The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #760 on Education

March 21, 1990

March 21, 1990 | Backgrounder on Education

"A Primer on Choice in Education, Part I: How Choice Works"


(Archived document, may contain errors)

I Ewry year mericaspends inaeasipg sums on education, yet it seems to be withautmucbnotiaableimpactonthe~lowacademicachievement 760 March 21,1990 A PRIMER ON CHOIQ3 IN EDUCATION PART I HOW CHOICE WORKS INTRODUCITON Restoring Teaching's Prestige. With widespread public support, different choice schemes have been adopted in the states. Opponents mainly have been the eduktion establishment, fighting to protect its monopoly and job security.

Yet educators need not fear choice. Upgraded schooling, rising test sdres, and fading illiteracy will raise t he prestige of and respect for teachers and prin cipals, restoring to teaching the high status that it enjoyed just a little more than a generation ago.

Educators should join with parents and lawmakers in backing such choice op tions as magnet schools and open enrollment for public schools, and tuition tax credits and vouchers for private schools. Choice plans instituted to date general ly have been limited to public schools. While this limits their benefits, it addres ses the most pressing needs and make s broader political support possible.

Though many choice plans have been adopted only in recent years, where evidence is available it is clear that competition among the schools boosts stu dent performance.Thus state governors increasingly support parental choice and George Bush has made choice the cornerstone of his education improve ment agendame choice movement is gaining momentum, and policy makers must continue to htroduce choice where it has not been tried and to expand it where it has been successhl The Commission's alarming findings triggered a flurry of reform that has in cluded increased public school expenditures, higher academic standards, and an emphasis on basic skills -all with very disappointing results. In fact, last year the U.S. Departmen t of Education reported that Scholastic AptitudeTest SAT) scores have remained stagnant or declined during the past three years Only 20 percent of American high school se 'ors can write a simple letter and only 5 percent can pupher a bus schedule.'And the p roblem is most acute for the urban poor. The evidence is clear increased spending and recent education reform measures have failed to improve student performance HOW CURRENT EDUCATION REFORMS HAVE FAILED 2 How Reforms Picked the Wrong Target student perfo r mance. A 1989 survey of 187 studies by University of Rochester Economics Department Chairman Eric k Hanushek, for instance, finds that teacher salaries, per-pupil expenditures, class size, and graduation require ments are unrelated to academic performance ? After surveying two decades of edueathnal research, this report concludes The type of reforms undertaken since 1983 actually have little relationship to Expenditure increases, ifundertakenwithin the current institutional structure, are likely to be dissi pated on reduced class size or indiscriminate raises in teacher salaries, with a result that growth in costs will almost surely 'exceed growth in student performance.

Rather, such less tangiile bars as a clear educational mission, strong leadership, and an atmosphere of professionalism and flexibility have a much more significant impact on student achievement.These critical factors, notes Bmokings Institution Senior Fellow John Ch bb are not things that school reformers can easily influence with policies. J The lessons of the 1980s are clear: spending more money and fiddling modestly will not improve the performance of American students. What will is competition among schools.This will force the improvements needed to make American students as well educated as their foreign counterparts.There are dif ferent methods of introducing competition into the school system, all of which give parents some degree of choice in selecting their children's schools OPTIONS FOR EXPANDING CHOICE The principal options for prom o ting educational choice include (either alone or in combination) mapt schools, open enrollment, tuition tax credits voucheIs, and home schooling.The first two options normally conhe choice to public schools, while tax credits and vouchers extend the freed om of choice to some or all private schools. Each of these strategies has different attributes and different implications for parents and for schools.

I choice within me public Schools Most current praposals focus on increasing choice and competition among public schools.This empowers the vast majority of parents. Students can im pme their opportunities and poor schools will hce powerful incentives to im prove. Among the most important versions of public school choice 3 Magnet Schools. The term magnet conn o tes an intrinsic drawing power and this is precisely how magnet schools are designed. To attract students from outside their normal attendance areas, magnet schools are given the flexibility to design specialized courses of instruction and experiment with instructional techniques. Used increasingly in recent years as a desegregation device, magnet I schools have accomplished what decades of forced busing could not: voluntarily integrated sch.ools-offering highquaty-educational opportunities.

Magnet schools currently comprise about 25 percent of all schools of choice.

They are organized around particular themes: specialized academic courses like math, science, foreign languages, or remedial education; performing or creative arts; vocational or technical education; or particular learning methods.

One-third of these schools base admission on established criteria, such as supe rior academic performance; the remainder admit students on a lottery or first come basis. It is not uncommon for this latter version to result in long lines of parents camped out for days, waiting to register their children.

Magnet schools exist at the primary or secondary level, and the size-atten dance zone can vary widely. Examples: Mon tclair, New Jersey, has turned all its elementary and secondary schools into magnets and has instituted open enroll ment throughout the municipality; St. Louis, by contrast, has crefted a program in which it exchanges students with 23 suburban school dist ricts.

Impressive Gains. The academic gains produced by magnet schools so far are impressive.The Education Department reports that 80 percent of the magnet schools in fifteen ban districts showed higher achievement scores than their district averages.

In designing magnet schools, policy makers should offer real choices tothe maximum number of students. If a school district creates a number of magnet schools that prove to be successful otherdistrict schools should be permitted to compte with the magnets by mom their own curricula or methods.

Schools with long waiting lists should be replicated.

To the extent they are usedm a desegregation device, magnet schools can succeed only if the pMcipalgd is educational quality rather that racial balanc ing as an end in itself.

Open Enrollment. Also called public school choice, open enrollment is the most comprehensive way to introduce competition with the public education al sector 4 Minnesota is the pioneer in open enrollment. Launched in 1987, the Min nesota progr am requires open enrollment in certain school districts; all the state's school districts will be included by the 1990-1991 school year. Under this policy, students may apply to schools h districts other than the one in which they reside, and the schools must accept them unless space is inadequate or the transfer would upset racial balance:' The state's portion of the cost of educat ing a student "follows the student to the school of choicee.Thus schools that at tract more students attract more money.

The student's family is responsible for transportation to the new district's boundaries, but from there transportation is provided for needy students at public expense. In the four years since open enrollment was first proposed public opinio in Minnesota has flipped from 2-to-1 opposed to 2-to-1 in favor of the policy. Last year, Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska, enacted open-enroll ment programs patterned

er Minnesota's, and Ohio has launched an open enrollment pilot program.

Denying Choice to Some. Other jurisdictions have opted for "controlled choice giving parents the opportunity to identi

their top two or three school preferences. Administrators then assign students to a school aiming at achiev ing a racial balance, with parent preferences as a secondary c oncern. Boston in stituted controlled choice last year, and although most of the city's students received their first and second choices, a large percentage of students were as signed to a school they had not chosen. After a generation of racial conflict s temming from forced busing, administrators hoped that controlled choice would enable the schools to integrate through voluntary mead4 However, un like open enrollment plans, controlled choice does not permit a child to attend the neighborhood school if it would upset the racial balance. This choice option therefore, denies choice to a large proportion of parents, whose children remain subject to mandatory busing a Other examples In 1981, Cambridge, Massachusetts, abolished attendance zones for grades K-8 a n d allowed parents to select their top three schools, subject to space and desegregation limitations. Following the introduction of choice, the proportion of students electing to attend public schools rose frog 74 percent to 82 percent, and student achieve m ent scores have risen steadily 11 Thisrequircmcnt IMydbC- a haal Landmark Legal Foundation has filed on behalf of black sdmWWen a legal challenge to the Kansas City policy of strict racial quotas in magnet school admissions under which the school dishict h as turned away black students despite having empty scats in the magnet schools. See the discussioa ofn on in Part II of this paper, forthcxnnhg 12 ?ReRightto Qlme, op. cit p. 19 13 pbillips op. ck, p. 3 14 "Amcriarn~~RBCW~NewsT~,NNOvember13,19g9 15 School s of Qlok me Beginnhg

a SYJtmric Chmge in Amaicon Education? US. Senate Republican Policycommrttee August3,l989,p 5 New York City gives 90,000 of its 940,000 students choices among 250 alternative programs, some on a lottery basis and others subject to sc reening re quirements Colorados Second Chance Pilot Program offers school dropouts a chance to attend certain out-of-district public schools, vocationaVtechnical schools, or adult education programs, transferring 85 percent of th per-pupil expenditures fr om the iesident to thenonresident school district.

Magnet schools, open enrollment, and controlled choice have proven effec tive in improving education by injecting an invigorating dose of competition into the public school system. public school choice can promote program in novation and specialization as well as greater parental involvement and school autonomy. But competition that is limited to the public sector cannot ac complish the full range of benefits available from competition that includes the pr i vate sector lf Cholce end Private Schools A 1988 Harris poll finds that more than half of public school parents would choose private schools for their children had they the means to do ~0.1~ Perhaps the greatest indictment of Chicagos failed public school system is that Chicago public school teachers who live in that city are twice as likely as all other parents to send their children to priva e schools 46 percent of teacher parents and only 22 percent of other parents.$ These teachers om union vehemently apposes extending the same choice to less affluent parents.

While private schools are often beyond the reach of low-income families they are not exclusively serving the affluent. In fact, according to the Council on American Private Education in 1988, some 41.7 percent of families who send their children to private schools have incomes less than S25,OOO a year.

Moreover, providing assistance to less-affluent parents to enable them to exer cise that choice actually could save taxpa yers billions of dollars.he reason typically it costs less to educate a child in a private school. Each child attending a non-public school saves taxpayers at least $4,OOO, which is the annual per pupil average cost in public schools.The five million pupi ls currently in non public schools save taxpayers over $20 billion a year.

Currently there are several strategies and proposals.to expand choice to private schools. Among them Toition Tax Credits. One much-debated option for expanding choice is a tax credi t for tuition or other educational expenditures incurred in out-of-district public, private non-sectariau, and/or church-affiliated private schools.Tax credit advocates note that because the aid flows directly to parents rather than 16 E Ow CMdm, tp. Cit, p. 31 and Model IV (Appendix 17 Edualwd 18 Herbert J. Walberg, Michael J. Batnfk Joseph L Bast, Sttven Baer, We clu, Rescue Our CXlh (Chicago The Heartland Iostihuc, l.988) p. 11 UloicCA ~forSchOdRcfamr (Chicago: city club of Chicago, lW p. 5 6 to educati o nal institutions, credits eliminate the need for burdensome and in trusive regulation of private schools. Critics argue that tax credits do not help those low-income families who pay little or no taxes, but this criticism ignores the fact that tax credits could be refundable to assist low-income families who do not have tax liability.

Minnesota allows state income tax deductions for tuition, textbook, and tr~ortation~~ensesincurr+d~pab~c or.private.schools, covering expenses from $650 to $l,OOO per student . ITghas a tax credit of 5 percent of private school tuition up to $1,0oO per child.

Several New Hampshire towns are exploring the prospects for property tax abatements for school expenses. The towns would give taxpayers a $1,000 credit for every youngste r who enrolls in a school (private or public) outside the dis trict.The abatement would also be available to taxpayers who provide scholar ships.The abatement program reduces the towns' education costs, while giving parents greater access to education alt ernatives.

Tuition tax credits can expand the option of attending a private school to less affluent families. Private schools have been shown to be particularly successful in educating poor and minority school children. Providing financial assistance in th e form of such tax credits, could go a long way toward expanding oppor tunity for the neediest in society choice is vouchers. In theory, these allow students to "purchase" educational programs at any school with certificates representing their individual s hare of tax dollars. Public schools would set "tuitions" and would be dependent upon vouchers for their revenues. As in other choice plans, funding would follow the student, and so schools would have to compete for "customers Parents could supplement thei r vouchers if th9 elected to send their children to a more ex pensive school.

Because vouchers put public and private schools on equal footing, they direct ly challenge America's public school monopoly. For this reason, many experts beliewe that vouchers a nd other methods that include private school choice offer the only real chance for real reform. But also for this reason, a comprehen sive voucher proposal would require enormous political courage. Yet the educa tional benefits seem likely to make it well worth the risk No other policy proposal would do as much to empower parents to control the educational des tinies of the children.

Home Schooling. A choice option used by tens of thousands of American hilies is home schooling.This is formal education cond ucted in whole or part within the home. For those with the necessary commitment and resources home schooling can provide wholesome, top-quality educational oppor Vouchers. The most comprehensive -and controversial -form of education 19 Ehcrrtsng Our Qlild rm, op. at ModdV (Appendix) and p. 30 7 I tunities?O But laws regulating home schooling vary from state to state, and in many places legal obstacles e

st to educating children in the home. Limiting regulations of home schooling to ensure minimal educationa l standards while otherwise allowing maximum liierty will expand education choice in asig nificant way THE GROWING CONSENSUSFOR CHOJCE The evidence indicates that achievement in America's schools will improve only if there are fundamental changes in the w a y that schools are managed and controlled. Central to this, a growing number of reformers maintain, is educa tional choice.The Bush Administration is backing its rhetorical support of choice with some action. Example: Bush has endorsed increased federal f unds for magnet schools.The Department of Education also has convened a roundtable on public school choice, and last fall convened a series of regional grass-roots strategy meetings to promote choice.

Education choice is advocated by reformers of all political stripes. Observes Edward Fish, the NewYorkTbntzs expert on education Conservatives see school choice as a way of injecting free enterprise into the educational system.

Libera& see it as a way of giving the poor the same freedom that the rich have. st atewide choice plan in Minnesota. He argues that "without choice, school dis tricts have little incentivs change and to provide alternatives for those families that want them.

Strong Public Support. Business leaders, meanwhile, faced with a,severe shortag e of skilled labor, are backing choice. Xerox Corporation Chairman and schools Polls show strong public support for education choice. A 1987 Gallup Poll hds that 71 per cent of Americans, including 77 percent of non-whites, favor allowing parents to choos e among local schq; a pluraliv supported the even more comprehen sive alternative of vouchers. This broad consensus provides a strong founda tion for meaningful education reform centered on choice Indeed, Governor Rudy Perpich, a Democrat, has championed t h e Chief Wtive Officer David T. barns calls for "the total res tpuring of our to be "driven by competition and market discipline 20 Scc Clint Bofick TheHw~~Schoobg Movcment,'7Re Fnarm,March W, p.84 2l Edward Fi lhe NmYopkc'lsmu, January ll, 19g9, p. B8 22 L ee A. Dads, "EEotts to Allow Choice of Schools Stir Debate lllrc NmY&Tunw, March 1,1989. 23 David T. Kearns and Denis P. Daylc, Winningthe Bmin Rue (San FranciscO: Institute for Contemporq studies# 1988 p. 2 24 hid9 p. 5 25 EM& CRoice, op p. 5 8 WHY CHOIC E IS THE KEY Choice is seen as a critical lever for change because the central flaw in the public education system is its monopoly on providing education. The high taxes imposed to finance public education make it difficult, if not impossible, for most par e nts to opt out of public schools. And like any monopoly "industry with a captive market of consumers and-a guaranteed flow of revenue, public schools are under little pressure to produce a quality product signed to inferior schools where drugs and crime a r e far more common than educational opportunities.26 Robert Woodson, president of the Washington based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which seeks to spur im provement within innerdy minority communities, views educational choice as crucial to the progress of poor Americans. Woodson explains that wlhen we talk about enhancing choice, we are simply talking about giving working class people and poor people the same opportunity [as the affluent] B choose schools and services for their children Thi s monopoly system traps students from poor families, who often are con The deficiencies of the public educational system owing to its monopoly status are exacerbated by a second fundamental flaw: the educational system is controlled by the political.proces s rather than by its "customers the parents and the pupils.

Union Control As part of the political process, public education is suscep bile to special interest pressures, such as teacher unions' control of personnel.

The miom dictate who is qualified to teach and often protect incompetent teachers.This undermines the autonomy schools have over their own policies and personnel.

Consider the staf6ng of public schools. As Brookings's Chubb points out Control over personnel is the mo st important quality that a school nee ds in order to be effectively organized,"&et "within the public sector, autonomy is more the exception than the rule. Owing to this lack of control over person nel, the system frequently transfers incompetent teacher s from one school to another.Th9 often wind up teaching in poor communities tithetical to the autonomy and accountability essential to quality education.

Hence, say advocates of choice, the most effective reform proposals must ad dress both flaws. Allowing choice among schools, public and private, would do most to end the monopoly and the problem of political control. Short of this The monopoly and special interest control of the public school system are an 26 SceClintBalick,~ConuJc::Civil~crt~~(NewBrunswi c lr,NcwJwscy:Trarrsaction Books, 1988 pp. 104112 n chOice,q.cit.,pp.8-9 28 Right to (3uwse, q. cit p. 11 9 freedom of choice within the public sector, with increased control by parents over the management of indiMdual schools, could lead to significant imp rove ments.

The crucial feature of a choice plan is increased competition between schools, even if that choice is limited to public schools. Explains Xerox's Kearns In a choice system, the state would fund'individual children Money earmarked for public edu cation would reach the public school only when the student elected to enroll.The school would lose its guaranteed income, and it would be forced to provide the offerings that met the needs andjperests of the community it proposed to serve.

East Harlem's choice plan has moved that district's reading scores from last to sixteenth among NewYork City's 32 school districts.The number of students who read agr above grade level in the district has increased from 15 percent to 64 percent.

Staying in the Neighborh ood. East Harlem has the highest poverty concentra tion in Manhattan, But its choice plan has led to this impressive success.The great majority of students attend their neighborhood school even though they may attend any school in the district.The Critica l factor in improving student performance appears to be the decentralization that has allowed parents teachers, and principals to make most decisions affecting their own schools.

The results are eve more remarkable for urban minority students able to at te nd private schools. The reasons for this are simple. By virtue of the need to produce competitive results to attract pupils and thus survive, private'schools must be effiuent.They have smaller bureaucracies than public schools, and I d HOW CHOICE HELPS PO O R FAMILIES One of the most successful choice plans was initiated fifteen years ago in New York City's East Harlem, a school district about two-thirds Hispanic and one third black. East Harlem's "open enrollment" policy allows parents to send their childre n to any of the 23 schools within the district. Parents choose among schools specializing in different themes, including performing arts and math and science. School administrators and teachers have the freedom to design new programs and hire new teachers t o attract students 29 KearnsandDoyle,opcit.,p.M 31 Jill Rachlin and Paul Glast~k Of MareThan Parochial Interest US. News World Report, May 22,1989 p. 61 3O~oUr~Opcit,pp.2p3o 10 they stress the academic basics to attract students. They also enjoy strong pa ren tal support for a disciplined and orderly school environment.

Choice-centered reform proposals are receiving growing bipartisan political support and are endorsed by the great majority of parents. Some school ad ministrators, like California Superinten dent of Public Instruction, William Honig, recognize that choice brings increased flexibility for themselves and teachers and prompts greater parental support.

Despite the support of educators like Honig, the principal opposition to choice comes from the education establishment. Politically powerful teachers unions fight choice proposals at the federal and state 1evels.They seem to dread the prospect of competition and accountability.

Business Backing. Countering the opponents are grass roots parent group s and business leaders who recognize the value of competition.They have formed co8litioI1s pressing for choice plans in the states.The California Business Roundtable, a group of 90 top executives, backs choice legislation in that state the Illinois Manufa c turer's Association has joined other business groups in promoting choice among public and private schools in the city of Chicago; and THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST CHOICE Critics contend that widespread freedom of choice among schools would lead tcrmore affluent and.w&educated parents taking their.children to suburban schools or to the best urban schools, turning inner-city schools into "dumping grounds" for the very poor and the hard-to-educate.

This contention is refuted soundly by the experience of families in East Har lem who made informed choices when they were free to choose and provided with through information about available choices. In fact, students were not left behind in inferior schools when East Harlem adopted choice. Instead, two schools that faile d to attract students were closed and later re-opened with new staff and programs.

Critics also charge that choice is not a cure-all for what ails education and that its supporters often promote choice as a total solution.To be sure, choice is not the pana cea. It must be coupled with reforms such as greater school autonomy and accountability, and high standards of achievements. Yet, even alone, choice will raise educational standards through competition. And then this competition will spur other necessary r eforms to e made more quickly than th9 would have been in the absence of choice. 2 CONCLUSION 32 Chester E. Fm Jr The Choh BacklaJt4" NolionolRNicw, November 10,1989 11 the I.,ouisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state's Chamber of Commerce, has backed plans .to introduce education vouchers movement, like Minnesota's Perpich, a Democrat. InWisconSin, Republican GovernorTomqThompmn has proposed legislation to create "education enterprise zones" for poor students. His plan would give parents ed ucational vouchers to enable them to send.their children to either public or non-secmian private schoolswithin their district.This effort inbehalf of low-income students has received the support of black urban legislators.

Republican Cangtessman Steve Bart lett of Texas has introduced legislation that would allow federal aid to disadvantaged students (Chapter I funds) to go directly to parents of eligible students to be uscd toward payment of tuition at their school of choice. Bartlett's bill 697, also woul d provide federal aid to help local and state education agencies design open enrollment plans and would rcmovt federal regidatmy barriers that impede choice.

George Bush's educationlegislation expands the federal mapet school pro gtamtomatcitavailabletoschooldistrictsnotunder~~~d tionplans. Bush also has requested additional funds to 8ssess the results of hi

light choice as the onlyreform stmtegywith the potential to boost student State Leaders. Some state governors have been at the forefront of the choice ChdCCplaas.BUShandEdU~ti~secretaryL8lKO~IIlUStcwtirmeto pufom=caad~iTlvob

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