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Time to Choose: America at the Crossroads of School Choice Policy


reviewed by Valerie Lee - 1995

coverTitle: Time to Choose: America at the Crossroads of School Choice Policy
Author(s): Amy Stuart Wells
Publisher: Hill and Wang Publishers, New York
ISBN: 0809015633, Pages: 255, Year: 1993
Search for book at Amazon.com


Given the intense public attention devoted to the issue of parental choice of schools in the last few years, Amy Wells’s book, Time to Choose, is a timely and useful contribution to national, state, and local debates about this important question of educational policy. Her stated purpose is to help the interested public make an “intelligent evaluation of any school program or policy” (p. 28) by describing the various forms of school choice-and the aims to which they are addressed.


Several qualities recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about school choice. First, Wells has grounded her-discussion in a useful historical context, whereas many educational policy discussions are framed in such a way that readers are led to believe the issues tire brand new (there are actually very few “new” issues in education). Second, she has attempted to construct the book around the somewhat conflicted goals that Americans have held for their public schools, which adds a theoretical dimension to a policy discussion that is usually devoid of theory. Third, she has provided detailed examples throughout the book to “flesh out” the theoretical arguments. Fourth, the author’s experience as an educational writer for the New York Times and the Boston Globe stands her in good stead. She has crafted a readable book of general interest to a broad public audience, rather than targeting her work to the more arcane world in which she now functions (as I do)-producers and consumers of educational research.


The freedom of parents to select their children’s schools is not a new phenomenon in education, as Wells informs us. She leads us through the history of public alternative schools in the United States, starting with academically oriented and competitive high schools in large cities, some of which have a long history. As the name implies, alternative schools were designed to counter public schools seen as repressive, authoritarian, and uninteresting to children. Although many early-twentieth-century alternative schools followed a vocational model, “free” schools dating from the 1960s were meant to emulate A. S. Neill’s Summerhill model. These schools were modeled on radical educators’ ideas, as well as a desire to return to a pure Deweyan vision of progressive education. In fact, many school districts supported these schools (especially at the secondary level) as places where difficult and disaffected students and families could be accommodated without disrupting the traditional high schools. With the “conservative educational agenda” and “excellence movement” of the 1980s, the “push for more alternative forms of education fizzled” (p. 47). While the effectiveness of these schools is uncertain, Wells emphasizes that several organizational qualities of alternative schools, especially their responsiveness to the needs of individual students and their autonomy over local design by interested professionals, are exemplary qualities for all schools.


A recent and prevalent manifestation of school choice-especially in cities-is the magnet model. The magnet-school movement was motivated by the need to provide voluntary rather than coercive ways to alleviate racial segregation in city schools (i.e., to move away from the politically explosive policy of forced busing). These “special” schools, often located in neighborhoods with high minority enrollments, were (and still are) meant to attract white students away from their neighborhood schools with better facilities, better teachers, and more inviting programs than are available at their local (and racially segregated) schools. Magnet schools often have racial quotas. Although a major aim of this choice policy has been to increase educational equity through desegregation, Wells does not discuss the implications of the magnet-school policy for increasing educational stratification in urban districts through differential funding of these special schools. If by design additional funds, better teachers, and more able students are concentrated in particular schools (some of which have admissions criteria beyond race), students attending the regular schools in these districts-often operating under very constrained budgets-are sure to suffer some negative consequences.


Wells describes a set of three overlapping and intertwined goals Americans have held for their public schools: education for the common good, education for individual growth and fulfillment, and education for economic competitiveness (pp. 6ff.). In its contemporary form, the “common good” argument translates into Amy Gutmann’s Call for increasing-democratic participation in defining and carrying out educational aims,1 or in the recent reform effort in Chicago where schools are run by local school councils composed of parents and community members. School-choice proponents use the common-good rationale in arguing that choice would enfranchise disadvantaged parents by increasing access to “good” schools outside of their impoverished localities. Educational sociologists would most likely define schooling in these terms, which reflects their interests in educational equity.


Classic liberalism underlies the arguments for education as a means for individuals to better themselves. Educational psychologists, who see education largely in terms of individuals and differences between them, would be most comfortable with this goal. This rationale is especially important to choice advocates, who argue that parents (and not impersonal educational professionals) have the right to decide what is best for their children. Increasing the variation among schools-an underlying aim of any choice system-is justified by the need for schools to meet the individual needs of particular students. This goal would be particularly important, Wells tells us, for those who advocate a choice system that includes public and private schools. Although Wells does not emphasize this point, the common-good and individual-enhancement goals are rather contradictory. Aggregated good for individuals does not necessarily result in improvement to the common good. The last chapter of Catholic Schools and the Common Good provides an extended discussion of this point, and the Carnegie Report on choice also supports this distinction.2


Although policy debates over the last decade have been dominated by the “economic competitiveness” goal for education, this idea was important in motivating the early-twentieth-century development of the bureaucratic design of the comprehensive high school, the testing movement, and the application of scientific management principles to schooling. Even earlier, nineteenth-century school reform advocates, mostly from the upper classes, argued for schools’ instilling in future workers such important values as regular attendance, following orders, good discipline, and preserving an orderly environment. As a theoretical approach to the study of education, this aim has historically been described as the “human capital” or “functionalist” model of schooling. The current public language about the need to improve our nation’s schools rests largely on the economic goal a goal that is more congruent with the individual-enhancement than the common-good rationale.


Wells’s introduction of the notion of underlying goals for education to readers at the beginning of her book, and her efforts to make different choice program designs more understandable by tying them to these goals, is a laudable feature of the book. Readers would benefit from having had these connections drawn more completely. Given the length and tone of the book-a short work directed more to average readers than to those with some background in educational history, philosophy, or policy-these attempts are not consistently successful. The author seems to equate the common-good argument with an “educational equity” perspective. I agree that an argument about a theoretical linkage between the two is possible, but the rather brief discussion about the goals in an early chapter does not make such an argument, making it difficult for readers to follow thereafter. Thus, when the common good is raised as an idea later in the book, readers unfamiliar with this linkage probably do not think of equity.


Rather than providing brief descriptions of the full set of choice programs with different designs currently in operation in the United States (as the Carnegie Foundation report did3), Wells has chosen to provide more complete descriptions of a smaller number of programs-those that may already be familiar to informed readers. These include within-district public school choice models exemplified by East Harlem’s District 4 program; an example of public school choice in one district that attempts to also address problems of racial segregation-the controlled choice program in Cambridge, Massachusetts; statewide public school choice plans exemplified by the Minnesota case and the rather unsuccessful (and subsequently amended) Massachusetts plan; and a plan (probably the only one) that includes both public and private schools in a single district-the small public-private school program in Milwaukee. In some instances, these cases are useful. For example, the author’s very thorough description of Minnesota includes information about the plan’s options for secondary school students to earn college credits, learning centers for hard-to-educate students, and the state’s modest efforts toward establishing charter schools.


However, this organization of information ultimately proves unsatisfying, for several reasons. Readers (like myself) who are rather familiar with the described plans would like to know more about the universe of, say, charter-school efforts across the country. How have statewide plans (called Open Enrollment in the book) other than the well-described one in Minnesota developed in the last few years? How important is the issue of transportation, and how has this played out in choice plans where transportation is provided? Supplying readers with complete information about a small number of particular cases, and almost nothing about others, leaves us almost more curious about what is not provided here than satisfied with knowing about what is described fully. Were I not familiar with the universe of choice plans from the Carnegie report, I would probably be even more mystified about what the “universe” looked like.4


A lesson that we learn well from this book is that choice plans are idiosyncratic, usually designed to meet local conditions. Thus, controlled choice works well in a medium-size city like Cambridge with a racially diverse population and a constrained locale in which transportation can be provided at less than exhorbitant cost. But how would controlled choice play out in single districts with almost no racial diversity (Cleveland or Detroit come to mind)? How could transportation be provided in a single city covering a vast area without a good public transportation system (like Los Angeles or Chicago) or in statewide plans? What are the implications of not providing transportation but offering cross-district choice? What motivates choice in places other than Minnesota (since we learned that most families were not driven to go outside their district for schools by academic concerns)? How does the low population density of Minnesota circumscribe that state’s plan? The questions could go on and on.


Wells ultimately comes down in favor of locally designed plans in single districts that include only public schools. For sure, choice plans that have worked best so far (e.g., District 4, Cambridge, or Montclair) fit this description. But such a plan would add few options for parents and students in, say, Detroit, where school enrollment are virtually 100 percent minority and almost all families live below the poverty line (Detroit has the highest child poverty rates in the nation). What kind of choice plan would benefit families in such circumstances (U.S. city schools are moving increasingly in the direction of the “Detroit model”)? The possible benefits of a metropolitan-wide choice plan like the one in St. Louis come to mind in this instance. Why has the author not included a more complete description of this city’s choice plan in her book, since she has written about it elsewhere?5


Wells ends her book with a discussion of constitutional issues surrounding the church-state question in the United States. While this is certainly relevant in considering choice plans that might-include private as well as public schools, it has become curiously irrelevant within the very contemporary discussions about school choice (as the Clinton administration is on record as favoring public school choice). Choice plans that include private schools were advocated strongly by the Reagan and Bush administrations, I and by conservative Republican governors in some states (e.g., California, Michigan). However, it is clear that the general public continues to be quite strongly opposed to choice plans that include private schools (poorly I constructed polls not withstanding), reflected in repeated defeats for such plans in the U.S. Congress and by voters (most recently, in Oregon, Colorado, and California). Thus, the book’s ending pulls readers away from the more central issues surrounding school choice (e.g., its costs, its benefits, its implications for equity).


Besides the interesting legal information on church-state cases that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court, readers could also benefit from information about public support for private schools outside the United States in almost all industrialized countries (e.g., Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and Japan). Especially interesting here would be a discussion of the issue in Australia, whose constitutional language about “establishment” was modeled on the U.S. Constitution. Discussion of available empirical work that includes several years of data about choice in Scotland would be useful.6


At several points in the book, Wells mentions the adamant opposition of teachers’ unions to the implementation of choice plans in several locales. Although it is not difficult to imagine why teachers’ unions might oppose choice (they might have to compete for students and families), some discussion of this issue at both the theoretical and the practical level would be useful. For example, I would like to know the features of choice plans in cities where teachers’ unions have supported them. How was union opposition overcome in those locales? Was union opposition in Minnesota, New York, or Cambridge a problem? Should unions’ positions be taken seriously? How can teachers be drawn into designing school options to improve their schools and their own instruction? Is it useful for teachers and schools to compete for “clients”?


My own interests around the issue of school choice surround educational equity. Although Wells brushes on this issue from time to time within her discussion of common-good motivations for choice plans, I would like to have seen a more explicit and extended discussion of school choice and social stratification of educational outcomes. I admit, however, that this desire smacks of my wish to impose my own tastes on others’ work. On the other hand, as fellow sociologists of education, I assume that Wells’s and my interests in the subject of school choice may overlap around equity. I wish the focus had been drawn more explicitly in the book.


In sum, this book about school choice by Amy Stuart Wells is a useful enrichment to current policy discussions about parental choice of schools. The audience to which Wells has directed her book is not well defined, however—policymakers, parents, interested professionals, informed readers –which is it? It made for interesting reading to someone reasonably well informed about the issue, but would it be useful for someone new to the subject? The book seems curiously uneven in the topics chosen and the depth of discussion surrounding these topics. One hopes that this well-written book will stimulate readers to seek out more information about choice. Although the empirical research base is thin, the body of written work on the topic is growing. The Wells book is a welcome addition to this literature.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 1, 1995, p. 132-137
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1453, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:47:09 PM

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