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Vouchers, Reform, and the Elusive Community

by David L. Kirp - 1972

Discusses resource reallocation, community control, and tuition vouchers, and how each affects the role of the state, the community, and the family in the education process. (Source: ERIC)

The quest for community—for a functioning organization that would satisfy collective needs while still preserving a measure of individual autonomy—is hardly a new one. It has been with us at least since Aristotle made plain that joint ventures arise not from happenstance, but rather derive from a "view to particular advantage, and by way of providing some particular thing needed for the purposes of life." More recently, it has become common for American social scientists to lament the "missing community," and to call for institutional frameworks to serve the same social and political function once performed by family, church, and work-place. Robert Nisbet, writing twenty years ago, made the point:

To create the conditions within which autonomous individuals could prosper, could be emancipated from binding ties of kinship, class, and community, was the objective of the older laissez faire. To create conditions within which autonomous groups may prosper must be, I believe, the prime objective of the new laissez faire.l

In this discussion of "community," education has a central place. Fred New-mann and Donald Oliver made clear the connections between social order and educational order, and expressed the need to see schools as places within the society, not as trainers for that society.2 Their insistence that schools move out to incorporate the workers and the dreamers into the process of education embodies a vision of school and society radically at odds with prevailing notions. And where that sense of communitarianism coincides with powerful political concerns, as it does for the organized groups of the poor, the black, and Mexican Americans, the likelihood of challenge (if not of change) is substantial.

Each of the three most widely discussed educational reforms—resource real-location, community control, and tuition vouchers—carries with it an operational definition of community. Those definitions differ markedly from the way education is presently governed and financed. More importantly, perhaps, are differences among these various reforms concerning the role of the state, the community, and the family in governing schools.

Governance Resource reallocation, community control, and voucher proposals are all reactions to the prevailing mode of school governance. Remarkably enough, given the diverse history of schooling in this country, the structural arrangements for the financing and governance of education are largely the same throughout the country. State constitutions generally oblige the state to create a "uniform and efficient" system of common schools; state statutes have created a mixed system of state and local authority to discharge this responsibility. Although state commissioners of education frequently have broad policy-making powers, the states contribute less than half of the $40 billion dollars a year spent on public primary and secondary education. The day-to-day running of schools is left to the twenty thousand local school districts created by the states, which range in size from Los Angeles to one-room schoolhouses. These districts hire teachers, determine curricula, build schools. They also raise the bulk of their own operating expenses from local property tax revenues.

The effect of the system is not, however, uniformity. Small and wealthy districts effectively control education policy decisions through formal and informal intervention in the running of these schools. While the Grosse Pointes and the Scarsdales may complain about the quality of education their schools provide, in fact their residents have substantial access to the decision-making process which determines that quality. This access is significant both for general decisions which affect the system as a whole and, equally importantly, for specific decisions which relate to a particular child. The wealthy district also has the financial wherewithal—the high property tax base, the relatively few competing public services—to support its schools handsomely, even while taxing itself at a comparatively low rate.

The larger and poorer districts are handicapped both in terms of political access and fiscal ability. The large cities treat a more differentiated clientele with more varied results. Nor are the informal conflict-resolving devices, the call to the principal's office or the visit to the teacher, as effective as in the suburbs. The big city school system is perceived as too large and unwilling for that. If the resulting tensions are exposed at all, it is through avowedly political confrontations, an approach which does little to satisfy the claims of aggrieved parents and, indeed, may create its own tensions and distrust.

The financial differences are similarly dramatic. Poorer school districts (those with low assessed property valuation per student) generally tax themselves more heavily than do rich ones; they make a greater financial effort for education. Yet, even with that greater effort, they raise far fewer dollars for education. Their tax base is smaller; the competition for local dollars among public services—police, fire, sanitation—is greater; the costs are higher. As a result of this dismally familiar pattern, poor districts spend substantially less on education than rich districts. They also, and not coincidentally, have the most substantial and amply documented educational failures. It is in response to that pattern that the various reformist proposals have emerged.

Resource reallocation is the most familiar of these reforms. In the past year, state-sponsored studies in Michigan and New York have recommended overhauling the mechanisms for raising and distributing school dollars. Courts in California, Minnesota, Texas, and New Jersey have indicated that fiscal reform is not only desirable but constitutionally required (Rodriguez, the Texas suit, is currently on appeal before the Supreme Court). Those decisions require the state to adopt a finance mechanism which does not make education a function of wealth (other than the wealth of the state as a whole, of course).

As the proponents of resource reallocation have stated, the "no wealth" standard would herald something of a revolution in the financing of public education. What resource reallocation does not do also merits mention. It does not imply any particular set of changes in the governance or control of education. It does not represent a trade-off of local policy determination for fiscal security. That is one of its virtues. Neither community control nor tuition vouchers are necessarily inconsistent with resource reallocation. Indeed, resource reallocation may well be a necessary prerequisite for other reforms. While one can talk about giving Hough or Hunter's Point control over their own schools, that "control" is meaningless and misleading unless it is accompanied by resource allocation reform. To do otherwise is to offer the tiller of a financially sinking ship.

At least in theory, if not as a matter of practical politics, a state could assume an increased financial burden without further intruding into the operation of local schools. Such a course of action would also limit the state's interest in education. The state clearly has a legitimate concern in the existence of minimally adequate schooling throughout the state. That interest may translate into rudimentary requirements, for example, that a certain percentage of teachers in any school have a college education or its equivalent, or that reading and arithmetic be taught in all schools. These minimal safeguards may be necessary to assure that everyone educated in the state is capable of participating in the political process and has the capacity to support himself economically.

Beyond that, however, the state's interest is less clear. It should not, for example, be a matter of state concern whether the Jones or Smith book is used to teach social studies, or whether all of the teachers in the state have taken twenty units of education courses. These state intrusions do little, if anything, to promote a politically and economically functioning populace. Rather, they impose a uniformity inconsistent with the educational enterprise.

Community control and tuition vouchers both share the view that the state should have only a limited role in matters of policy. Yet these two reformist notions look to different communities of interest. They define the group primarily affected in different ways, and those distinctions have substantial implications for social policy.

Community Control Community control gives primary responsibility for operating schools to relatively small groups living in geographic proximity. The sense of what "small" means varies: New York City's thirty districts each contain as many students as all of Providence, Rhode Island. The composition of the districts also varies: some might be racially and ethnically heterogeneous, others might be all black, or all middle-class. The theory of community control behind each of these is much the same.

Community control posits that the group primarily affected by the provision of public services, including education, is the community: people who live near each other, perhaps work together, come together for certain shared activities (shopping, recreation, church, etc.), or whose children grow up together. The community does not necessarily correspond to any pre-existing political arrangement; thus few would argue that New York City is a community. Yet, however its bounds are fixed, the community is seen as the unit which ought to make decisions as to the kind and quality of schools that its children attend.

One practical difficulty with the notion of community is that no one really knows quite how to define it in functional terms. For example, work-place and living-place and recreation-place may not coincide neatly. How does one choose between these in determining just which community deserves hegemony over its schools?

This question is most often answered in terms of the process by which the community operates. The community, it is said, creates and perpetuates itself, and through that process gives legitimacy to the enterprise. Education is not defined by a professional bureaucracy; it is, rather, defined by the clientele, the parents, and children who bear the costs and suffer the consequences. The community elects representatives; it attends meetings; it fixes priorities. In short, the argument suggests, the community governs itself, and in so doing defines its own interests and priorities.

In fact, few functioning communities have ever operated in this way. Instead, they have left the business of running schools (and public services in general) to those most passionately concerned about the enterprise, those with the greatest staying power. Nonetheless, the process of organization and nominal participation may serve to legitimize the operations of the school as the existing bureaucracy has been unable to do. And that, indeed, may be all that one can expect or hope for in referring to "community": a device which maintains public support and trust; a device which provides the opportunity (if not the result) of popular participation.

The other criticism most frequently leveled at community control is that it caters to parochial concerns. That criticism could be taken more seriously if we had some clear notion of what education, ideally conceived, could lead to. We can no longer with any intellectual seriousness credit the notion of the "common man," alike in attributes and concerns, as Tocqueville claimed to find him. The ideal of education as a social engine for making everyone equal by making everyone the same is at best debatable. In fact, we have never put it into practice. Our common schools have done nothing to reduce the economic and social divisions between classes and races. In the face of that failure, the argument for the non-parochial is (for the moment at least) without substance. It is a non-alternative.

There are other difficulties inherent in placing control over education with the small community. We have tended, since the Federalist Papers, to think of these groups as factions, aggregations of the like-minded. Yet in fact few communities, however defined, are as homogeneous as that: they contain within them majorities and minorities. If the political process is to govern decisions, these convert readily enough into winners and losers.

This outcome has to trouble those who concern themselves not with group process, but rather with individual choices. Consider, for example, a largely black urban enclave whose majority has opted for community-run and almost all black schools. How does the family which would prefer an integrated education for its children express its interests? Is that family to be obliged either to send its children to the neighborhood school or to move out of the district? Is it equitable to place that heavy burden on such a family? How, to put the question another way, can the burden be mitigated? And what does that mitigation suggest about the primacy of the community in matters of education?

One way of accommodating the interests of the integration-minded family is to permit it to opt out of sending its children to the neighborhood school, to assure them an integrated education. The larger system—the city or metropolitan area—would be obliged to provide space in schools for those children; the transportation costs would be paid by the schools and not the parents. Such an arrangement recognizes the parents' direct concern with the education of their own children. It also values integration as an end important enough to require that the family's wishes override the community's choice.

That solution, while appealing, does not resolve the difficult questions of where the burden of choice should lie, where the primary interest in education properly rests. It obliges the parent to take initiative if he wants schooling for his children diiferent from that available in the local community, resisting the substantial community pressures to stay in the neighborhood school that community control would most likely generate. Furthermore, it limits the range of issues over which the parent has dominion. Consider, for example, a school within the district which has 10 percent white students—would that be sufficiently integrated to satisfy the parent's interests? Or suppose the schools outside the largely black district are all white—would enabling the parent to send his children to such a school meet the school system's obligation to provide an integrated education?

The proposed "free choice" remedy also limits the parent's concern to issues of racial mix. What if a neighboring decentralized district provides Montessori classes for its primary grades, while the district in which the family lives offers a more conventional education? Would a parent be able to opt out of sending his children to the local school on those grounds? If he would, why then should the burden be placed on the parent? Why shouldn't the choice be his, unconstrained by the pressures of the community in which he happens (or is obliged by economic necessity) to live?

Vouchers It is here that the premises of community control and tuition vouchers conflict. Community control places primary responsibility for education on the group, on the collectivity living in residential proximity. Tuition vouchers would place dollars on the heads of children, and not in the hands of groups, enabling any parent to obtain for his child the sort of education that he desired. That arrangement, subsidized by that state, would give the parent and not the community control over educational decisions. While the voucher plan recognizes the interest of the state in setting minimal requirements, it bypasses community and school district completely. It asserts that the parent has the most direct and significant concern with the education of his children. By giving that parent money, rather than assigning his children to a particular school, it enables the parent to act directly upon that concern, to choose whatever form of schooling seems most appropriate for his children.

To be sure, voucher schemes raise numerous problems. How much money will the voucher provide? Will all children be given vouchers of uniform value? Will wealthy parents be able to supplement the voucher from their own resources, thus outbidding the poor parents for the most desirable places? What restrictions will be placed on schools to assure that, given a choice, they don't take only middle-class (or only white) children? What sort of information will be available to parents to enable them to choose intelligently between alternatives? These questions raise the spectre of a new form of educational governance as entangled in its bureaucracy as the present public school system that it is designed to replace. Yet such difficulties should not obscure what is unique about the voucher proposal: it seeks to vest substantial control over education with parents and children.

In so doing, vouchers suggest a theory of community at variance with the other proposals. Its "community," if the term is at all appropriate, is a community of one—what Scott Greer has termed a community of "limited liability." The community is not all-embracing. It is limited both in terms of function and duration. Parents can choose a particular school which purports to educate in one way. Their commitment to those values is explicitly limited to schooling and that commitment does not necessarily extend to community style or life style. It permits families to make seemingly inconsistent choices, to select a progressive school for the children and a traditional suburban residence. For that reason, the voucher plan breaks down the nexus between education and a given social order, be it described by the state system of public schools or by some other agency.

I have adopted a deliberately particularistic and limited way of viewing these educational reforms—resource reallocation, community control, tuition vouchers—in order to emphasize a certain set of differences among them, and between them and the status quo. The effort has been to raise questions about which group—the family, the community, the state—each kind of reform regards as primarily affected by the educational enterprise, and how that view becomes translated into policy. I have also sought to suggest that implicit in the status quo is a view of how educational decisions should be made, a view which quite directly disadvantages poor and urban school districts in allocating power and resources. All of these reforms seek to redress that balance, although they do so in different ways.

For the legislator (or a parent, for that matter) who must decide among alternatives, these seemingly abstract matters translate into such questions as: Should the rich and poor be treated differently by the schools (as they are by the society)? Should elected officials, community groups, or parents control the kind and quality of education that children receive? Should schools serve a socializing function, bringing together children of diverse backgrounds and interests, and providing a common denominator education, or should differences be recognized and honored in the process of education? The ways in which these questions get resolved will say a great deal about the kind of educational system, and the kind of society, we wish to maintain.

  1. Robert Nisbet. The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, p. 278.
  2. Fred M. Newmann and Donald W. Oliver, "Education and Community," Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 61-106.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 74 Number 2, 1972, p. 201-208
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1536, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 12:36:16 AM

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