Choice With Equity
reviewed by Dean Lindquist - 2003
School reform efforts to improve student achievement are found in a variety of forms across North America. One reform effort receiving strong support from special interest groups is a broad based school choice system. Although school choice comes in many forms, perhaps the one supported most is a system in which parents use vouchers to enable their children to attend the school of choice.
Proponents of systems of choice, including vouchers, believe that education can be improved through market forces of supply and demand. The debate around this issue creates a constant tension between advocates for publicly funded choice systems and those who believe that government funds should support only public education. If we juxtapose these polarized positions, there is no common ground. One either supports the concept of publicly funded voucher systems or one opposes it.
Choice with Equity is one of many books, articles, and essays written on this topic. Paul Hill, editor of this exceptional book, is one of the nine contributing authors in support of an educational choice program. Hill carefully sequences the chapters in the book to provide a thorough argument in favor of initiating a broad based publicly funded voucher system for improving the K-12 educational system. This book is of value to readers who are interested in reading about market based educational reform strategies and their impact on school improvement.
The authors initiate a number of excellent arguments in support of a publicly funded voucher system. It is their thesis that market forces, such as parental choice and school competition, will exact positive change in education. It is also their intention to bring forward these new arguments favoring the application of market forces in education in order to accelerate the debate on why broad based choice systems have a place in today’s educational system.
In this book, Hill recognizes that the ongoing debate between those who believe in applying market values in education and those who unceasingly argue against it will continue until large numbers of individuals, laypeople, educators, and government officials either finally adopt or refute choice. Hill notes that this will not happen soon as “neither side can marshal compelling evidence to “convert” people … on the other side” (p. 3).
Hill and Guin set the stage with their argument for widespread choice programs. The authors establish the argument that if there is already inequality built into the existing public education system, choice programs should not be judged against an artificial ideal. The current system, the authors argue, produces no less inequality than choice programs do. One of the difficulties within this chapter is that the authors rely extensively on assumptions and deal only at a theoretical level with little empirical data. As an example, they hypothesize that schools with more experienced teachers have higher funding levels due to average costing at the division level, and that these teachers choose to work at specific schools. This argument is not substantiated with specific examples.
Creaming the best students from the public system is a one of the arguments against choice systems. Peterson, Campbell, and West suggest that an open voucher system would not result in creaming off the best students from the public sector or increase segregation. In fact, they state that studies of current voucher programs indicate that minority parents have the strongest interest in private education. The authors’ research suggests that a publicly funded voucher system would result in higher ethnic diversity in the private schools than is found in public schools today. The authors provide the reader with an exhaustive list of the characteristics voucher users and non-users in order to substantiate their position.
Chubb addresses the supply side of the equation. He notes that it is logical to suspect that “creaming” of top students would take place in an open voucher system. However, he notes that today’s policies governing a number of voucher systems prevent “creaming” from occurring. Chubb indicates that charter schools operating independently of local school systems are a beginning toward increasing the supply side of the supply - demand equation. Through these charter schools, competition is provided, thus pressuring the local public schools to improve. Chubb sees this as only a beginning, and indicates that voucher systems must be open to private schools as well. If an choice-based educational system is to succeed, it is necessary for there to be sufficient numbers of available schools to establish a credible supply side. At the same time, there must be sufficient numbers to create demand. Chubb uses the Edison model to validate his assumption that the supply-demand equation does not result in the perceived threat of “creaming” when choice is involved. In dealing with the demand-side of the equation, data indicates that the preponderance of subscribers to Edison schools are families with children performing below standard. Chubb further discusses key considerations of supply in a choice system such as: maintaining high enrollment levels, adequate funding levels to meet student needs, economies of scale, the distribution of funding within the local school system, and politics. Interestingly, these key considerations are not significantly different than those for non-choice systems.
The book builds upon arguments brought forward in previous chapters and works toward resolving any issue that continues to remain unanswered. Hanushek broadens the “creaming” issue by addressing the question, will quality of peers doom those left in the public schools? He considers the impact that students have on each other’s learning and how voucher systems affect student composition in the public school. Hanushek notes that one of the most significant problems encountered is determining what variables impact student learning. He identified student composition, SES, high concentrations of poverty, peer ability, special education needs, and student mobility as contributing factors. Hanushek concludes that to determine if quality of peers will doom those left behind requires a determination of what the composition of students would be if broad based choice were made available to families.
Moving the argument forward, Hoxby states that the debate on voucher programs should focus on how “public schools respond to the competition” (p. 177). Hoxby believes that there are no losers in voucher systems. Rather, the public schools improve because of the competition, thus improving education for all. The case supporting this is based on the belief that when a school becomes more competitive, it has also become more efficient and productive. Hoxby’s argument is clearly articulated in her position that schools are not limited in how well their students can achieve. Schools can always do better. Her use of the Unites States Parcel Service example weakens this improvement argument. In this example, she does not take into account that the public postal industry is not impacted by the extreme social variables that impact public education. However, evidence from existing voucher models that demonstrated positive results in both public and private systems over a four year period is far more convincing. Perhaps Hoxby’s most attractive argument for choice is that choice “may force schools to recognize and abandon pedagogical techniques and curricula that are unsuccessful in practice though philosophically appealing” (p. 170).
Terry Moe proposes that rules and regulations be established to harness the “powers of the market … for the promotion of important social values” (p. 180). Arguing for a voucher system, Moe asserts that choice already occurs regardless of government policy. One example is parents choosing where they live and thus determining the schools that their children attend. He notes that this form of parental choice is often restricted to those with higher incomes and thus is a form of creaming. Instead, he argues that it is necessary to impart true market powers to enable choice. Moe suggests that in order to make market forces successful, choice system policies must be established and implemented. He concludes that a successful system of choice will appropriately use both government and markets to meet children’s and society’s needs.
To fully appreciate this book, it is important to read each chapter and contemplate the structure of the arguments in favor of a broad based choice system. The arguments build sequentially and culminate with a choice model that the authors believe will effectively transform education. This book is not for readers who wish to read for relaxation and enjoyment. Rather, each author questions current practice and challenges traditional public education thinking through their support for a broad based voucher system. For every question posed and answered by this group of authors, two new ones are fashioned. The authors are correct in concluding that it is difficult to convince detractors in the absence of a broad operating voucher system
This is an excellent book and a “must read” for all those interested in joining or participating in the debate over market forces in education. The reader must be prepared to work through the plethora of statistics and characteristics cited by each author. However, it is this information that makes the book what it is. Whether you agree with this market based ideology or not, the authors successfully bring forward many arguments that promote ongoing dialogue in the school reform arena.