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Choice in Education: Examining the Evidence on Equity

by Amy Stuart Wells - 1991

An introduction to the Teachers College Record symposium on Politics, Markets, and America's schools. Explores the impact of race and class on parents and students' freedom to choose.

Last year when the Brookings Institution published Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe,1 the media, the business community, and policymakers everywhere hailed it as the research document to substantiate an increasingly popular line of thinking: The democratically controlled public education system is faltering because it entraps schools in a hierarchical, top-heavy bureaucracy that stifles the autonomy and professionalism of educators. The political institutions by which the schools are governed, the authors state, actively promote and protect this over bureaucratization.

Using a national longitudinal study of public and private high school students, teachers, and administrators, Chubb and Moe found that “school organization” is one of four highly significant variables affecting “student achievement”—as measured by increases in standardized test scores from the sophomore to the senior year of high school. The other three significant variables are student ability at sophomore year, the socioeconomic status (SES) of the family, and the SES of the student body.

Chubb and Moe’s central argument is that well-organized schools—those with clear academic goals, strong educational leadership, professionalized teaching, ambitious academic programs, and teamlike organization—can make a meaningful difference in student achievement, and this influence is comparable in size to the influence of students’ family background. (The correlation between students’ sophomore-year ability and family SES or the correlation between family SES and the SES of the student body are not discussed—an omission that dilutes the total impact of family SES.) Taking their analysis one step further, Chubb and Moe compare well-organized with not-well-organized schools and find that the strongest positive influence on quality school organization is “institutional autonomy,” such as that enjoyed by most private schools. The flip side of this discovery is that the bureaucracy that grows out of the democratic political control of public schools is the major culprit of good school organization.

Using these school-organization findings as a guiding light while leaving behind the other three variables found to have an impact on student achievement, Chubb and Moe conclude that the best way to improve American education is to make all schools autonomous. This means cutting public schools loose from bureaucracy and setting them free in a competitive marketplace of educational suppliers and consumers. Parents and students would then be free to choose the public or private schools that best meet their educational needs, and they would take their public education money, in the form of “scholarships,” with them.

While Chubb and Moe’s statistical analysis provides new—albeit debatable—evidence on the relationship between school organization and student achievement, their theoretical argument that market forces produce better educational services than does politics and their call for educational deregulation and scholarships or tuition vouchers for families to spend at schools of choice are hardly novel. The idea has been around since the eighteenth century, when Adam Smith and Thomas Paine proposed similar deregulated educational plans. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mills was a tuition voucher proponent, and perhaps the best-known contemporary voucher advocate, Milton Friedman, has been extolling the virtues of choice and market forces in education since the 1950s.2

Yet what is incessantly missing from these proposals for tuition vouchers and deregulated education is any evidence that students from families who have fared poorly in the job and housing markets—those students who need the most from the educational system—will suddenly become winners in the educational market. Although the argument that vouchers will empower poor and minority families to escape inferior schools has become an integral aspect of the theoretical free-market model, many voucher advocates avoid discussing specific equity issues in much the same way that Chubb and Moe leave behind three of the four significant variables they found to contribute to student achievement. These advocates assert that poor and minority parents are perfectly capable of choosing good schools for their children, and anyone who suggests they are not is either paternalistic or prejudiced, or both.3 While this is a clever way of avoiding the issue and pointing the finger back at the critics, it does not hold up against the historical and empirical evidence that people’s decisions, especially major decisions about whom to marry, where to live, or how to raise and educate children, are affected by their own racial and socioeconomic status as well as that of people encompassed in the choice. Ignoring racial and class discrimination and the resulting feelings of alienation experienced by poor and minority families when discussing models for giving parents school choices may appear egalitarian at first blush, but in light of existing evidence it seems nothing short of naive.

Meanwhile, the myriad school-choice policies that have been implemented or are under consideration around the country vary radically in the degree to which they address equity issues. For instance, a growing number of school districts, including sixteen in Massachusetts, now offer what are known as “controlled-choice” plans, which are designed to guarantee that all parents make informed choices and each school maintains racial balance. Equitable school desegregation through parental choice is the main goal of controlled-choice plans, and therefore those who lack money, time, or political clout are not shut out of the choice process. Also, controlled-choice plans involve only the public schools within a single district so that public education money is not diverted to private and religious schools; meanwhile the less popular, less successful schools receive extra administrative support instead of being left to falter and eventually “go out of business” as they would in a competitive free-market situation.4

On the other hand, models of more deregulated, laissez-faire choice systems, such as those proposed by Friedman and Chubb and Moe, provide no guarantees that everyone will have viable choices. Giving every child a tuition voucher while allowing schools to maintain their own admissions standards and set tuition rates means that some students’ choices will be much more limited than those of others. The ease with which poor and minority students could be excluded from the best schools of choice in such a system is disconcerting.

As the concept of greater parental choice in education gains political popularity, one of the central policy issues should be how to structure choice programs to assure equal access and prevent greater racial and class segregation in schools of choice. A careful analysis of historical evidence and existing research concerning how parents and students make educational choices is a necessary prerequisite to such policy discussions. Therefore, as an introduction to this Teachers College Record symposium on Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, I have chosen to place the Chubb and Moe proposal in a broader historical perspective that underscores what many free-market school-choice advocates choose to ignore—the impact of race and class on parents and students’ freedom to choose. In fact, the relationship among race, class, and the degree of freedom that families have in choosing schools has a long, inter twined history in the United States-a history that has been highlighted in the educational policy arena ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.


After the Court’s 1954 landmark ruling eliminating the legal basis of separate-but-equal schools for black and white students, hundreds of school districts in the South reverted to “freedom-of-choice” plans, which technically allowed blacks and whites to transfer out of segregated schools but provided no incentives or legal mechanisms to help dismantle decades of lawful segregation.

Black students were then faced with the choice of staying in overcrowded, underfunded black schools or attempting to transfer to white schools, where administrators, teachers, and students would often bar their access or dissuade them from enrolling. The thousands of black students who did transfer frequently encountered overt racism and physical violence. Freedom-of-choice plans also offered white parents the opportunity to enroll their children in black schools, but virtually none chose this option, even when these schools were closer to their homes and offered distinctive educational programs.5

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, freedom-of-choice plans created a facade behind which whites protected their unlawful freedom to segregate and exclude blacks from the schools they chose for their children. In 1968—fourteen years after Brown—the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County that freedom-of-choice plans were not acceptable desegregation tools and that school officials, not black children, have an “affirmative obligation” to dismantle racially identifiable schools. In its Green opinion, the Court noted that there were “practical conditions” in the South—that is, blacks’ economic dependency and fears of economic and physical reprisals—that inhibited their exercise of free choice.6

The Green ruling, together with the Court’s 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision sanctioning the use of involuntary busing and racial quotas to achieve integration, placed the importance of equal educational opportunity above the rights of parents to choose their child’s public school. Hochschild describes the Court’s desegregation rulings from this era as favoring “liberalism,” or the political equality of black students, over “democracy,” which calls for sovereignty of citizens over government action through collective choice.7 Such action is necessary, writes Hochschild, in a society that would never by popular choice alone desegregate public education in an equitable or expedient way.

Judicial efforts to mandate that black and white students attend the same schools were hampered by the negative reaction of white parents to busing plans, especially those plans that reassigned their children to previously all black schools. According to Rossell, in desegregation plans with mandatory assignment, “on average, 50 percent of the whites assigned to schools formerly above 90 percent black will not show up.“8 Instead, thousands of white parents chose to place their children in private schools or to flee to the suburbs, where school districts were mostly white.

Throughout the 1970s, as school desegregation orders and mandatory busing plans became more prevalent in the South, and to a lesser extent in the North and Midwest, white parents who kept their children in desegregating public school districts were more likely to enroll them in specialized magnet schools than in the schools to which they were assigned under a busing plan. Fearing greater white flight and facing the need to keep schools racially balanced, urban school administrators responded by pouring extra resources into magnet schools in order to persuade more white parents to choose 50-percent minority public schools. Indeed, Rossell’s research on magnet schools and school desegregation has shown that school districts have often gone to considerable lengths—providing extra programs, visible white staff members, and limits on black enrollment—to attract enough white students to magnet programs.9

In a recent study of magnet schools in four large urban school districts (New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia), Moore and Davenport found that magnet schools do, in general, have the most alluring educational programs and the highest per-pupil expenditures. Yet Moore and Davenport also note that while magnet schools are successful in attracting white students to their exemplary programs, they do so in disproportionate numbers, leaving the less-popular neighborhood schools more segregated than ever. In addition, the authors found that magnet schools’ selection criteria excluded all but the highest achieving students or those with the most involved parents. The students most at risk of failing were left in schools drained of resources as well as some of the best teachers and most motivated classmates. Moore and Davenport conclude that loosely structured choice systems with magnet and nonmagnet schools promote competition between students for placement in what are considered the best schools—those with attractive magnet programs, those enrolling students with the highest test scores, those located in high-income neighborhoods, and those with the most nonminority students - instead of competition between schools to improve.10

Hence, in the last twenty-five years, two distinct educational choice phenomena have occurred in most major cities in the United States: (1) White and middle-class parents have chosen flight to suburban and private schools, and (2) white and high-achieving minority students have chosen to leave their neighborhood schools behind and enter specialized magnet schools.

Still, there is evidence- in the work of Rossell and others who study public school choice11—to suggest that some white middle-income parents can be enticed to send their children to school with minority children from low income families if enough incentives in the form of special programs are provided. Others can be persuaded to accept minority students into schools in white neighborhoods so long as the character of the school is not perceived to change as a result.12 But the fear among those who have studied the history of race and education in America is that a deregulated, free-market system of school choice such as the one proposed by Chubb and Moe would not produce the right incentives or guarantees for white parents to enroll their children in racially and socio-economically integrated schools. In fact, an examination of the limited body of research on how parents and students choose schools provides daunting evidence that deregulated freedom of choice will once again translate into the freedom to segregate.


Even if we have not learned from history that race and class affect parents’ school choices, there is a small but growing body of research that suggests that parents and students from various racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds behave differently when faced with educational choice.


Perhaps the most noted study of school choice to date is the Rand Corporation’s evaluation of the federal voucher demonstration project in Alum Rock, California, where from 1972 to 1977, a randomly selected group of parents were given tuition vouchers to spend at one of the district’s elementary and middle “minischools.” Although critics of the Alum Rock project say it was not a true voucher program because it did not include private schools and teachers and principals did not risk losing their jobs if they failed to attract students,13 the Alum Rock data are still considered the most sophisticated research on school choice.

Bridge and Blackman’s Rand report on Alum Rock examines the family choice process within the voucher program and raises several disturbing issues concerning how parents of different ethnic/racial and socioeconomic backgrounds vary in their awareness of schooling alternatives and the accuracy of information they gather about the rules governing choice.14 Bridge and Blackman found that information levels pertaining to the voucher program and parents’ school choice options were higher among “socially advantaged families,” and parents’ educational background proved to be an especially important factor. Parents with some college had an average of 4.39 sources of information when choosing among the minischools; parents with a high school diploma averaged 4.10 sources; and parents with less than a high school education had an average of 3.93 sources. The number of sources of information also varied by race/ethnicity, with Anglo parents averaging 4.34 sources as opposed to a 3.8 average for blacks, a 4.10 average for Mexican-American parents who spoke English, and a 3.49 average for non-English speaking Mexican-American parents.15 Bridge and Blackman also found differences in the type of information that highly educated versus less-educated parents gathered about the schools of choice. For instance, parents with more than a high school education relied more heavily on printed materials and talks with teachers. Less educated parents preferred talks with parent counselors and information they gleaned from personal contacts.

The authors did find that, over time, differences between parents’ information levels lessened as all parents gained more experience with the choice system. In an article on “information and imperfections” that discusses the Alum Rock findings, however, Bridge notes that the accuracy of parents’ information about their school-choice options fell during the final year of the demonstration project when the voucher minischools were replaced with a districtwide open enrollment plan. He concludes that a dynamic, constantly changing educational market tends to increase information imperfections, which occur most often among socially disadvantaged groups.16

A study by Nault and Uchitelle of a small suburban community in which some parents had an enrollment option between two public elementary schools in their district found that twelve of the forty-eight parents interviewed did not know they had a choice of schools.17 The uninformed parents tended to be less well educated and less affluent than the parents who knew they had a choice. According to the authors, even among those parents who were aware of their options, the less-educated and lower-income parents were less likely to have engaged in a complete investigation of the school alternatives available to them. Fewer of these lower-income parents spent time visiting the schools before making a decision. Eighty-three percent of parents in the two highest social class categories reported they had visited at least one school before choosing, but only 46 percent of the parents in the lowest two categories had made such a visit.

Maddaus found in a study of low- to upper-middle-income families in five predominantly white neighborhoods of Syracuse, New York, that most parents hinged their decisions about schools and child-care arrangements on informal (verbal) sources of information (e.g., their own children, other children, other parents, school board members, or teachers). According to Maddaus, families in middle-income neighborhoods were more likely than families in low-income neighborhoods to have gathered such school-related information. He cites both time and financial costs involved in gathering information as a possible explanation for this discrepancy, stating that families make such investments only when they have the necessary resources.18

Elmore’s review of the literature on school choice also provides evidence that parents differ by race and social class in the amount of information they gather concerning available educational options. He found that competition among families to get their children into the best schools will lead them to use their “market power”—that is, money, time, influence, and access—to ensure that their children are accepted. He writes that deregulated parental choice and competition between schools could quite possibly have a negative impact on the decision-making ability of those parents who lack information and market power. A possible consequence of increased parental and student choice, concludes Elmore, is a situation in which “nominally neutral mechanisms” produce highly segregated school populations.19

In an article reviewing research on the public’s understanding of educational policy, Mann cites several studies that conclude that the general public lacks information and knowledge about how schools operate. This lack of information, says Mann, is especially acute among lower-income parents, who spend large amounts of time satisfying their families’ material needs. He points out that this shortage of time and resources does not mean poor parents are not able to calculate and interpret information, but rather it exemplifies the barriers to information that these families face.20

Olivas, in an article arguing against the creation of an educational voucher program in California, presents a review of the literature on low-income families’ access to information concerning availability of and eligibility for various social services, including welfare, food stamps, and housing subsidies.21 He reports that even though such programs are targeted toward poor populations, the poorest potential clients lack access to basic information concerning their eligibility or assistance in securing application forms and in documenting their financial need. “That this would be true for relatively simple entitlement programs widely known for their subsistence benefits does not bode well for the complex educational voucher plans,” Olivas concludes.22

Similar to Bridge and Blackman’s finding concerning different sources of information, Olivas also notes that in reviewing the literature on social service information, he found that minority populations, particularly bilingual populations, tend to rely on different information sources than do majority populations. He explains that poor and minority communities develop alternative information delivery systems that tend to be oral in nature, with many people depending on informal, word-of-mouth communication with friends and relatives. Information-dissemination efforts based on print media campaigns are less successful with these populations.23

In a 1985 study of 476 parents of public and private school students in Minnesota, Darling-Hammond and Kirby concluded that knowledge and use of a state income tax deduction for private school tuition was positively related to family income and private school choice.24 Knowledge of the deduction was also related to parents’ education levels. Yet, somewhat contrary to the above-mentioned findings, Darling-Hammond and Kirby also found that although lower-income parents had fewer choices in terms of what neighborhood they would live in, they were more likely to seek out information on school alternatives at the time of enrollment. Those least likely to exhibit choice-making behavior were residents of rural areas and parents who had themselves attended only private schools.25

A nationwide survey of 1,200 families conducted by Williams et al. for the U.S. Department of Education also found that consideration of public schools in residential choice increased significantly with parental education and income, but that consideration of various schools at the time of enrollment was reported to be most likely among parents with some college education in the income range between $15,000 and $25,000 (about 60 percent of the sample had no college education; 26.7 percent of families in the survey had incomes less than $15,000).26 Williams et al. also found that consideration of public schools in residential choice is higher among white families (56.25 percent) and Hispanic families (54.1 percent) than among black families (33.1 percent). At the time of enrollment, however, black parents are most likely (25.9 percent) to investigate and consider schools other than their assigned neighborhood public schools as compared with Hispanic (22.5 percent) and white (18 percent) parents. The degree to which black or Hispanic parents’ restricted access to housing due to racial prejudice or lower income levels had a negative impact on their ability to consider school quality when searching for housing is not addressed.

Still, the vast majority of the evidence on parents and students’ access to information concerning school-choice plans demonstrates that low-income and minority families are at a disadvantage. While Maddaus, Elmore, and Nault all suggest that a lack of market resources is often a major inhibiting factor for low-income families who are trying to gain information concerning schools of choice, there are perhaps additional barriers.

Nault and Uchitelle, for instance, suggest that lower-income parents may remain less informed about their choices for several reasons, including general feelings of “alienation” and limited participation in social networks likely to provide useful school information.27

Bridge and Blackman also conclude that alienation is a key mediating variable between educational background and information levels.28 In developing this idea, they draw on the work of sociologists and psychologists such as Seeman, who defines five different variants of alienation, one of which is “powerlessness” or “the expectancy or probability held by the individual that his own behavior cannot determine the occurrence of the outcomes, or reinforcements, he seeks.“29 Seeman notes that the powerlessness definition of alienation is closely related to the psychological concept of internal versus external control of reinforcements (internal-external locus of control developed by Rotter), which refers to the individual’s sense that he has personal control over the reinforcement situation (internal locus of control or low alienation) as contrasted with the view that the occurrence of reinforcements is dependent on external conditions such as-fate, luck, chance, or the manipulation of other people (external locus of control or high alienation).30

Seeman reviews a series of studies by social scientists on public knowledge of social services and concludes that the sense of powerlessness is associated with inferior knowledge. He states that the research demonstrates that this correlation between powerlessness and knowledge holds true for a broad range of control-relevant knowledge, including information concerning housing, health, school achievement, parole, and political knowledge in the community at large.31

The presumption is that the sense of “low fate control” (Coleman’s label for powerlessness) leads to poor learning because the individual is convinced that where his rewards are not contingent upon his own behavior (which is what powerlessness means), there is not much instrumental value in learning or self-improvement.32

Bridge and Blackman note that internal control is positively correlated with income, education, ethnicity, and other proxies for social advantage in American society. The authors conclude that more educated people probably have fewer feelings of powerlessness, and hence they seek information for its “potential control values”—that is, they collect the task-relevant information and act in order to secure their goals.33 According to Bridge and Blackman, increasing parents’ school choices through the voucher program was expected to decrease parents’ feelings of powerlessness by forcing parents to make active school decisions. This in turn was supposed to increase information-seeking and participation in school affairs, especially among lower-income parents, and was eventually to lead to improved student outcomes. This hypothesis corresponds with the “new paradigm” ideology of the Bush administration—the view that “empowering” poor people by allowing them to spend public dollars on schools and housing of their choice will shake them out of a state of helplessness.

Yet what Bridge and Blackman found in Alum Rock is that while there was a decrease in average alienation scores of parents who were issued vouchers, it was accounted for by changes in one specific group: parents with more than a high school education. This group of parents showed “a marginally significant, linear decrease in alienation . . . but we cannot infer that these decreases were caused by the voucher demonstration.“34 Meanwhile, the least educated parents—those with the highest degree of powerlessness—showed no significant decline in their alienation scores. Bridge notes that this finding is consistent with research on other “social interventions,” including New Jersey’s negative income tax program, that were designed to reduce alienation or move people toward a more internal locus of control.35


In their Alum Rock study, Bridge and Blackman queried parents as to what characteristics they were looking for in an elementary school. They found that curriculum factors were less important to most parents than noninstructional factors such as the ethnic or social class composition of the school, the desire to keep siblings or friends together, and the location of the school. In fact, when voucher parents were asked their reasons for choosing particular minischools for their children, only one-third mentioned anything to do with curriculum, even when using a “generous definition of ‘curriculum’.”36 The primary consideration in school choice for most Alum Rock families was location of the school relative to their homes. More than 70 percent of those surveyed cited location as an important factor in school choice. Similarly, in another Rand study of the first year of the Alum Rock experiment, Weiler found that the parents’ main desire was to ensure the right of the children to attend their neighborhood school.37

In probing these issues of curriculum and location further, Maddaus found that for most of the parents in his Syracuse study, the overriding factor in choice of school was not cognitive learning but what he calls the school’s “moral values”—those espoused by both staff and students. Maddaus notes, however, that in a city such as Syracuse with significant socioeconomic and cultural differences from one neighborhood to the next, the moral environment of a school is perceived to vary greatly with the demographics of the neighborhood in which a school is located. Hence, he concludes that location does matter to many parents, not only because of a school’s physical proximity to the child’s home but also because “parents often make tacit assumptions that good neighborhoods will have good schoo1s.“38

Maddaus found that most parents in the lower-middle to upper-middle-income neighborhoods were very conscious of their neighborhoods’ characteristics. He argues, therefore, that the parents’ concern about school location was based primarily on their child-rearing goals and the extent to which they believed that the neighborhood school reflected their values; the academic standards of a given school predominated only after the moral and social standards were met. Lower-middle-class parents whose children were assigned to the school in the low-income neighborhood found ways to enroll their children in public schools in middle-income neighborhoods despite the difficulty of obtaining voluntary transfers. Based on his sample of students, Maddaus reports that 93 percent of the 67 elementary school-age children from the two lower-middle-income neighborhoods were enrolled in schools other than the neighborhood public school, compared with 38 percent of the 71 children in a low-income neighborhood in the same public school attendance area, and 37 percent of the 89 children in middle- and upper-middle-income neighborhoods of two adjacent attendance areas.

It is one thing to attempt to minimize our children’s contacts with morally “bad” peers and to keep them out of environments where the adults present fail to clearly distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It is quite another thing to make explicit or, more frequently, tacit assumptions about a possible relationship between race and/or family income on the one hand and moral behavior on the other, and to direct our children’s lives based on such assumptions. . . . There is also a possibility that such assumptions may, over time, become self-fulfilling prophecies.39

Meanwhile, Maddaus found that the actual physical location of a school was most important to low-income parents who did not have cars and wanted to be able to walk to the school in case of problems or emergencies.

Similar to Maddaus’s finding of parents’ emphasis on moral values, Nault and Uchitelle report that among the group of suburban parents in their study, issues such as transportation and school facilities were far less important to most parents than the moral atmosphere of the school-that is, the feeling that the adults in the school held views “more compatible with their own on how children should be treated.“40 Unlike Maddaus, who translates such moral criteria into racism and classism, Nault and Uchitelle deny that the suburban parents selected schools in an attempt to keep their children in more homogeneous settings. In fact, Nault and Uchitelle found that their group of highly educated parents “seemed to seek out rather than avoid racial and socio-economic diversity” when choosing schools for their children.41

Yet whether individual parents choose racially and socioeconomically homogeneous school settings consciously or not, additional evidence suggests that their preferences in terms of teaching styles and the “moral environment” of a school often lead them in that direction anyway. Raywid, who has written extensively on alternative education within the public school system, emphasizes the importance of the relationship between students and instructional style, stating that this tit between the teacher’s methods and the students is more significant in determining family choices of alternatives than curriculum specialties. She adds, however, that the evidence shows that while middle-class families tend to favor child-centered instructional methods, blue-collar parents tend to choose more teacher-centered and highly structured instructional methods.42

Bridge and Blackman’s findings in Alum Rock support this hypothesis. They report that the more educated the parents, the more likely they were to emphasize their children’s independence, imagination, intelligence, logical thinking, responsibility, and broad-mindedness. Less educated parents, on the other hand, put relatively more emphasis on children’s obedience, politeness, cleanliness, ambition, and cheerfulness.43 The authors note that this finding corresponds with Kohn’s theory of social class and conformity, which states that parents define “success” in relation to their own work experiences and then pass on their values to their children, thereby preparing them to operate in the same social milieu. According to Kohn, working-class parents, who perform mostly routinized, closely supervised work, have learned that obeying authority leads to job security. In more middle-class occupations, imagination and independence are rewarded. Similar types of reward systems are duplicated in the parents’ relationship with their children.44

These differences in child-rearing attitudes, say Bridge and Blackman, translate into racial and class delineations between parental choices of open versus traditional classrooms.45 Hence, less advantaged children in Alum Rock—those from lower-income and minority families—were most likely to end up in structured programs that stressed the three Rs while more advantaged Anglo students whose parents were higher-income, white-collar workers were most likely to end up in less structured programs that stressed social relationships and independence. In every case, open classrooms tended to attract children from higher socioeconomic status homes.

Other studies that have attempted to detect what parents look for when choosing schools are less helpful in pointing to class and racial differences in school preferences because they provide little or no explanation of phrases such as “school quality factors” or “academic quality.“46 Although Williams et al. note that academic quality includes factors such as standards, curriculum, and administrative policies, they do not measure how parents’ preferences for standards or policies vary.47

Yet the findings of Maddaus and Bridge and Blackman along with Raywid’s evidence from research on alternative schools clearly demonstrate the need for a more articulate understanding of what parents who choose schools mean by “academic or school quality” and how these meanings differ according to the social context of the chooser.


A related issue that is rarely discussed in policy debates about parental choice in education is the relationship between parents and students’ expectations and aspirations and their choice of schools, yet educational research has shown that low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies for many low income and minority students.48 Studies have demonstrated that adolescents who internalize low expectations believe that their chances of succeeding in school and the labor market are slim and often choose either to take themselves out of the competition or resist the system as a whole.49 These findings raise all sorts of red flags amid proposals for free-market school choice. Meanwhile the existing research concerning how expectations exert a direct influence on school choice is limited.

In one study of tenth-graders’ choices of five minischool programs within their public high school, Kottkamp and Nault found that students chose pro grams that best articulate their “perceived future status.“50 Borrowing from Stinchcombe’s theory on rebellious high school students,51 the authors note that when a student realizes that he does not achieve status incrementally from improved current performance, current performance loses meaning and he begins to make decisions based on what he believes his future will be. They also found that students with clear future perspectives were not deflected by friends in choosing a school while those with a weak sense of school-future articulation were more susceptible to peer influence.

As for parental input into the choice of a minischool program, Kottkamp and Nault found that parents tended to have more of an indirect influence through the way in which they “socialize their children to prefer certain environments, futures and attitudes toward adult authority.“52 “Simply put,” write Kottkamp and Nault, “students chose schools that maximized the likelihood of achieving their personal visions of the future.“53 Those visions were quite varied. Yet, except for those who opted for the vocational technology program, which attracted students from lower-income families, the students enrolled in the various minischools were indistinguishable in terms of socioeconomic background. The authors note, however, that this was the only public high school in the community and that an inter-school choice program that would take students to different locations might result in more class segregation.

Bridge and Blackman found in Alum Rock that parents’ expectations for their children were related to the amount of information they gathered about various school programs. The more years of education parents expected their children to attain, the more informed they were about their children’s educational options.54

Despite the dearth of research on how expectations affect school choice, these data coupled with educational research on how students’ educational and occupational expectations affect their academic achievement strongly suggest what might be a major cause of racial and social class segregation and stratification in a system of deregulated school choice. To some degree, common sense tells us what Murnane articulates in an article on school choice: “If students see no attractive future for themselves in the labor force, then it may be a rational decision to take it easy and choose undemanding school programs.“55

This also relates to Seeman’s writing on alienation and the need for control-relevant knowledge as it pertains to setting long-term educational and occupational goals.56


Against this backdrop of research on ways in which parents and students of different ethnic/racial and social class backgrounds diverge in their reactions to school choices, we arrive at the issue that Chubb and Moe address in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools: Can a free market of educational choice lead to greater student achievement? If the data are convincing that market forces do a better job than political systems of assuring that all (or almost all) students receive a superior education, then might we not be able to live with any subsequent increase in segregation, given that most public and private schools in America are already highly segregated? Perhaps. But I would like to point out that despite the current popularity of deregulated educational choice proposals, most of the persuasive evidence on the achievement benefits of choice in education is derived from research on educational choice programs that are far more regulated than a free-market voucher plan.

In the Alum Rock project—the closest thing yet to a true voucher plan—Capell found that parental choice had “no apparent effect on students’ reading achievement, perceptions of themselves and others, or social skills.” Wortman and St. Pierre reported a relative loss in reading achievement for students in the six Alum Rock schools that participated in the first year of the experiment.57

Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore’s analysis of student achievement in private and Catholic versus public high schools provides the most convincing pre-Chubb and Moe proof that autonomous—that is, free-market—private schools are more effective in helping students, especially low-income and minority students, increase their cognitive skills than public schools are. As Murnane reminds us, however, a large-scale study of public-versus-private school students such as Coleman et al. cannot control for the selectivity bias inherent in any comparison of those who have already chosen private schools and those who have opted to stay in public schools.58 The financial sacrifices that parents, especially lower-income parents, make to send their children to private schools and their reasons for doing so cannot be factored out in a statistical analysis—nor can the personalities and characteristics of the students who are admitted to private schools.

Murnane illustrates the three mechanisms that he believes add to Catholic and private schools effectiveness (none of which is addressed in Coleman et al.):

1. Control over admissions and dismissals make it easier to attract high quality teachers.

2. Selecting students on a competitive basis stimulates those children who were “chosen.”

3. The interview process, which is used not only to select students but also to inform students and parents about how a particular school works, is a first step in helping students to adopt behavior patterns that lead to high achievement.59

On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that school choice might lead to improved student achievement in Nault and Uchitelle’s finding that, on the average, parents who are offered school options engage in more search activities and become more knowledgeable about the available schools than do parents assigned to neighborhood schools. Yet, as was mentioned above, this effect varies widely according to the parents’ socioeconomic status and their educational background.60

Students in New York City’s much-talked-about Community School District 4 have scored consistently higher on standardized achievement tests since the district began a school-choice program for middle-school students in the 1970s,61 but it is important to remember that District 4 does not operate a deregulated voucher-type school choice plan. Instead, the program is contained within a single public school district in which all parents are “forced” to choose. Therefore, district staff members expend an enormous amount of time and energy ensuring that all parents and students are aware of their choices.

Also, about 95 percent of the students in District 4 are Hispanic and more than two-thirds are poor enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced-fee lunch program, which suggests that the threat of increased ethnic/racial and class stratification that could lead to inadequate educational services for certain groups of students in a competitive free market is less of an issue in this choice plan. Furthermore, data from one study of District 4 show no evidence of greater parent involvement as a result of enhanced educational choice.62

Perhaps some of the most convincing proof of choice’s positive impact on student performance comes from the research on public alternative school programs, which are designed specifically to meet the educational needs of those students who are least successful in traditional school settings—the same students who would have the least bargaining power in a competitive school choice system. In her extensive review of the literature on alternative schools, Raywid states that the attitudes of students toward themselves and toward school are markedly enhanced in the alternative setting. She found that alternative school programs typically lead to greater academic achievement—higher grade-point averages and test scores and gains in math and reading levels—and “at least some alternatives send a substantially high percentage of their graduates on to college than do comparable schools in the same district.“63 In addition, Raywid notes that attendance and school involvement increase and dropout rates decline when students who have been unsuccessful in traditional school settings enter alternative schools.

As Raywid, Nathan, and others who extol the virtues of public alternative schools have long since discovered, there is no one best school for all children.64 Offering choices and alternatives to students who do not succeed in a traditional public school setting forces the educational system to address individual differences. Therefore, the meaningful debate is no longer whether to provide parents and students with more educational options but rather how to reconstruct the present system to assure that everyone is able to take advantage of choice.

The evidence presented here raises several key issues related to how parents and students make educational decisions and underscores the need for policymakers to focus on ways in which race and income become barriers to access in some choice systems. This discussion leaves an essential “supply-side” school choice question unanswered: Can a deregulated, competitive system of free market provide the impetus for educators to assure that all (or at least most) children are better served?

The following three articles tackle these issues. The first, by Peter W. Cookson, Jr., professor of education at Adelphi University, is a book review of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. Cookson, a sociologist of education, has written widely on private schools, school-choice policy, and educational reform. The second article is a response to Cookson by Chubb and Moe. Chubb is a senior fellow in the Governmental Studies program at the Brookings Institution, and Moe is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Following Chubb and Moe’s response is Cookson’s brief response to their response. The final installment is a thoughtful discussion of the role of choice in educational reform by Harold Howe II, who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Johnson administration and is now a senior lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 1, 1991, p. 137-155
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 220, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:24:36 PM

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