July 25, 1996
By Denis P. Doyle
Congress soon will be considering major legislation that would
enable poor children to attend the schools of their choice.
Representatives J. C. Watts (R-OK) and James Talent (R-MO) have
introduced a comprehensive legislative initiative, Saving Our
Children: The American Community Renewal Act of 1996 (H.R.
Title II, the Low Income Educational Opportunity Act of 1996,
would establish an education choice scholarship program that
includes both private and religious schools in "renewal
communities." Each locality would determine the value of the
scholarship for poor children, but the maximum value of the
scholarship would not exceed the per capita cost of educating
children in a local public school. The scholarships available to
poor children would have a minimum value not less than 66 percent
of the per capita cost of educating children in the local public
schools or the tuition normally charged by the private school.
Parents would not be forbidden from using scholarships to pay for
tuition in religious schools, and local authorities would not be
able to discriminate against parents or children who do so. The
scholarship program would be supported from existing federal
Where their children go to school is a serious question for
parents. President and Mrs. Clinton are willing to pay an annual
tuition of more than $11,000 to send their daughter Chelsea to the
exclusive Sidwell Friends School. Vice President and Mrs. Gore
chose St. Albans School, a few blocks from Sidwell, for their son,
as did D.C.'s Shadow Senator Jesse Jackson. The Clintons, like the
Gores and many other parents among the nation's social and
political elite, have made a conscious decision that the
Washington, D.C., public schools, recently the subject of failed
congressional reform efforts, are not good enough for their
children. They also have decided that a school with religious
affiliation is important.
While most Americans intuitively understand what is best for
their children, public policy has made it difficult for all but the
well-to-do to choose the school they prefer. Indeed, implicit in
public policy is the assumption that where a child goes to school
is unimportant. But the evidence is in: Where a child goes to
school matters a good deal -- better a good school than a bad
More important, the empirical evidence clearly reveals that most
private schools do a better job than most public schools,
particularly with poor and minority youngsters. Yet for more than a
century, public policies in the United States have made it
virtually impossible to provide public funds for children to attend
private schools.3 In this regard, the United States
stands virtually alone among the world's democracies.4
With enactment of the Watts-Talent bill, this dubious distinction
would come to an end.
The Changing Intellectual Climate
For many years -- in the 1960s and 1970s in particular -- a body
of thought developed in this country which emphasized a child's
"background" characteristics, which were assumed to be paramount.
Success in school was the luck of the socioeconomic draw. It made
little or no difference where children went to school, whether
urban or rural, north or south, east or west, public or private;
what was important was what they brought to school with
them.5 If they were poor and dispossessed, they probably
would do poorly. If they were poor and members of a minority group,
they were almost certain to do poorly. By way of contrast,
advantaged youngsters from enriched backgrounds did well. That was
-- and is -- the argument. That it flies in the face of experience
and common sense has done nothing to temper its enthusiastic
reception among policymaking elites.
The modern incarnation of this general argument emerged from
both the incomplete interpretation and the substantial
misinterpretation of early work by James Coleman, a nationally
prominent sociological researcher, then at Johns
In research conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Office of
Education (predecessor to the U.S. Department of Education),
Coleman and his colleagues initially found little in the way of
school effects; factors like race, income, and parental level of
education were stronger than school characteristics as predictors
of school performance. What did seem to make a modest difference
was who you went to school with; poor black youngsters appeared to
do better in integrated settings. But as any competent policy
analyst knows, absence of proof is not proof of absence. Because
"school effects" were elusive or hard to find and measure did not
mean they did not exist.
To the contrary, if "school effects" really were only weak (or
worse yet, if they did not exist at all), the whole rationale of
public education would come tumbling down. Indeed, so might that of
private schooling. If nothing matters, there is no point in
worrying about the right way to educate children.
There was, however, a widespread desire to believe a variation
of such an unlikely interpretation. Among liberals who believed in
vigorous, interventionist government, the lack of "school effects"
was interpreted to mean that these effects were not sufficiently
robust. What was needed was "more" impact: more money for schools.
If race and socioeconomic status (or SES in the jargon of
sociologists) were more powerful determinants of school performance
than schools themselves, the schools must be weak. Other larger,
even more ambitious government programs would be in order.
Just as geography was destiny in the 19th century, SES became
destiny in the 20th. The ironies in this development were many. In
liberal hands, it became an argument designed to bolster the theory
that the only good school is a rich school (and a rich public one
at that). At the same time, it became an argument that absolves the
existing school of its obligations to its students. It "blames the
victim." The school is not at fault if students do not learn.
Schools have little or no effect; it all depends on the raw
material.7 This sentiment is nicely encapsulated in a
song ("Gee, Officer Krupke!") from Leonard Bernstein's classic
West Side Story: "Hey, I'm depraved on accounta I'm
Why Schools Matter
Such conventional liberal theory is bad pedagogy and worse
public policy. Indeed, it fell to James Coleman, then a professor
at the University of Chicago, to reopen the argument with
extraordinarily powerful research that demonstrated the strong
effect of Catholic schools, particularly on poor black
This research, widely reported in 1981 when it appeared in
summary form in The Public Interest, is as valid today as it
was then. Coleman also noted the embarrassing fact, still a stark
feature of today's school choice debate, that "there are many who
vigorously oppose making private school attendance easier and at
the same time have their own children enrolled in private
school."9 Coleman set out to answer three vital
Coleman's first hurdle was methodological: how to distinguish
"the effects of selection from the effects of the school itself" to
control, "even to the extent of overcompensating," for selection
into the schools. This he did. His academic findings are hardly
surprising: "higher learning in the Catholic schools than in the
The literature in this area is not restricted to Coleman's
seminal work, as John Convey's 218-page Catholic Schools Make a
Difference reveals.10 Convey reports that in a
series of studies based on National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP) data, Lee and Stewart "documented consistently
higher scores of Catholic school students compared with public
school students." For example, the average Catholic school student
in grades 4 and 8 scored significantly higher in reading and
writing.11 In addition, Andrew Greeley's analysis of
data from the High School and Beyond longitudinal study showed
superior performance among whites, blacks, and Hispanics in
Catholic school by every single category (Vocabulary, Reading, Math
1, Math 2, Science, and Writing), and Marks and Lee, writing in
1989, found higher scores in Catholic schools in grades 3, 7, and
11 among whites, blacks, and Hispanics in every single category for
math, science, and reading.12
The most imposing studies, however, are those of Coleman and his
colleagues. Catholic school sophomores, for example, scored 10
percent higher in science and 12 percent higher in civics, and from
17 percent to 21 percent higher in mathematics, writing, reading,
and vocabulary. Catholic school seniors also consistently outscored
public high school students: 10 percent to 17 percent higher in
reading, mathematics, and vocabulary, and from 3 percent lower to 7
percent higher on three tests that measure ability more than
The last finding strongly suggests that the explanation for
higher scores lies not in some "ability" differential, but in what
the schools do with what they have. Catholic schools expect much of
their students, whatever their race and background, and expecting
much, get much.
Although Coleman found even higher scores in non-Catholic
private schools, the more important sample is Catholic schools,
which are the dominant force in the non-government school
Coleman also was concerned with other issues, most notably the
impact of choice on racial integration. Here the findings were
equally unambiguous: A child is more likely to attend school with a
child of another race in the private sector than in the public
sector. The importance of this early finding would be hard to
overstate; "suburban schools within the public sector are used as a
haven to a much greater extent than in the private sector."
Counterbalancing "bright" flight to the suburbs is the behavior of
students in Catholic school. Coleman's figures on dropouts are
striking. Among white students in public school, 13.1 percent
dropped out compared with 2.6 percent in Catholic schools; among
Hispanic students, the difference was two to one (19.1 percent to
9.3 percent); and among black students, the difference was more
than 3.5 to one (17.2 percent to 4.6 percent).14
Coleman's first finding concerning school effects should have
been received with rejoicing by the professional educators who had
endured their share of bad press. Their magazines and journals
should have featured articles on why schools make a difference. So
also should the nation's civil rights leadership have reacted
positively to Coleman's finding about racial integration in the
private sector. Indeed, the refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to
establish "metropolitan" remedies for past cases of racial
discrimination makes the Coleman finding all the more important,
because private school attendance is almost never geographically
based. Private schools, already better integrated than public
schools, offer more fertile fields for expanded racial integration
over time than do the public schools.
Such reactions, however, were rare, and the reason is not hard
to fathom. Had Professor Coleman's rigorous social science work
revealed stronger public than private school effects, there would
have been joy in the great halls of the education
establishment.15 But because one of the bastions of
"good schooling" is the private sector,16 public school
educators could not -- would not -- accept his findings. Coleman,
on the other hand, did no such disservice to the authorities who
run the public schools. He followed the evidence where it led and
found that all schools that exhibit similar characteristics have
strong school effects. All schools, whether public or private, that
exhibit the same cluster of attributes -- high expectations, a
focused curriculum, good order and discipline, caring teachers,
enterprising students -- have relatively robust "school effects."
What is important is that these characteristics are found more
readily and more often in private schools.
The Impact of Social Capital
In addition to his school effects work, Professor Coleman
returned to the questions that had intrigued him originally: Even
if some schools are better than others, what difference does what
the student brings to school make?17
What are the cultural and social traits that make a difference?
The potential for synergy is obvious, as are the public policy
"Social capital" is the cluster of skills, attitudes, and (to a
lesser extent) knowledge that the student acquires in the
non-school environment. Clearly, a child who is disruptive and
unruly and who has only weakly developed academic interests is less
likely to do well in any school, "good" or "bad," while youngsters
who bring with them a love of learning, disciplined and orderly
habits, and respect for themselves and other students, as well as
for the teacher, are much more likely to do well, all other things
being equal. These traits -- what might be called pro-academic
traits -- are the product of caring and supportive communities,
voluntarily created and maintained. Though they may include people
who look alike, in the final analysis they are not defined by race,
socioeconomic status, or ethnicity; they bridge all those gaps.
They are associative communities made up of superficially similar
or different people who share common values and virtues. In a
school setting, to use a quaint term, they are "communities of
Members of Congress and state and local legislators alike should
recognize the public policy implications of "social capital." The
most important single thing they can do in this regard is to
encourage its formation and continuance by underwriting education
choice. Not only does choice permit the expression of "social
capital;" it builds and reinforces the habits of mind that are
essential to voluntary association -- the same habits of mind that
are essential to civil society. In a school setting, choice imposes
the burden of choosing; there is no escape. One must make one's bed
and lie in it; no one else does it for you. School choice
proposals, including the school choice component of the
Watts-Talent legislation, foster democratic habits of mind that are
essential to a free society.
The High Stakes in Schools
The reasons for the high quality of private schools are several
and have to do largely with organization, incentives, and rewards.
Most simply, voluntary association makes a difference. In the
public sector, the organizational climate conspires against
dedicated teachers and hard-working students; in the private
sector, it encourages and rewards high levels of performance. In
short, monopolies are no better in the public sector than in the
private sector. They serve only the interests of the "owners,"
never the interests of workers or clients.
In the public sector, of course, the "owners" do not literally
own the schools. Rather, they are managers and bureaucrats, and the
schools are run for them, not for teachers and students. This
rather unappealing picture is not restricted to the public sector;
managerial capitalism also looks a good deal like this, which is
why it is under fire from liberal and conservative critics alike.
The Watts-Talent legislation would permit parents of poor children
to "own" their own schools instead of having to submit to the
bureaucracy that runs government schools.
America's policymakers seem willing to tolerate failures and
weaknesses in education that they would not tolerate in any other
area of public policy. Coleman's findings are so powerful that were
he dealing with any other area of public policy -- health, welfare,
housing, transportation, or juvenile justice -- shifts in public
policy would begin to reflect the new knowledge he contributed. But
public schooling is a nearly immovable object; public schools are
run for the convenience of, and at the pleasure of, their managers,
not for the benefit of students and their families.
When they debate the issue of school choice, Members of Congress
should consider the "school effects" literature in terms of
academic outcomes; its conclusions are wholly unsurprising. In
light of their "environment," one would expect private schools to
"do better." They must if they are to survive. All parents who
enroll their children in private school go through at least a
First, they must decide to enroll their children in a
non-government school and find the financial wherewithal to deliver
on this decision. Almost without exception, this involves the
payment of substantial tuition and fees out of pocket. Indeed,
because people value what they pay for, "full-ride" scholarships
are almost unknown in private elementary and secondary education.
Even -- perhaps particularly -- schools like Father Clemens's Our
Lady of Angels in Chicago charge at least a modest
Second, the financial commitment families make to send
their children to private school is a proxy for a personal
commitment to education, the importance of which is hard to
overestimate. It makes schools and their families partners in a way
that the a public sector monopoly can never hope to achieve.
Probably the most important "school effects" issue is not the
measured academic "outcomes" of schooling, but the school's impact
in the market. In a market, a school must "sell" and parents must
"buy." That is the marketpar excellence. Goods and services
that do not sell have no effect; indeed, they do not stay in the
market. Only monopolists -- particularly government monopolists --
stay in markets when no rational consumer wants their product or
service. Poor children, for all practical purposes, today have no
This issue came to a head this year when Congress considered
school choice as part of the Washington, D.C., FY 1996
appropriations bill. Representative Steve Gunderson (R-WI) offered
an amendment that would have given scholarships of up to $3,000 for
students whose family incomes were at or below the poverty level
and up to $1,500 for students whose family incomes were not more
than 185 percent above the poverty level. The Senate, however, when
presented with this opportunity to expand choice for children in
Washington's failing public school system, refused to do so. Only
four members of the Senate had sent their children to D.C.'s public
The obvious assumption, of course, is that D.C.'s public school
system is tolerable for poor children but not a serious option for
members of the United States Senate.
On the wisdom of these official restrictions, let the late
Professor James Coleman answer the critics. His is an eloquent
summation of the case for justice and dignity:
There may be a rationale for some protective barriers
to encourage participation in the public schools, but certainly not
those that exist now, which harm most the interests of those least
well-off and protect most those public schools that are the worst.
In short, the tuition barrier to private schooling as it exists now
is almost certainly harmful to the public interest, and especially
harmful to the interests of those least
As Members of Congress consider the Watts-Talent school choice
provisions, they have another chance to do the right thing.
BG1088: The Social Consequences of Choice: Why It MattersWhere Poor Children Go to School
Denis P. Doyle
Read More >>
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