Executive Perspective

The Illusion of Choice in the Marketplace

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Ihave watched with interest the voucher debate and have raised my own voice on the subject. Of late, however, I think most discussion is missing the bigger picture.

Those against vouchers cite the potential damage to public education and the whole fabric of a common society they might cause, the constitutional questions they raise and the questions of fairness they create. Those who favor vouchers speak of their belief in the power of the market to reform education, the right of parents to choose where their children go to school and the necessity for creating an avenue of escape from failing inner-city schools. Both arguments have merit, but miss the fact we do not have a dual system of education in America with private schools on one side and public schools on the other.

Basically, American schools are divided into four different systems or quadrants: Only by understanding this can we view the voucher issue realistically. On the right side of the divide you have privates and on the left publics, but within each system are two very different kinds of schools.

Two Extremes
Private schools are really the high-end day school and boarding schools where the economic elite who choose private education send their children. They are the schools such as St. Albans or Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., where the Gores and Clintons educated their children at price tags of $10,000 or $15,000 a year. Or they are the schools like Choate Rosemary Hall or Phillips Exeter Academy where other elites such as the Bushes boarded their children.

At the other end of the spectrum one finds parochial schools. I would include in this group the non-Catholic religious schools run by Protestant groups or even some storefront schools run by ethnic groups that have a political theme they wish to promote. These schools also charge tuition but the rates are much lower--$2,000-$3,000 a year. Often the parents have to invest "sweat equity" through volunteering and fund raising to keep these schools going. You might say these schools are really poor private schools.

What both types of schools have in common is that in most cases they are selective in whom they accept and whom they keep as students. Students with serious learning or behavioral problems are rarely accepted or retained for any significant period of time.

On the other side of the line are the public schools. They are technically open to everyone and have a broader, more inclusive philosophy. They, too, are divided into two groups. One group consists of those schools that serve poorer neighborhoods, be they urban or rural. They are typically funded at lower levels and serve student bodies who, because of their impoverished social circumstances, tend to present greater learning challenges.

The other group of public schools can best be described as "privileged." They are public, but they exist either in communities where one must buy into expensive homes to access the schools or they are magnet or special schools that have been created to cater to a more selective group of students by virtue of interest or talent. They tend to be funded at much greater levels, have the best of teachers and leaders and produce excellent graduates who fare well in college and later in life. In fact, their graduates are competitive with or superior to those coming from the private schools previously mentioned.

And there is the point. The reality is that the schools in the top two quadrants (private and privileged) are much more similar to each other than they are to the schools in the bottom quadrants (parochial and poor publics.) Likewise, the two on the bottom are really more alike than they are to their better-off sister schools. What we have created in America is a two-tiered system of schools based on income and family circumstances--the level of funding they have--and not on the source of the money received.

A False Marketplace
That takes us to the current voucher discussion. While vouchers (or the more politically attractive term of the moment, "scholarships") are promoted as parental choice, they are still dependent on the schools accepting the voucher. Further, most vouchers are so modest in value as to limit which schools can be accessed. The reality is that unless schools are obligated to accept any child who has a voucher, it is not really a parent choice plan--it is a school choice plan. And unless the voucher will cover the costs of educating the child, it will not be attractive to the school.

The truth is wealthy private and privileged public schools will not accept students who are difficult to educate. Parochial schools might. So all current voucher plans under discussion are really plans to move poor children from poor public schools to poor private schools, but not to schools voucher advocates would want their own children to attend.

If we are really serious about creating a market-driven system of parent choice, we will have to develop a voucher plan that carries significant tuition credit--$10,000 to $15,000 at least so wealthy private and privileged public schools have an incentive to accept poor students with greater learning needs. And we will have to regulate private and privileged schools so they have to take voucher-bearing students regardless of their abilities, if we are really to give options to parents.

Paul Houston is executive director of AASA. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org