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The Hollow Promise Of School Vouchers
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Special Voucher Report -- Main Page

Free-Market Education

Seed Money for Conservatives

Distorting the Civil Rights Legacy

Vouchers: Special Ed Students Need Not Apply

The Conservative Connection

Privatizers' Trojan Horse

Tuition Tax Credits: Vouchers in Disguise

Voucher Decision Opens Pandora's Box

Vouchers: Turning Back the Clock

Vouchers Schools Cash In
(PDF version)

Payment "Surcharge" Gives $28 Million Extra to Voucher Schools

Supreme Court Debates Vouchers

The Voucher Threat

High Court to Decide if Cleveland Voucher Program Violates the Separation of Church and State

Church / State Separation Vital to Democracy

Vouchers and the False Promise of Academic Achievement

School Vouchers: A Threat to the Rights of Women and Gays

False Choices: Vouchers, Public Schools, and Our Children's Future
(PDF version)

Who's Bankrolling Vouchers?

Vouchers, Accoutability, and Money

With God On Their Side...

Teaching Religious Intolerance

Vouchers:Church / State Complexities

A Visit to a Religious Elementary School

Five Years and Counting: A Closer Look at the Cleveland Voucher Program

Report Looks at Public and Private Schools

Vouchers and Public Accountability

The Hollow Promise of School Vouchers

The Market is Not the Answer

Lessons of Chile's Voucher Reform

The GI Bill Doesn't Vouch for Vouchers

Selling Out Our Schools: Vouchers, Markets, and the Future of Public Education

Notable Quotes on Vouchers

Links to other important sites on vouchers.

By Bob Lowe

(NOTE: The footnotes in this article are hot-linked. Click on the highlighted number to go directly to that footnote. Click on the number in front of the footnote to return to the place in the article you just left.)

For nearly 150 years public education in the United States has been recognized as a fundamental public good. That recognition is now under attack. Building on more than a decade of national power that has radically redefined the nature of public responsibility, conservatives, under the aegis of "choice," have proposed the substitution of markets for public schools. And they have made their arguments plausible to diverse constituencies.

Despite the grave inadequacies of public education today, however, throwing schools open to the marketplace will promote neither excellence nor equality for all. Rather, it will enhance the freedom of the privileged to pursue their advancement unfettered by obligation to community.

Current efforts to promote an educational marketplace through choice trace directly to the work of conservative economist Milton Friedman. Writing in the mid-l950s, Friedman proposed that every family be given a voucher of equal worth for each child attending school. Under this plan, families could choose any school that met rudimentary government oversight (which Friedman likened to the sanitary inspection of a restaurant). Parents could add their own resources to the value of a voucher, and, presumably, schools could set their own tuition level and admission requirements. 1

At the time, Friedman's proposal failed to attract widespread support. While some people excoriated public schools during the l950s for curricular laxity that allegedly gave Russians the jump in the space race, optimism prevailed that curriculum innovation and more attention to advanced placement classes would remedy the problem. Further, for the first decade after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, optimism remained high that public schools could create equality of educational opportunity. In fact, it was school desegregation that most underscored the conservative nature of Friedman's stance.

The First Choice Program

The first choice program provided white students in Virginia public funds to attend private academies in order to avoid attending public schools with Blacks. 2Friedman addressed this matter in his proposal. Although he expressed his personal desire for integration, he believed that state-imposed desegregation violated parents' freedom to choose. Thus Friedman asserted the primacy of freedom over equality and finessed the lack of freedom the less-than-equal possessed.

During much of the l960s confidence prevailed that public education could promote both excellence and equity. But by the l980s such confidence had seriously deteriorated in a political climate that identified the state as the perpetrator rather than the ameliorator of social and economic ills. 3A wave of national reports contributed to this climate by maintaining that the United States was losing its competitive edge because schools were inadequately developing students' skills. 4At the same time, sustained inequities in educational outcomes between white students and students of color seriously undermined faith in public schools' capacity to provide equal educational opportunity. In such an environment, a new private school choice program that emphasized opportunities for low-income students of color was linked with a new, more public relations oriented defense of the educational marketplace. This approach met considerable success in creating the illusion that choice would serve all.

The link was forged publicly in June l990 when Wisconsin State Rep. Annette "Polly" Williams (D-Milwaukee), the African-American sponsor of the highly publicized Milwaukee Parent Choice Program, traveled to Washington, D.C., as a featured participant in the unveiling of "Politics, Markets, and America's Schools" by John Chubb and Terry Moe.5Rarely do scholarly works become media events, but this event signified the launching of a vigorous campaign to promote educational choice. It also implied the existence of far broader support for opening schools to the marketplace than the historically conservative constituency for choice would suggest. Although it would be a mistake to conclude that support for "choice" represents a consensus among diverse political forces, it rapidly is becoming the major policy issue affecting schools in the United States today.

Neither Equity nor Excellence

At the cutting edge of this issue are the choice program in Milwaukee and Chubb and Moe's "Politics, Markets, and America's Schools." The former, a modest program that provides public funds for private education, appears to demonstrate in practice that choice expands equality of opportunity. The latter attempts to theoretically justify the abandonment of all public education on the grounds that choice will produce educational excellence.

Taken together, the program and the book suggest that choice will provide both equity and excellence. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. While the Milwaukee program - a kind of affirmative action effort - may indeed provide greater opportunity for some of its participants, Chubb and Moe's brief for providing all individuals with vouchers to attend private schools fails to sustain its thesis and has dire implications for equality of educational opportunity.

The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program has received attention far out of proportion to its immediate impact. In a district that enrolls nearly 100,000 students, the program was originally intended to provide 1,000 low-income students with approximately $2,500 each so that they might attend a non-sectarian private school. Only 558 students applied for the l990-91 school year, and merely 341 ultimately enrolled in the seven schools that agreed to participate. [This article is reprinted from Rethinking Schools, Winter 1990. While some figures regarding Milwaukee have changed slightly, the overall program remains the same.]

Despite the program's small scale, nationally prominent conservatives vocally endorsed it. Even before the school term began, it won praise from the Bush administration, the Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin's Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, and the head of the powerful Bradley Foundation. And despite the questionable success of the program thus far, many advocates persist in seeing it as a first step in restoring the nation's educational health. They believe this only can be accomplished by breaking up the public school monopoly.

The program also has spawned vocal opposition. Some antagonists, like former Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, view Polly Williams as the unwitting accomplice of right-wing business interests bent on destroying a public good.6Others oppose the program because they fear that it presages an end to a variety of perceived goods, including desegregation, teachers' unions, a common curriculum, and provisions for children with special needs.

Thus, both proponents and opponents rightly see the Williams initiative as an entering wedge in a national battle over the future shape of education in the United States. It is important, however, to see the Milwaukee Choice Program on its own terms. That many conservatives support the plan does not make Polly Williams their agent. Rather, she has responded to the sustained failure of the Milwaukee Public Schools to provide an acceptable education to low income children of color.

During l989-90, for instance, Hispanics maintained an average GPA of 1.47 and African Americans averaged l.31. In three of Milwaukee's fifteen high schools, between 36% and 40% of Blacks were suspended. The previous year the annual dropout rate was 17.8% for African Americans and 17.4% for Hispanics.7

In the face of miserable average grades and appalling suspension and dropout rates, Williams has enabled a small number of students to seek an education elsewhere - partly in community-based schools that have long served African Americans and Hispanics. Under the circumstances it makes little sense to berate the program for violating the ideal of the common school or the goal of an integrated society. Such unrealized visions are inadequate justifications for denying a few children a potential opportunity to pursue an education of value. As advocates of choice are quick to point out, the Milwaukee program gives some options to low- income families that the well-to-do have long exercised, and virtually no one challenges the right of the privileged to either move to their schools of choice in the suburbs or to attend private schools.

Troubling Questions

Yet the program does raise questions. While the $2,446 each student could bring as tuition to a private school did expand choice during the program's first year, this relatively small voucher meant that parents could not choose, if they desired, elite, overwhelmingly white preparatory schools. Second, those who applied for the program were probably among the most aggressive about pursuing quality education for their children and, consequently, among the most enfranchised. Third, applications exceeded openings in participating private schools. Admission was to be based on a lottery system, but without the Department of Public Instruction monitoring the process it might have been difficult for participating schools to resist taking the strongest applicants. Even if the program were an outstanding success, it would not constitute a brief for substituting the marketplace for public schools.

The continuing praise of the Bush administration notwithstanding, there were troubling signs during the program's first year. Most important, the Juanita Virgil Academy, the one school essentially created in response to the voucher-bearing clientele, suffered inadequate books and supplies from the outset and soon closed, disrupting the lives of the 63 "choice" students who had enrolled.8Overall, of the 333 non-graduating students who began the program, 155 or 46.5% elected not to participate in the program during its second year.9Problems within the Milwaukee Choice Program, as the following analysis of Chubb and Moe's book will indicate, multiply when "choice" expands to include everyone.

In "Politics, Markets, and America's Schools," Chubb and Moe offer an elaborated version of Milton Friedman's argument. Like Friedman, they say little about equality of educational opportunity per se, but hold that education will improve for all through opening it to the competition of the marketplace. They go so far as to maintain that public schools generally are incapable of providing effective education because the way they are governed limits their capacity to remedy shortcomings.

Chubb and Moe point out numerous problems that afflict public education today. They observe that principals cannot hire or fire teachers. They note that teachers run a gauntlet of irrelevant certification requirements, possess limited autonomy in the classroom, and are denied colleagues who share a common purpose. And they recognize that parents have little influence over the schools their children must attend. The authors identify such unsatisfactory conditions as key contributors to what they perceive as the degenerate character of education in the United States.

They further contend that many of the educational reforms mandated in the l980s - such as longer school terms, more homework, and increased academic requirements for high school graduation - were guaranteed to fail because they were imposed bureaucratically. In fact, they see bureaucracy as the central impediment to effective schools. They believe it strangles the capacity of principals and teachers to fashion schools after their own vision and renders them unresponsive to the interests of parents. The solution to poor education, according to Chubb and Moe, is not the futile effort to impose quality through increased bureaucratic controls but to eliminate such controls.

Chubb and Moe hold that public schools are necessarily bureaucratic since in democratically controlled organizations bureaucracy is the means through which competing political interests institutionalize their influence. They argue that private schools, in contrast, tend to be autonomous because accountability does not spring from bureaucratic regulation, but from the market mechanism. If a private school fails to do an effective job, according to their reasoning, clients will leave it for another. Chubb and Moe consequently look to the marketplace to create excellence in education.

To summarize their argument, Chubb and Moe assert that public schools provide inadequate instruction because they lack the autonomy necessary to create effective education; they lack autonomy because they are bureaucratic; and they are bureaucratic because politics shapes them. Thus, they claim the way to create effective schools is to substitute the market for politics. The clarity of their argument and the simplicity of their solution, apparently buttressed by the analysis of massive data bases, may seem persuasive. But problems with their formulations abound.

False Assumptions

First of all, Chubb and Moe assume that "A Nation at Risk," along with less influential reports of the l980s, provides such telling evidence of educational malfeasance that drastic measures are justified.10Serious questions might be raised about the test results marshalled to document this state of affairs. It is questionable whether standardized test scores can accurately gauge the nation's educational health, a point Chubb and Moe themselves make in another context.

Even assuming such scores have value, the strategy of "A Nation at Risk" to document both declining scores within the United States and unfavorable comparisons of scores with other countries hardly withstands close scrutiny. Its authors fail to note that their data suggest only a modest decline in scores since the l960s. They do not acknowledge the upward trajectory of scores on several tests in the l970s and l980s, and they also ignore tests that showed no decline.11Further, the report inappropriately contrasts the achievement of 12th graders in the United States with those of other countries, since the groups are not comparable. Most students in the United States reach the 12th grade, and a high percentage progresses beyond. In many other countries only an elite group completes high school. Thus international comparisons beneath the collegiate level have limited utility.12

Lack of evidence indicating "a rising tide of mediocrity," to use the unfortunate phrasing of "A Nation at Risk," in no way suggests that children of color are receiving an adequate education. But it undercuts the justification of a market-based educational system for all based on the assumption that nothing could be lost by dismantling public schools. More important, Chubb and Moe fail to prove that private schools do a better job than public ones. Scholars have raised a number of questions about the data Chubb and Moe relied upon, including whether a brief multiple-choice test adequately documented student performance and whether the private school sample over-represented elite preparatory schools.13Although many Black and Latino families have avoided the degradations of miserable public schools by enrolling their children in Catholic institutions, the mere fact of private status obviously does not confer excellence on schools. Thus it is hardly surprising that recent data on achievement in Milwaukee's Catholic schools point out a vast chasm in student achievement between those serving high-income and low-income neighborhoods, and they suggest racial differences in performance that closely parallel those of the Milwaukee Public Schools.14

Even setting aside problems with their data, Chubb and Moe's claims far outstrip their findings. Despite their argument that the autonomy they associate with private schools profoundly affects student performance, in their model autonomy accounts for a tiny percentage of variance in achievement. Thus as scholars Gene Glass and DeWayne Matthews note, "A school that moves from the 5th percentile to the 95th percentile on autonomous organization would be expected ... to climb a month or so in grade equivalent units on a standardized achievement test."15Further, Chubb and Moe cannot even truly determine whether greater autonomy creates better students or whether better students permit more autonomous schools.16In addition, they cannot demonstrate that higher achievement in private schools stems from the way they are organized or from the select group of students who attend them.17Finally, they fail to confront the hypothesis that the real issue is not autonomy, but wider reliance on an academic curriculum in private schools - something that can be replicated in public institutions.18

Overstating Private School Advantages

Chubb and Moe also overstate the advantages of private schools in supporting teacher professionalism. Principals tend to have greater power in private schools, but it scarcely follows that teachers are more able to act as professionals. Unprotected by unions, the jobs of private school teachers are precarious. This vulnerability can exert greater constraints on teachers' autonomy than the bureaucratic regulations common to public schools. In addition, there is nothing professional about most private school teachers' salaries. Compensation typically too meager to support a family has meant that private school positions have been most acceptable to the independently wealthy, to members of religious orders, and to families with more than one wage earner.19

Overblown bureaucracies, of course, do limit institutional change and absorb huge financial resources for little direct educational service. Chubb and Moe correctly argue that many private schools are relatively free of bureaucracy, yet Catholic schools, which enroll a high percentage of non-public students in the United States, are certainly bureaucratic institutions. More broadly, the organization of the private sector as a whole fails to confirm Chubb and Moe's notion that bureaucracy characterizes public rather than private institutions. Intricately bureaucratized corporations produce a high percentage of the nation's wealth. Business influence, in fact, had much to do with the development of bureaucratic, centralized systems of public education.20Recent developments, however, hold out the possibility that public schools, like innovative corporations, can balance bureaucracy with autonomy.21Chubb and Moe offer scant attention to reform efforts in many communities that have moved toward various forms of school-based management.22

Further, Chubb and Moe exaggerate when they suggest that public schools are rendered incoherent by the variety of political influences that shape them. Their pluralistic notion of educational politics fails to recognize that through most of the 20th Century schools were elite-dominated. Bureaucratic structures, in part, were designed by elites at the turn of the century to remove schools from popular political control.23Yet altered power relations can inspire bureaucratic measures that protect the rights of minorities and the poor. Thus recent bureaucratic regulations, engendered by the Civil Rights Movement of the l960s, are the real objects of conservative complaint. These have promoted desegregation, bilingual education, and education of the handicapped, institutionalizing a modicum of equity in public schools as a response to the demands of those traditionally denied power. That such regulations cannot adequately secure equality of educational opportunity does not mean that the market can do any better.

Chubb and Moe assume that the market will create quality education for everyone through the mechanism of choice. Yet choice certainly has not accomplished this in the private sector of the economy. If the affluent can choose health spas in the Caribbean and gracious homes, the poor must choose inadequate health care and delapidated housing. To the extent that those with limited resources have won forms of protection, it has not been guaranteed by the play of the market, but by governmental regulation. The conservative agenda of deregulation over the past decade has eroded those protections and greatly increased the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in the United States. A market system of education is merely an extension of deregulation and promises to compound social inequities.

In the market system promoted by Friedman, Chubb and Moe, and conservative political and corporate leaders, public taxation would guarantee relatively modest vouchers worth the same amount for every student in each state. Families, acting as consumers, would then choose the schools their children would attend. But unlike the Milwaukee program where a lottery determines admission, schools may choose as well. Chubb and Moe are adamant about this:

"Schools must be able to define their own missions and build their own programs in their own ways, and they cannot do this if their student population is thrust on them by outsiders. They must be free to admit as many or as few students as they want, based on whatever criteria they think relevant - intelligence, interest, motivation, behavior, special needs - and they must be free to exercise their own, informal judgement about individual applicants."24

Choosing the Advantaged

It is in their interest to choose those students who are already high achievers, and it is in their interest - especially for smaller schools - to accept those whose families can supplement the amount of the voucher they are given. Friedman's version of the plan would allow individual families the right to add their own cash to a voucher. Chubb and Moe would allow local districts to augment the value of vouchers through increased local taxation. In either case, the wealthy would have greater choice than the poor.

Advocates of an educational marketplace, then, have won a significant ideological victory by successfully labelling their program "choice" rather than the more neutral sounding "voucher." While no one in their right mind would deny families educational options, "choice" obscures the reality that those who come from economically empowered families are those most likely to be chosen by good schools. As in the marketplace writ large, what one can purchase depends on how much currency is brought to the transaction.

Choice also obscures how the already advantaged would benefit financially at the expense of the less fortunate. A reduced tax rate would provide the well-to-do with a voucher for part of their tuition for private schools. This contrasts favorably with the current situation which requires them to pay higher taxes for public schools in addition to relying solely on their own resources if they choose private institutions. Such a tax advantage, obvious in the Friedman plan, would exist in the Chubb and Moe variant as well since wealthy districts' decisions to raise taxes above the lower limit would be offset by the abolition of federal and state-level taxation that redistributes resources to poor districts. For the poor, in contrast, the baseline vouchers would be difficult to add on to, creating a situation reminiscent of Southern Jim Crow education where vast differences existed between per pupil expenditures for Black and White schools.

Under Jim Crow it was common for African Americans to supplement meager public funding by constructing schoolhouses with their own donated labor and paying teachers out of their inadequate incomes.25But Blacks could not rectify these inequities despite extraordinary sacrifices. As the scholar W.E.B. DuBois maintained, if some of these starved schools managed to achieve excellence through unusual efforts, greater funding would have made such excellence far more widespread.26

A voucher system of education can provide support for long-established community-based education programs that have effectively served children of color on shoestring budgets. But as the failure of the Juanita Virgil Academy suggests, the notion that choice would create a nation of small, effective schools is a construction as mythical as the notion that the market can maintain a nation of shopkeepers. A high level of capitalization and economies of scale would be necessary to construct buildings, to conduct advertising campaigns, to maintain staffing with an unpredictable number of students, and to make do with the unsupplemented vouchers those without wealth would bring. A likely result would be educational versions of fast-food conglomerates, with scripted teacher behaviors similar to the standardized patter of McDonald's order clerks. Like 19th Century charity schools, such schools would compose the bottom tier of an educational hierarchy based on privilege.

Aside from the inequities associated with a market-based approach to schooling, such a strategy raises fundamental issues of educational purpose. Should taxpayers contribute to financing schools that have no public accountability no matter how objectionable many might find their goals? Should the public subsidize elite prep schools, schools run for profit, schools with racist ideologies, and schools run by corporations to train future workers? Should families be regarded as entrepreneurial units charged with maximizing their children's educational opportunities? This market ethos ignores any sense of responsibility for other children's education, any obligation for community control of education, any commitment to schools as sites of democratic discourse, any need for the new common curriculum some educators are forging out of the cultural works and political struggles of the diverse peoples who have shaped the United States.

Conservatives Exacerbate Differences

It is no small irony that so many conservatives have accused the multiculturalist movement of balkanization when their own policies have profoundly exacerbated the real differences that exist between groups in the United States. Certainly Republicans are not solely responsible for a long history of governmental policies that have developed suburban preserves for middle-class whites at the expense of urban economies inhabited by the poor and people of color.27Yet since the early l980s regressive tax reform, diminished social services, and a benign attitude toward the flight of manufacturing jobs beyond U.S. borders have significantly increased the disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Already by l983, according to historian Robert Weisbrot, "the cumulative impact of Reagan's policies involved a $25 billion transfer in disposable income from the less well-off to the richest fifth of Americans, and a rise in the number of poor people from 29.3 million in l980 to 35.3 million."28

There are now signs that the strategy of suburbanization is yielding to urban gentrification as professional jobs in the service sector replace blue-collar positions. Historian Kenneth Jackson has indicated that rising fuel, land, and housing costs, along with changes in family organization, make suburban living less desirable.29In addition, privatization is a major incentive for the affluent to resettle in cities where inadequate revenues are starving public services. Increasingly in cities, where deindustrialization and reduced federal aid have devastated public spaces, urban professionals are paying only for those services that benefit themselves. These enclaves of privilege support private country clubs, private security guards, private road repair services, and private schools.30

Adding to such services, choice is a way of subsidizing urban professionals' taste for private education in environments where even the best public schools do not always accommodate them. Although virtually every city has magnet schools which disproportionately concentrate school districts' resources on college preparatory programs for middle-class children, they typically practice at least a rudimentary form of equity that requires some degree of racial balance, and they cannot guarantee admission to all white middle-class applicants. As choice invites suburbanites back to the city to enjoy their private pursuits at the expense of reinvigorated public services, they will displace and further marginalize the poor.

In the conservative imagination the divestment of state redistributive functions does not terminate responsibility for the less fortunate. Rather, such responsibility becomes voluntary, an act of private choice. Much, in fact, is made of the public spiritedness of the affluent who voluntarily participate in contributing to the common good. Enormous publicity, for instance, has attended the offer of New York businessman Eugene Lang and several others to guarantee college scholarships to low-income school children, as well as to provide various supportive academic and counseling services to see them through high school. Oddly, we hear little about the federally funded TRIO programs that realized such practices worked decades ago. They have a long record of demonstrated success limited only by funding that is inadequate to reach more than a small percentage of the eligible population.31Massive federal support of such initiatives, in fact, is paramount because Lange and a few other philanthropists devoted to equity are exceptions. As U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich has pointed out, the wealthy contribute a lower percentage of their incomes to charitable purposes than the poor, and what they do give is disproportionately dispensed on elite cultural activities and institutions that serve themselves. Further, Reich notes that the much ballyhooed support of corporations for public schools is less than what they receive in the tax breaks they have successfully won.32Choice in giving, like choice in selecting private schools, provides a poor case that private spending will support the public good.

None of this is to say that public schools are beyond reproach. If they adequately served children of color, interest in "choice" would be limited and efforts to secure multicultural education unnecessary. Typically, students in public schools have suffered curricula that are ethnocentric and unquestioningly nationalistic. They also have experienced wide variation in academic quality based on their race and class. Author Jonathon Kozol, for instance, poignantly describes such grave inequities between public schools, underscoring the obvious unfairness of favoring the already advantaged with disproportionate resources.33Thus it might make sense to restrict choice programs to the underserved.34

Opposition to Affirmative Action

This clearly is not what the Bush administration had in mind, however, since it steadfastly opposed affirmative action. Leading Republicans and conservative groups like the Landmark Legal Center for Civil Rights, which defended the Milwaukee Choice Program in the courts while it opposed the l990 Civil Rights Act, merely view the Milwaukee program as an opening gambit in an effort to institute vouchers for everyone. 35This agenda is explicit in a proposal for California initiated by the Excellence through Choice in Education League. The league's effort to place a state-wide measure on the November 1993 ballot mandating vouchers for all was articulated initially as a measure to serve low-income families only. 36

If public education has inadequately fulfilled its responsibilities to educate all, market-driven educational enterprise cannot fulfill them. At best the popularity of choice among those with the least privilege should send a powerful message to public school educators that the common school for many remains a myth. It highlights the need to support a multicultural agenda that widens public discourse on equity issues and transforms public education in ways that enable people of color to exercise co-ownership of society. Yet the very idea of schools that educate people in common - drawing on the richness of diversity - is antithetical to the intent of the conservative leaders and foundations advocating choice.

Early in the 20th Century corporate elites claimed to take the schools out of politics by creating expert-run centralized and bureaucratic public schools. Their demand for efficiency and impartial expertise masked a politically motivated effort to replace working-class influence over education with their own influence. Today Chubb and Moe articulate the position of corporate elites who rail against the bureaucratic schools their predecessors were so influential in creating, once more claiming they want to take schools out of politics. Yet their desire to open them to the marketplace is also an inherently political strategy. It will enable the more affluent to free themselves from the yoke of all the legislative and legal safeguards people have won through the freedom struggles of the l960s. It furthermore will free the rich from all public educational responsibility, striking a major blow against the current multiculturalist effort that seeks a radical expansion of democracy and a reinvigorated vision of community. The implementation of "choice" would be a victory for narrow class interest over community, accelerating the drastic mal-distribution of opportunity that exists today.

Robert Lowe is an editor of Rethinking Schools and teaches at National-Louis University. A version of this essay appears in Theresa Perry and James Fraser, eds., Freedom's Plow: Teaching for a Multicultural Democracy, (Routledge, 1993).




1. Milton Friedman, "The Role of Government in Education," in Robert A. Solow, ed., "Economics and the Public Interest" (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955).

2. The most notorious instance of this occurred in Prince Edward County, where public schools were closed for five years. Blacks too were offered vouchers, but committed to desegregation they refused and many children received no formal education during that period. See J. Harvie Wilkinson III, From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954-1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 98-100.

3. See Charles Murray, "Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980" (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Diane Ravitch, "The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980" (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

4. See especially National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983).

5. John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, "Politics, Markets, and America's Schools" (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990).

6. See, for instance, The Milwaukee Journal, July 23, 1990.

7. Milwaukee Sentinel, October 20, 1990, p. 7; October 22, 1990, p. 8.

8. John F. Witte, "First Year Report, Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," University of Wisconsin - Madison, November 1991, pp. 10-11.

9. John F. Witte, "Second Year Report, Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," University of Wisconsin - Madison, December 1992, p. 20.

10. "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform."

11. See Lawrence C. Stedman and Carl F. Kaestle, "The Test Score Decline Is Over: Now What?" Phi Delta Kappan (November 1985): 204-210; Lawrence C. Stedman and Marshall S. Smith, "Weak Arguments, Poor Data, Simplistic Recommendations," in Beatrice and Ronald Gross, eds. "The Great School Debate" (New York: Touchstone, 1985): 83-105.

12.Stedman and Smith, p. 90.

13. See, for example, Peter H. Rossi and James D. Wright, "Best Schools--Better Discipline or Better Students? A Review of High School Achievement," American Journal of Education 91 (November 1982): 82; comments on John Witte's unpublished paper presented at 1990 meeting of American Political Science Association, Education Week, November 14, 1990, p. 20.

14. Milwaukee Journal, August 1,1991: 1, 8.

15. Gene V. Glass and DeWayne A. Matthews, "Are Data Enough?" Educational Researcher 20 (April 1991): 26.

16. Ibid., p. 25

17. On this issue see Richard Murname, "Evidence, Analysis, and Unanswered Questions," Harvard Educational Review 51(November 1981): 485-487.

18. Education Week, November 14, 1990, p. 20; also see Douglas Willms, "Do Private Schools Produce Higher Levels of Academic Achievement?" in Thomas James and Henry M. Levin, eds., "Public Dollars for Private Schools: the Case of Tuition Tax Credits" (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), pp. 230-231.

19. See Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell, "Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools" (New York: Basic Books, 1985), pp. 84-93.

20. David Tyack, "The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), part IV.

21. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., "In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best Run Corporations" (New York: Harper and Row), p. 318.

22. Richard Elmore and Associates, "Restructuring Schools: The Next Generation of Educational Reform" (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).

23. Tyack, "The One Best System," pp. 132-133.

24. Chubb and Moe, pp. 221-222.

25. James Anderson, "The Education of Blacks in the South, 1861 to 1935" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

26. W.E.B. DuBois, "Pechstein and Pechsniff," The Crisis, 36 (September 1929): 314.

27. Policies have included federal highway subsidies, segregationist FHA loans, zoning ordinances, and legal standing for restrictive covenants. See Kenneth T. Jackson, "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 293. Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir, "Schooling for All: Class, Race and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal" (Berkeley: University of California Press 1985), p. 217.

28. Robert Weisbrot, "Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement" (New York: Plume, 1991), p. 302.

29. Jackson, "Crabgrass Frontier," pp. 297-303.

30. See, for instance, Robert B. Reich, "Secession of the Successful," The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 1991, p. 42.

31. See Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 1991, p. A17.

32. Reich, "Secession of the Successful," pp. 43, 44.

33. Jonathan Kozol, "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools" (New York: Crown Publishers, 1991).

34. From advocacy of choice programs with redistributive goals, see John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman, "Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 31; Henry M. Levin, "Educational Choice and the Pains of Democracy," in James and Levin, "Public Dollars for Private Schools," pp. 36-27.

35. The Landmark Legal Center is funded in part by the Bradley Foundation -- Milwaukee Journal, July 23, 1990, pp. 1,4; for its opposition to the 1990 Civil Rights Act, see New York Times, October 21, 1990, p. 15.

36. Education Week, September 18, 1991, p. 1.

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