Should Public Schools Compete?


January 25-31 was National School Choice week, and according to its website, this week “provides an unprecedented opportunity to shine a positive spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children.”  While I doubt that anyone would dispute that all children should have an effective education, the “option” part is where things get somewhat muddled for me.  More and more, school choice has become synonymous with the idea that parents should be allowed to pick any school they want their children to attend.  The original public school concept, of course, was slightly different: that any public school would provide a good education, which would mean that schools would be similar in what they provided.  If that were the case, then the need for any choice in schools  would be moot—no matter which school you picked, your kids would receive basically the same treatment, so there’d be no issue with kids being required to go to the school most geographically compatible with their homes.  Obviously, many people don’t believe that we’re anywhere close to achieving that ideal, hence the need for school choice.

So, assuming that there is a wide gap in the quality of many of our public schools, what’s the best way to address that problem?  Many are arguing that public schools should compete for students—that by allowing parents to select the schools to which their children and their tax dollars go, schools will have to shape up or ship out; that the capitalist model of whoever has the best product gets the most sales is the way to improve education.  School choice proponents generally attack things like tenure and unions as having led to teachers who have little reason to perform well, that public education has become complacent and lazy.  But, the argument goes, if parents had the right to take their educational vouchers to whichever school they pleased, every school would have to tighten up and actually do the job of educating students, lest they see a sharp decline in enrollment and funding.

Now, I would have no problem with that approach if we were talking about television sets or snack foods, but these are kids and their futures we’re playing with here.  Basically, the school choice approach seems counter to the ideal of providing every single child in America with the same basic education.  Of course, I have to admit that we’re pretty far from that ideal with our current system of local property taxes providing the bulk of funding in the more well-to-do areas.  We definitely do not have equitable education for our kids with the wealthiest districts in Illinois spending over three times as much per pupil as the lowest.  But voucher systems could exacerbate this funding inequity.

Why would any parents send their children to schools that have run-down facilities, underpaid teachers, and few technological innovations?  The answer is the only kids who would wind up in the weakest schools would be those whose families lacked either the resources to get their children to the better schools or the knowledge about which schools were the best.  But you could be certain that even the weakest schools would still have some students.  These warehouses without hope would be Dickensian in their horrors, creating the same (and possibly a much larger) gap we currently have between the haves and have nots, just with a different set of each.

My guess is that you would also ignite a wave of bias and hard feelings since the lucky poorer people who managed to get their kids into the more prestigious schools might discover that those already in those schools—whose property taxes and thus costs to attend that school were much higher—would not be all that appreciative of their school’s popularity when those less-advantaged families’ kids actually created a lower per-pupil revenue for the district.  Should that decrease in money cause a decrease in programs at the more popular school, can you imagine how the long-term residents would react?  There would be protests, quotas, and much anger from both “sides” as everyone lined up as “native” versus “invader.”  Unless every student in every district has exactly the same dollar amount following him/her to whatever school is picked, I don’t see how this system would create better education.  The lesser schools would lose vital funding with fewer students, and the better schools would have more students with less money to be spent on each.

Yes, the students who managed to get into the better schools might receive a better education, but it would definitely come with some socially stratifying costs for them.  And it’s hard to see how the flight of some students wouldn’t make the schools in poorer areas worse off.  Finally, there would clearly be significant adjustments needed at the higher ranked schools with some compromises needed there as well.  School choice would get a select few to better schools, but the gains made by those few would seem to be—just as capitalism has always fostered through its foundation in competition—at the expense of many others.  In short, if you use a competitive system for the basis of school enrollment, there will be winners and losers.  And that sounds much worse when you consider that the losers we’re talking about are kids.

That’s not to claim that many of the reasons school choice has become a popular idea for so many are not real and legitimate; our society should never meekly accept the status quo when it is clear that while many of our schools do achieve their key purpose—which is to provide every child with the opportunity for a good education.  Too many don’t; the statistics on that are clear.  We just have to recognize that the consequences of whatever solutions we seek to remedy that inequity will not be free of costs.  To me, school choice is simply a band aid which will help a few while ignoring most.

Instead, we need to seek solutions that benefit all students, or at least, provide equitable education for everyone.  Regardless of how savvy a kid’s parents are, where a baby is born, or how much money a family pays in property taxes; every student deserves that opportunity for a good education.  It really shouldn’t be a competition.


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