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The Maturing Politics of Education Choice: Balancing Choice with the Goals of Public Education

by Alex Medler - July 08, 2002

The recent Supreme Court decision could dramatically change education politics. The new politics call for those who are concerned about the potential risks of choice to engage in debates to improve, rather than prevent, choice.

If one looks at education politics as a game, the Supreme Court’s approval of the Cleveland voucher program dramatically changed the rules. Until now, competitors in the struggle over vouchers had different goals and performed for different audiences.  Like toddlers engaged in parallel play, the pro- and anti-voucher forces appeared – to those on the outside of the debate -- to be playing together.  Upon closer examination it was apparent that while they manipulated similar objects, each side’s focus was on playing their own version of the game while seeking approval from their own supporters.  Because of the Court’s decision, which changes the rules, and because the stakes of this “game” are so high, it’s time the players started interacting.


While unsettling, the new legal rules come at a time when both sides have evolved enough to combine their two games into one with shared goals.  This opportunity is important because the changes in politics caused by the legal shift could make such collaboration necessary.  Hopefully, leaders within the education establishment will recognize both the opportunity to -- and the necessity of -- developing accountable forms of school choice policies that protect all students rather than continuing to try and block all new choice programs because of the problems that might accompany them.  Likewise, choice advocates must acknowledge that a healthy educational marketplace requires some regulation. While vouchers will probably not sweep the country, new voucher programs will be enacted, and other forms of school choice will gain support as leaders compromise amid new dynamics. All these changes suggest a need for concrete actions to promote an interactive and engaged policy debate. In this commentary, I suggest two such actions.  




Historically, the Right has promoted choice for ideological reasons, to put competitive pressures on the larger education system to improve, and as a way of weakening the political power of the public education establishment.  Meanwhile, the Left has resisted many choice plans, especially those that included private schools, to safeguard the public school system’s resources and its political influence over them, as well as to protect students’ rights, provide appropriate services to all children, and improve accountability.  More recently both sides have been using each other’s ideas to further their own agendas. 


For example, many members of the pro-voucher camp of the Right have embraced choice as way to strengthen both civil rights and accountability.  On the civil rights front, many voucher advocates have evolved from supporting universal vouchers that would be available to affluent families already enrolled in private schools to limited programs serving more targeted populations.  For many, their targets are largely low-income, inner-city minority populations.  Based on some of our public school systems’ dismal academic record in serving these populations, the voucher camp has made a strong argument that providing these families with some of the choices the affluent have always enjoyed constitutes a new civil right. 


In addition, while the Right has come to embrace the standards-based reforms in general, they also tweaked standards to promote choice. The Florida voucher program marks the emergence of choice as a compensatory measure for students in low-performing schools.  Rather than creating a federal funding stream to subsidize extra services in failing schools, Florida’s vouchers allow students to go elsewhere if their public school repeatedly fails on the state assessment.  By using the new state standards and assessments to identify failing schools, the voucher advocates have leveraged the logic – and popularity – of the standards movement to develop a new hook for an old idea.


At the same time, many voucher opponents on the Left have appropriated some of their opponent’s politically popular themes. For instance, some on the anti-voucher side have broadened their repertoire by promoting forms of public school choice as a mechanism for further professionalizing the teaching force and allowing a variety of school-based education reforms to proceed within the public system.  Whole school reform networks, magnets, and charters all have the potential to allow teachers and school leaders to create more coherent schools that differ from one another educationally.  In addition, inter- and intra-district open enrollment plans attract the support of parents wanting to choose their public schools.  But despite expanding the array of public choice options, voucher opponents, sometimes grudgingly, have always kept a clear distinction between public and private school choice. 


Advocates on each side of the debate have labeled the other’s expansion and evolution as cynical cooptation.  Seen through these pessimistic eyes, the Right-wing choice promoters are just using frames of accountability and civil rights to advance vouchers, while the Left and members of the education establishment are offering public school choice to deflate “real” choice.  The changing times deserve a more constructive approach – one that will require each side to recognize sincerity in both efforts and begin to develop policies and practices that address the potential shortcomings of school systems with expanded choice.  This evolution makes collaboration possible, but it is the new politics that could make it necessary.


In the old politics, part of the anti-voucher strategy of the Left was to ignore advances by the opponents and assert that, regardless of proponents’ arguments, vouchers could not proceed under the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.  Now that this excuse will no longer hold, there are some who suggest using a similar strategy of continuing to ignore the pro-voucher side’s achievements.  They predict that even if vouchers are enacted, relatively few people will use them.  Thus, the people concerned about the quality of public education should focus their efforts on improving existing public schools. This strategy ignores the new politics and is likely to be even less successful than prior efforts.




The legal change is significant.  The decades-old question about the constitutionality – under the U.S. Constitution -- of public dollars supporting religious institutions has been answered for now.  Until the people sitting on the Supreme Court change, and a new round of cases make their way through the system, this issue is basically off the table. Such an important legal shift could affect the politics of education in two ways.  The first change is a qualitative shift in the available arguments against vouchers. The second is a potential erosion of the cleavage between private and public school choice .  Both of these changes, if realized, would suggest that those who have been opposed to broader forms of choice – especially vouchers for private school choice –  ought to become more involved in developing policies that improve the educational outcomes associated with choice. 


In the fight over vouchers, church-state separation has always been qualitatively different from the other issues.  As I noted, a core contention of opponents has been that states can’t pursue vouchers because the U.S. Constitution prohibits it, an argument that leaves little room for debate.  While the voucher advocates disagreed, arguing that if the money went to the parents, vouchers were permissible under the U.S. Constitution, it was enough for both sides to claim they were right and ask the courts to agree with them.  This debate is basically irrelevant to the new education politics.


Yet, there are other important issues that are part of the argument against vouchers -- such as the potential discrimination of private schools, difficulties in providing special education in private schools, and abuse by unaccountable private schools -- that are based on assertions that states pursuing choice will come to regret it because of the consequences associated with choice.  These arguments remain salient in the era of new educational politics..  But whereas the separation of church and state invited each side to ignore one another and appeal to higher authorities, the predicted educational and equity problems associated with implementing private school choice invite the attention of entrepreneurial policy makers who propose ways to address these problems while aggressively promoting more school choice.  The politics that arise from efforts to mitigate the effects of school choice will be different from the politics of trying to stop it.  If voucher opponents refuse to engage in these debates, they (and their concerns) will lose in the new politics. 


The second change in politics could affect the dividing line that separates public and private school choice options.  This could have implications for the kinds of school choice programs that spread – even if new voucher programs are slow to pass in state legislatures.  As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out in her concurring opinion in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, vouchers are just one option among many that parents, and policymakers, can use. The various forms of schooling can be placed along a spectrum, with district-run public schools serving children assigned by residential patterns on one end, and an entirely privatized system of non-public schools where families choose schools with no public oversight at the other end.   In between lies the full range of educational reforms and choice options, including district run magnet schools, small schools, inter- and intra-district open enrollment plans, “weak” charter systems, “strong” charter systems, targeted vouchers, and universal vouchers, among many others. 


Many of these reforms are implemented in different ways in different states, creating fuzzy boundaries between them and overlapping characteristics.   For example, a charter law that allows existing private schools to easily convert to charter status with minimal oversight can look like a mildly regulated voucher system. 


Policymakers are spread along the same spectrum, located near the reforms they most enthusiastically support.  Reforms closer to them are easily supported, while reforms located at greater distances are less attractive.  For many leaders the similarities and overlaps among reforms are apparent and make it easy for individual leaders to support more than one of them.  So far, however, a significant portion of our policymakers have recognized and respected a clear line separating the public options from the private.  The old politics of education choice dictated that people on the public side could not support any reform that included private schools, even if substantively they were more sympathetic to a reform being offered “over there” than they were to the status quo.  This made it difficult for policymakers to cross party lines and forge new majorities by voting with likeminded people who supported moderate reforms yet also supported reforms on the other side of the line.


With constitutionally protected tax dollars indirectly supporting parochial schools, I believe the blurred edges and fuzziness of school choice policies will become more significant than the single, public-private point of cleavage that dominated earlier politics.  If the line between public and private choice becomes any more blurry, people in the middle will have more influence than those at the extremes. Perhaps the education establishment and the parties will be strong enough to maintain the line the Court tried to blur.  But it is more likely that some politicians will take this opportunity to reconsider positions on a host of reforms -- not just vouchers.


In many states these changes will not be enough to move the debate, but in some states they will.  In either event, the opponents of choice will have to reconsider tactics and strategies. It will no longer be enough to suggest a reform is unacceptable just because it is “over the line.”  The specifics of proposals ought to be addressed and the fuzziness brought into focus.  Again, this change speaks to the need for all the players to engage with their opponents in shaping policies that address concerns rather than drawing new lines in the sand to obstruct the innovations.




Nothing will happen tomorrow.  All the old opportunities for blocking and stalling controversial initiatives still exist in state legislatures and courts.  There probably will be two or three states that enact voucher programs in the next session. There could well be 10 or 15 states with voucher programs in the next five years.  But states tend to begin bold new reforms incrementally.  That is, they are slow to abandon the old reforms – even if they have new titles for them every few years.  And most states have a great deal of political capital invested in their current standards-based reform models.  This incrementalism will lead the states that do enact vouchers to increasingly use them as compensatory measures for children in failing schools.  This will also imply that all schools receiving vouchers ought to be held to the same standards. 


It is also unlikely, given the current economic conditions, that states will embrace the notion of enacting new voucher programs combined with significant increases in overall funding for public education.  Such proposals may get more attention at the federal level.  But states will act in other ways.


The new educational politics could dramatically change the prospects for other choice reforms besides vouchers.  It is possible we will see a few new charter school laws passed and many restrictive charter laws expanded considerably.  There could be more support, financial and political, for reconstituting failing schools and contracting for the management of public schools by private companies.  Laws authorizing open enrollment programs could be strengthened, and states could direct resources toward the creation and support of small, semi-autonomous public schools.  We could also see increased financial and technical support for families that home school their children.


Despite these changes, we will probably not see a change in where the majority of children attend classes.  Millions of Americans are satisfied with the excellent public schools in their communities and the broad range of options already available to them.  Nevertheless, our state education systems will most likely incorporate more choices and most American families will be happy to have the opportunity to choose, even if they select their neighborhood school.  With show-stopping arguments over the constitutionality of vouchers laid to rest for the foreseeable future, both sides should debate the details of state education systems that incorporate more choice while promoting equity and accountability. 




No one would be naïve enough to suggest everyone involved should “play fair,” but if advocates or policymakers begin developing and approaching common objectives it will require the participants to start playing together.  These lofty goals can be furthered via two concrete actions.


First, a National Commission could begin to develop recommendations for policy and practice.  Second, federal resources could be increased and leveraged to promote state actions that incorporate such recommendations into state policy.




A bi-partisan commission should be formed.  The Commission’s charge would be to facilitate input and oversee a review of laws and policies that shape student rights and school accountability under state education systems that expand the role of choice.  Using an inclusive process, the Commission could issue comprehensive guidance.  It could incorporate input from states about their approaches to choice and accountability and generate attention for the eventual guidance, which would potentially improve the implementation of any recommendations.  The Commission’s recommendations could address ways to develop enforcement regimes that facilitate state choice programs while using existing federal education and civil rights laws to strengthen equity and accountability.  The Commission could also make recommendations for new regulations and laws to better reflect the circumstances that may evolve in some states.


The Commission’s members could be appointed jointly by the White House, the Senate, and state-based groups like the Education Commission of the States, the National Conference of State Legislators, and the National Governor’s Association.  Ideally, it would consist of leaders in state politics as well as national experts in civil rights, special education and accountability.  National experts could assist with the complex work of protecting all students’ rights in evolving systems, while state leaders should make up the bulk of the National Commission to ensure that its recommendations have the flexibility to address appropriately the diverse state systems. While the champions of the old fights may be too wedded to their positions, there are growing numbers of people on both sides who could represent various interests and still work toward shared goals.




In addition to the bi-partisan commission, federal school choice legislation could provide incentives for states to expand choice, while also providing incentives (or even requirements) for the enactment of state policies that promote equality and accountability in any choice programs they develop.   For instance, a pilot program (currently budgeted at $25 million and primarily supporting transportation for public school choice programs) could be expanded dramatically.  Or, an entirely new initiative could be modeled on existing programs supporting magnet schools and charter schools.  A federal school choice policy could better match state contexts by creating a program of grants to states to support components of state-designed choice programs.


States could apply for funds with plans designed to promote choice and maintain the values of public education.  Possible uses include improvements of infrastructure, aid for transportation, and interventions at individual schools.  For example, information systems could be provided to help parents make informed choices about programs and services in local schools that better match their children’s needs.  Transportation could be subsidized, decreasing the likelihood that affluent students, whose parents might more easily drive them to a broader range of choice schools, would benefit from choice policies more than poor students.   Funding could also support interventions to improve low-performing schools or the reconstitution of traditionally failing schools.  In addition, funding could support the creation of improved standards and assessment systems that better identify schools for such intervention.


State policymakers, would, of course, be free to pick and choose from among the incentives, guidance and programs as they see fit.  Many states will choose to do little different than what they are currently doing.  But in the states that continue to evolve new systems, these recommendations could answer some of the more troubling questions that accompany expanded choice. 


These recommendations are a drastic departure from the way politicians and advocates have handled the school choice movement thus far.  But the politics of school choice may have changed enough to warrant greater collaboration.  Sitting down with adversaries to work out the details of equitable and accountable choice systems will not be easy, but in this new, post-Zelman era, the old strategies are likely to fail the children we all strive to educate and protect.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 08, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10957, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 3:13:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Alex Medler
    Unversity of Colorado at Boulder
    E-mail Author
    ALEX MEDLER served as a Policy Analyst and Acting Leader of the U.S. Department of Education's Public Charter School Program from 1997 to 2001. From 1992 to 1997, he worked at the Education Commission of the States tracking the progress of education reform and helping state leaders consider charter schools, public school choice and deregulation. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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