conservatives who are now its greatest champions, choice may well have an additional use. If the problem are the schools and not children, no one has to concern himself too much about nutrition, health and day care, decent housing, or the children's issue in general. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, among others, is fond of quoting UNESCO data showing that the United States spends more per child on schools than most other modern nations. But the Journal fails to acknowledge that the universal day care in France, the German social welfare system, the homogeneity of Japanese society, or the universal health care and generous other benefits that nearly all those countries provide--social programs that relieve the burdens on schools. The blessings that the market is supposed to bestow on the schools tends to drive the rest of the problem into obscurity. If the good people can get away from the nasty kids, however defined, the conditions that shape those children's lives become practically, politically, and morally invisible.


Terry Moe, who teaches political science at Stanford and is a senior fellow at Brookings, says that the school market is like any other--he recently compared it to the market for candy bars. People shop around, choose what's best for them, and thus drive all competitors to improve their products. But there's no empirical evidence of that. In a study of the one public-private plan (Milwaukee's) now in operation, the Carnegie Foundation found that while the small number of students who have been enabled to leave the public schools "feel pleased with the decision they have made," more than 40 percent of those who left the public schools in 1991-92 for a private school didn't return to the private school in 1992-93. More important, there was "no evidence...that the participating students made significant academic advances or that either the public or the private schools have been revitalized by the transfers." Overall, Carnegie found, as have others, that "choice is a wholly unrealistic proposal for literally millions of children (because) there simply is no other school within easy reach or, if there is, the alternative school may be no better than the one close by."

Nor, despite their intimidating statistical analysis, do the theoretical arguments in Chubb and Moe's book hold up. Those arguments attempt to define what are "effective" public schools in terms of student achievement and to prove they are like private schools--relatively autonomous. By that, Chubb and Moe mean they are free of downtown bureaucracies and thus have "clear goals...ambitious academic program, strong educational leadership." But the difficulty of distinguishing correlation from cause seems overwhelming: Does the heavy hand of bureaucracy generate school failure or is it itself the result of failure? Is the "autonomy" that Chubb and Moe associate with effective schools and all the good feelings among teachers and principals that come with it the cause of student success or itself a result of students affluent, smart, or motivated enough to make such autonomy possible?

Chubb and Moe's measure of student achievement fails to separate out such things as student ability, motivation, parental resources (including predisposition to academic achievement), as well as the general noise of the surrounding culture. Even as Chubb and Moe seek to link private sector schools with autonomy and effective organization, they fail to cite any correlation between private control and achievement. In an essay in the Yale Law Journal (October 1991), James Liebman even suggests that it may be precisely because parents of children in private and suburban schools have so little choice--they are already at the top of the heap and thus have to fight to protect the quality of those schools--that their schools are so effective. In a real market system, where schools are free to choose and expel students on any basis except perhaps race, the effective choice may not be so much the parent's as the school's.

The voucher movement is silent about society's interest in common schooling. In the West and Southwest, where the only semblance of community is the shopping mall, the freeway, and the radio talk show, the public school is virtually the last institution that spans the entire community, bringing together not only children but their parents and often their neighbors in a common enterprise. Public schools embody the idea of community itself--the democratic ideals of a common culture that assimilates and integrates diversity even as it celebrates it. That's not an ideal that, however short of realization, can be casually abandoned.

What of children of parents who can't negotiate the market or are not interested in their schooling at all? What of the need, especially now, to acculturate immigrants? What of racial integration and understanding? One of the great ironies is to hear people like former education secretary William Bennett, who became apoplectic when Stanford University added a few nonwestern writers and a few women to its western civilization course a few years ago, defend a choice system that would feed tax money to Moonie schools, to the flat earth society, to African nationalists (the Louis Farrakhan school?), or indeed any other cultural separatist who could attract a few suckers.

Coons and Sugarman worry--with good reason--that unless voucher regulations are carefully written, the affluent will use them to supplement private school tuition while the poor will be stuck with whatever schooling the voucher will provide. While that could be fixed by limiting vouchers to schools that charge no more than the voucher is worth (which is what Chubb and Moe and Coons and Sugarman propose), no plan yet overcomes other problems in an unregulated market: that racial and ethnic segregation would rise, or that some parents would not be able to find a school that will take their children. The advocates of the California voucher argue that since they propose "scholarships" averaging only about half of what existing public schools spend per pupil, vouchers, if widely used, could save money. But since no plan that's made it to the ballot significantly limits how or where vouchers can be used, vouchers will not only become tuition supplements for private school parents but also an inducement to those schools to raise their tuition.

Nor is it likely that any radically different voucher plan would go very far. Any plan that is too restrictive about how and where a voucher can be used would immediately lose its parochial and fundamentalist school constituency; any plan that's too costly will look too blatantly like a raid on the treasury. Both the Colorado and California plans provide roughly $2,500, about half what the public schools spend. That's enough for a parish elementary school but no more than a third of the tuition at a good private day school and not remotely enough to educate a handicapped child or any other child with special needs.

Chubb and Moe would provide "add-ons" for such children, as well as a whole range of other "special educational needs...arising from economic deprivation, physical handicaps, language difficulties, emotional problems," all of it to be determined and refereed by an oxymoronic "choice office" in each district. In addition, there would be an array of other bureaucracies--to inform parents of their options, to place children who aren't accepted by any school (which, of course, conflicts with their insistence that all schools be autonomous regarding admissions and expulsions), to organize transportation, and to monitor compliance with the health, safety, and credentialing regulations that they seem to favor. That may not restore all of the old school bureaucracy, but the groups that have put vouchers on the ballot say they'll tolerate no such restrictions. As a "market," what this most resembles is our two-tier medical system, with the assigned-risk schools the corollary of the emergency room at the county hospital.


The more the system becomes a "market," the more the child and her parents become customers rather than citizens. In the existing system, the public schools have to register every child who lives in the appropriate attendance area. With an unrestricted voucher plan and deregulated schools, nobody has to take (or notice) anybody. The voucherites are designing a system that will allow more people to buy their way out but that will lock the children from whom they're trying to escape not just into their third-class schools, or out of schools altogether, but into civic and political invisibility.

Voucher advocates are probably correct when they suggest that just the possibility of choice will begin to challenge arrogant school bureaucracies and unions. For example, while per-pupil funding in California has sharply declined relative to the national average (from fifth among the states in 1965 to roughly fortieth in 1992), teacher salaries there have remained among the highest. The give, needless to say, has been in the quality of the program. Can anyone think of a better formula for driving people to the exits?

The voucher movement has already created a willingness in the public school establishment to consider far more flexible arrangements. California's legislature in fall 1992 authorized the creation of 100 charter schools--all free from most existing curricular requirements, all liberated from most teacher contract restrictions and credentialing requirements--that might never have been approved were it not for the voucher proposal on the 1994 ballot. Meanwhile, countless districts around the country are trying to decentralize school control, to create schools within schools, to give parents and teachers more local control and accountability, and, recognizing that different kids have different interests and different learning styles, to allow parents and children more choice among the schools. But vouchers are the ultimate weapon, and if the threat is ever carried out, it may well be impossible to restore the traditional common school. One can hear some future politician saying, "What, you want socialized education?"

Many of the reform plans of the past decade, of course, have run afoul of the same school boards, unions, and bureaucracies. But if the failures justify any head-on fight, it's a fight to liberate the local schools from the stultifying power of those organizations, not to launch a frontal attack on the principle of the common school. In some cases, that fight has been slow, in part because school boards, downtown bureaucracies, and state credentialing agencies are reluctant to yield authority; in part because various groups of ideological snoops and true believers demand an inventory of everything that's said or read or done inside the schoolhouse (Catcher in the Rye? Witches? Birth Control? Secular Humanism?); and in part because some state and local teacher organizations continue to insist that teacher contracts be modeled on those of industrial unions, with their tight work rules, their resistance to pay differentials, their rigid seniority system, and their refusal to participate in peer review or in anything else that could be regarded as management decisions. In Los Angeles last year, teachers, protesting threatened pay reductions, refused to appear for back-to-school nights. In other districts, teachers refused to write recommendations for students applying to college.

But the voices at the top are beginning to send different signals. Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has long been a vigorous force for reform (including public school choice) and for the creation of what he long ago called world-class academic standards. Keith Geiger, who heads the National Education Association, may be showing similar flexibility. Just as important, there are signs that teachers are driving their schools, and often their whole school systems, to greater flexibility and school-site innovation and accountability. Frank Newman, who heads the Education Commission of the States, says school boards now seem to be more of a drag on innovation and flexibility than any of the other major players in American education.

None of that should suggest that all institutional barriers against change are gone. But neither is there anything that so far justifies the far more radical attempt to finance a general breakout from (and breakup of) the public system.


Perhaps the greatest irony of the voucher movement is that even as it pretends to be concerned with individuals, it so thoroughly focuses on abstractions: the market, competition, the schools as institutions. But if one looks at real schools or real children, it's clear that the solutions, like the problems, are far more complicated and qualified. There are no panaceas here. The research is not even clear on how much difference money, class size, or the school themselves make. Still, there are a number of emerging conclusions.

The most successful schools are those with a clear sense of mission and shared values--schools that foster cooperative rather than bureaucratic relationships. That suggests that more school site control is preferable to more control by downtown bureaucrats and that more diversity and choice is preferable to a single model. Choice within the public system therefore makes sense, but as the Carnegie study points out, probably only as part of a plan of broader reforms; only if the schools are able to create sufficiently compelling programs; only if there is enough reliable information and quality control so that the choices can be made intelligently; and only if there are relevant programs even for marginal students.

One of the most interesting and celebrated of the public school choice programs now in operation--East Harlem's--didn't begin with choice at all. It began with attempts within a few schools to create distinctive and attractive programs--a performing arts school, among others, a math-science school, a bilingual school, a "bridge" school for tough-to-teach kids. Once these schools were established, choice was necessary to allow the children to opt for those programs. The voucherite faith has it the other way: that once there is a market, other reforms will automatically follow.

But there is no real reason to believe that. If there is any moral justification anywhere for limited vouchers, it's in the inner-city. But the better alternative is to give parents a greater voice and to make the necessary social investment--in health, in training parents to teach their preschool kids (the model is an Israeli program that Hillary Clinton brought to Arkansas), and in school-industry apprenticeship programs. The point is that real reform, particularly in the cities, requires precisely the kind of broad social concern that vouchers and an educational free market would allow the country to avoid. To address that concern, federal education policy in the next couple of years probably ought not focus on schools at all but on children. Maureen DiMarco, California secretary of education and social services, has urged that if there is more money for children, most of it should go not to the schools but to health (especially prenatal care and nutrition), Head Start, day care, counseling, housing, and recreation. Though extreme, such a focus reflects a justified sense that the needs are more urgent in, and that the money can be spent more effectively on, children's social services and parent training than on an educational system whose reform depends primarily on the states and local communities.

That's not to say the schools are well funded; many are not. But any additional money for schools (most of it no doubt state money) should be disbursed only with a quid pro quo--in curricular changes, school-site control, accountability for teachers and parents, and, where real options justify it, public school choice. Without these, little will change. Surely Bill Clinton, who was the driving force behind the school reforms in Arkansas, understands that as well as anyone. The essence of school reform during the 1980s, from Arkansas and Mississippi to New Jersey and California, was its ability to use additional funding to buy those higher standards for teachers, even a few halting steps toward merit pay, as well as tougher graduation requirements and other reforms--trading some flexibility from the unions and the bureaucrats for greater tax support. The reforms fell short largely in their failure to get enough reform for their additional tax dollars.

National performance-based testing can help. If done right--if we measure higher order skills such as problem solving, historical analysis, as well as writing and other creative work (all of which, of course, is expensive)--it may do more to generate a realistic appreciation of how the nation's schools are doing and how every particular school is doing against Shanker's world standard. It certainly could shake up those very satisfied parents; and it could shake up school boards, legislatures, and perhaps teachers colleges as well.

In the final analysis, however, the most important thing a Clinton administration--or any national administration--could do now for schools is to re-energize general confidence in government, in community, and in the efficacy of public service. Private school vouchers, after all, are not much more than the educational version of privatization in a dozen other areas. If the idea is driven by a desire to escape from the latter day (mostly social) problems of the schools, it can also be dampened by renewed confidence in government's interest in, and ability to deal with, those problems. For the most part, schools are local and state concerns anyway--the federal government funds no more than 6 percent of the total enterprise, less than it did when Reagan came to office in 1980. Though that federal contribution should be raised, what Washington mainly can do is set the climate. And in the past decade, the climate has been awful.

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