School Choices: True and False

School Choices: True and False

by John Merrifield
School Choices: True and False

School Choices: True and False

by John Merrifield


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The school choice movement has gained political momentum in recent years, having established programs in Milwaukee, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere. Yet, as economist John Merrifield argues in this detailed analysis, today's school choice programs are nothing like the “free market in education” envisioned four decades ago by early proponents of school choice. Rather, they are mired in false alternatives, petty distinctions, and diminished vision, and in their present form are doomed to fail as have so many other government programs. In this text, Merrifield argues for the reformation of the school choice alternative and the eventual establishment of a freely competitive market for education, charting a course for the achievement of this goal.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781598132595
Publisher: Independent Institute, The
Publication date: 09/21/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 100
File size: 309 KB

About the Author

John Merrifield is a professor of economics at the University of Texas–San Antonio and a senior research associate at the Education Policy Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of The School Choice Wars.

Read an Excerpt

School Choices: True and False

By John Merrifield

The Independent Institute

Copyright © 2002 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59813-259-5



The persistent knowledge and critical thinking deficit among America's young people is deservedly one of the nation's top political issues. From presidential candidates to governors, every prominent policymaker calls K–12 reform a priority. But though reform fever is intense these days, widespread concern about the K–12 system is not new. Diane Ravitch, a top education official in the first Bush administration, said it was a major concern for most of the 1900s (Ravitch 2000, 23–27). Nuclear scientist Admiral Hyman Rickover's 1959 book blamed the K–12 system for the dangerous lack of scientific, engineering, and math talent in the United States, saying that "The system looks upon talented children primarily as a vexing administrative problem" (Rickover 1959). President Reagan's blue ribbon commission reached a similar but more strongly worded conclusion. Its 1983 report called the United States "a nation at risk," arguing that we have done something to ourselves that would be seen as an act of war if a foreign power were to blame (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983). Those strong words produced an accelerated reform effort that continues to this day, but so far the reform frenzy has produced little more than micromanagement and frustration. The children discussed in A Nation at Risk have graduated from or dropped out of schools that even prominent Democrats — the strongest proponents of the current governance and funding process — call "a disaster" (Senator Gray Davis qtd. in Broder 1999; Kirkpatrick 1997; Senator Joseph Lieberman qtd. in Shokraii 1998).

This monograph defines and extends the argument for real competition in schooling, but its primary topics are the two reasons why the call for reform is so persistent and intense: (1) reform efforts have left existing governance and funding systems intact, and (2) choice advocates have forsaken and endangered the only truly effective reform catalyst — competition — mostly unwittingly, but often intentionally. Genuine competition is the only true reform catalyst. In the simplest terms, establishing competition means ending the government's policy of financial discrimination against families who prefer private schools or nontraditional public schools and implementing flexible pricing, set by market forces, for education services. This monograph identifies and discusses the critical elements of a competitive education industry, describing the foreseeable outcomes of competition and the transition to it.

Current parental choice programs and nearly all the prominent choice proposals are too small and contain too many restrictions to harness market forces effectively, yet much of the rhetoric asserts the presence of competition. The resulting combination of high expectations and low potential for improvement might be politically devastating. Lackluster "results" from alleged experiments might broadly tarnish parental choice programs. Deeming current programs successful may only prompt the duplication of restriction-laden, escape-hatch versions of parental choice.

A brief review of the failures of K–12 education and the reasons for those failures is a useful first step before turning to the failures of the K–12 reform debate and what must be done to create true improvement.


Where We Stand: The Achievement Deficit

Because "stories of academic mediocrity have become so common that they have lost power to shock" (Coats 1997, 10), I am leaving the task to other sources (Murphy 1996, 139–48; Vedder 2000, 5–9). Instead, I mention some of the more subtle symptoms of failure, discussing a few of them in more detail later on.

The incredible growth in home schooling may be the most compelling symptom of our system's failure (Brandly 1997; "Explosion in Home Schooling" 1996). Many parents give up careers to do the work of teams of education specialists whom they have already paid and typically outperform them by a wide margin. Home-schooled children are highly sought after college recruits. Yet educating children is not easy, and the advantages of specialization apply to schooling as to any other trade or profession. If it were not for the profound failure of public schools, it would be no more likely that home schooling would produce superior results than, say, home television repair.

Another symptom of failure is parental apathy. Despite widespread concerns about K–12 performance, the high cost of exiting the public schools (which supposedly should lead to more "voice"), and the pressure "to get involved in public schools" (Lowe and Miner 1996), the vast majority of parents make little effort to influence the practices of their own schools (Dixon 1992; Pierce 1993). Multiple levels of political control make parents feel powerless and give educators little leeway in addressing their concerns. In addition, educators have little incentive to heed parents' concerns. Educators' paychecks depend on pleasing public officials, not on serving children.

State takeovers are another symbol of failure and frustration. Since 1988 the states have taken over twenty local school systems, including schools in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Hartford, Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. (School Reform News 1999). State takeovers unfortunately elicit only additional frustration and fail to yield significant improvement. Even in those schools that have had a positive takeover experience, significant improvement has meant approaching merely the national norms of "a nation at risk."

Other cities — among them Milwaukee, the site of the nation's most famous school choice program — are on the brink of a takeover. The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) situation reflects both of the problems cited earlier: its reform efforts left existing governance and funding systems intact, and the additional rivalry created by Milwaukee's small low-income voucher program falls far short of the truly competitive conditions necessary to prompt real reform.

The system's persistent failings are not an accident. The problems begin with the baneful effects of monopoly. The activists and public officials who refuse to consider any fundamental changes in funding and governance denounce the monopoly label. They correctly fear it. Americans rightly associate monopoly with consumer helplessness, producer sloth and indifference, and high prices. Defenders of the status quo point to the system's highly fragmented nature, multiple layers of oversight, and nearly fifteen thousand school districts (Lowe and Miner 1996) as evidence that it is not a monopoly. Still, the monopoly label is appropriate. The number of districts in a metropolitan area matters only a little bit. The number nationwide is nearly irrelevant. Monopoly is not just a matter of numbers (whether one or many), but rather of openness to new producers and significant changes in market share.

The public-school monopoly stems from the fact that the neighborhood public school usually has a huge price advantage over any potential competitors, including other public schools. Using a public school outside a family's attendance area requires significant transportation spending, the risk of incurring criminal sanctions with a false address, or a change of residence and potentially higher home prices. An average private school costs more than $3,000 per child in addition to the school taxes that must be paid, which is why there aren't many private schools. Entrepreneurs are theoretically free to enter the market for K–12 services, but it is very difficult to beat a zero-tuition competitor that has more resources.

As you would expect from a monopoly, public schools are inefficient and charge taxpayers a high and ever-rising sum. The public-school system's administrative overhead is one example of its inefficiency. According to an international comparison by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD 1995), the United States is the only country with fewer teachers than nonteaching staff — a three to four ratio. The average teacher to nonteaching staff ratio is five to two.

Failure to achieve continuous improvement is another symptom of monopoly. The school system does not pursue research and development systematically or spread effective practices (Miller 1999). Technological backwardness is the norm. Public schools buy many computers and connect them to the Internet, but technology is usually something to teach rather than a teaching tool. There is no discernible propensity to systematically root out unproductive practices and practitioners (Lieberman 1993). Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky (1997) reported that public schools give little weight to the quality of teachers' credentials and rarely terminate unproductive teachers.

Reform Resistant

Monopolies may change, but they rarely reform. The public schools have changed, probably too much as educators flit from one fad to the next, but very little of that change has been productive. Wayne Jennings coined a good label for this process: so far the reform frenzy amounts to a "more of the same harder (MOTS-H)" (1998, 1). An anonymous "Horse Story" makes the same point: "If the horse you're riding dies, get off, ... in the education business we don't always follow that advice." Both MOTS-H and the "Horse Story" refer to a propensity to recycle acts of proven futility that can make things worse directly or do so indirectly by adding to a constant parade of marginal change that drives educators crazy. With multiple levels of political oversight, forced change can produce burnout, frustrating contradictions, and debilitating and humiliating micromanagement.

Like many other places, Milwaukee describes its reform efforts as "decades of frustration" (White 1999, 34). Consider just the past fourteen years. Probably because of the media attention generated by the 1983 A Nation at Risk report (see Peterkin 1996), supposedly major reforms occurred in 1987. Persistent disappointment and media attention generated by Milwaukee's unique parental choice program prompted additional reform efforts during the 1990s, and yet Milwaukee still just barely averted a June 2000 state takeover. There are no reasons to expect a different outcome from current or future efforts to wring better outcomes from the current system. Until we implement real reform, the incentives will be the same or weaker.

The current reform-resistant system elicits statements from leading scholars and civil rights leaders that you usually hear only from knee-jerk, antigovernment cynics. The system is much worse than inefficient. It unwittingly but effectively undermines learning. Harvard's Caroline Hoxby concluded a study this way: "The striking thing is the opposite directions of the spending and achievement results: less spending, more student achievement" (qtd. in Barro 1997). Hoxby's conclusion is consistent with National Urban League President Hugh Price's belief "that politicians and school administrators are going about the business of improving things exactly backwards" (Price 1999, 76). Rexford Brown assailed a widespread, underachievement-assuring definition of success: "Success in urban school districts is often defined as the avoidance of large-scale violence. ... managers define success as the absence of an angry mob of customers sacking the store and assaulting the employees" (1993, 137). Teachers frequently define success within those limitations: "We're doing a good job. You can go to any other district and see they are having the same type of problems" (Walsh 1999b, 46-51). It is precisely because the system's consistent problems and unacceptable output are the net result of mostly dedicated, conscientious teachers that we so desperately need to transform the system.

In today's system, school leaders don't celebrate unexpected success stories, study them, and then seek to imitate them. Instead, they seem to fear surprises. As Nobel Laureate John Hicks once wrote, "The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life" (Hicks 1935). In a political environment, exceptional achievements raise questions and expectations that can force change and generate more work for the same paycheck. As a result, recognition can mean endangerment rather than duplication. Fear of higher expectations also encourages uniformity. In one especially telling example, an incoming district superintendent cut an innovative school with an undisputed record of success because "the school was too autonomous. ... [I]ts efforts to maintain a racial balance and its insistence on being different made it elitist, too much like a private school" (Meier 1991, 338).

The system resists energetic reformers and high standards. Former superintendents Anthony Trujillo (Ysleta District of El Paso, Texas) and Diana Lam (San Antonio District, Texas) implemented major reforms, and test scores rose (Trujillo 1999). Not long after gaining national attention, including considerable acclaim, Trujillo's and Lam's contracts abruptly were terminated at considerable cost to taxpayers. In addition, the fact that "the education standards movement is gaining momentum" (Price 1999, 54-55, 76) means that you need semipermanent political organizations to lobby for high standards and that you face considerable opposition.

Failure to Specialize Brought About by Political Control

Specialization is a cornerstone of productivity. This idea rests on the irrefutable fact that consumers have diverse preferences and that producers have unique skills, talents, and interests. But the current system officially attacks or denies child and educator diversity, thus precluding any meaningful degree of specialization. The use of attendance zones means that every school must attempt to address diverse interests, skills, and learning styles. Schools with attendance areas can't specialize. Policies that mandate nonselective admissions policies undermine specialization functionally and politically. For example, a school can't specialize in gifted and talented children if they can't turn away parents suffering delusions of grandeur (Johnny isn't always as bright as mom and dad imagine him to be). The huge mismatches that would result from assigning children to specialized schools would also be politically infeasible.

There is another major political problem. The collective hostility to specialization is as deeply ingrained as the individual consumer's preference for it. The need for a specialized school to be selective is seen as a guarantee of taboo forms of discrimination. The political process greatly diminishes public-school effectiveness whenever it translates that collective hostility into an official antidiscrimination policy. This inability to be selective is widespread because anything with a potential connection to segregation is a political third rail.

Choice opponents take every opportunity to exploit and reinforce this collective hostility. They depict selectivity in any form as actual or imminent discrimination by a public heavily populated with racists whose top priority is to flee schools with significant minority populations. They insist on crippling educators with nonselective admissions policies or with random admissions when demand exceeds capacity.

The inability of public schools to specialize is in part responsible for the belief that choice will worsen the segregation we already have. Because nearby schools usually have similar policies, location and student body composition can easily become key choice criteria by default. With the differences in subject matter, size, and methodology that specialization would create, there are at least two reasons why parental choice probably will produce increasingly diverse student bodies: (1) subject and pedagogy preferences usually will dominate racial/ethnic homogeneity preferences, and (2) improvement through competition will reduce the inverse correlation between wealth and minority membership. Parental choice that fosters competition will produce less-diverse student bodies only if homogeneity preferences are widespread and dominate other school differences, if academic preferences are highly correlated with group membership, or if school operators can ignore the antidiscrimination laws easily. Each is extremely unlikely.

The nearly universal attendance-area policy, fear of discrimination claims, and overreaction to the "common school" mythology have led to the policy of teaching nearly every child the same things in approximately the same way. This approach is even spelled out in some state constitutions and major court rulings. Schools have to attempt to make themselves into one-size-fits-all institutions. Standardized testing reinforces that pressure because its use in ranking schools and allocating resources presumes that quality is one-dimensional. In contrast, we know that particular people and businesses are good at some things but not at others. Even if schools defy the barriers and disincentives and pursue the one-size-fits-all imperative as well as possible, the result still won't be very good.


Excerpted from School Choices: True and False by John Merrifield. Copyright © 2002 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Introduction,
Chapter 2 Where We Stand: The Achievement Deficit,
Chapter 3 Problems of the Reform Debate,
Chapter 4 Problems with Current Voucher and Choice Reforms,
Chapter 5 Examples and Additional Context from Programs and Proposals,
Chapter 6 What Sidetracked Choice Advocacy?,
Chapter 7 Loose Lips Sink Causes,
Chapter 8 Getting There: Back Up, Then Move Forward,
Chapter 9 The Outlook,
Chapter 10 Conclusion,

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