The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Vouchers A False Education Solution" by The Detroit News, 11/14/96.

Original Title:
Competition in Public Education: The Bad, The Good, and the Ugly
by Barry McGhan

Recent events have brought the idea of competition in public education to our attention once again.

  • Chrysler President Robert Lutz spoke strongly in favor of it at the recent Lansing Education Summit;

  • Romulus Schools have opened an alternative program for dropouts within the boundaries of the Detroit School District;
  • Cleveland just started a voucher program so that a few of its poorest students can attend private schools.

As we prepare to march off into this brave new world of competitive public ducation, a few observations are in order.

First, we know from Chrysler's own history that competition doesn't always produce the best results. Remember those gas-guzzling chrome-covered monstrosities of yesteryear? And the federal government bailout? Chrysler, during several competition-filled decades, was the also-ran of the auto industry. The lesson to be learned is that competition, by itself, provides no assurance of improvement. You need competence as well, and it can take a long time to develop that solely through competition.

Even so, increased competition deserves a try, as long as we don't fantasize too much about its virtues. The Romulus/Detroit alternative school case is an interesting example arising out of the school choice law passed last year. This law, along with earlier charter school legislation, may jolt the bureaucratic mind-set that exists in all too many districts. The Romulus/Detroit case also involves a private for-profit company that runs the alternative program. Such arrangements may shake up union-management relations that have ossified over the years. None of these changes, however, are guaranteed to make things better for children, so some kind of quality control measures (more than just a few state achievement tests) need to be developed and put in place. Then, we can judge when a change becomes an improvement.

It is also important to note that competition comes in different "flavors." The competition apparent in the Romulus/Detroit case lies within the existing public school arena. This is different from the competition evident in the Cleveland voucher case, which pits public schools against private schools.

For one thing, this second type of competition is unfair. Private schools have a right to pick and choose students that public schools don't have. This "choosiness" gives them a cooperative, easy-to-teach clientele. In fact, private schools must be choosy about who they keep, or lose parental support. Parents will pull their children out and look for another school where things are more in control.

If you want to see fair private/public school competition, ask your legislator to support repealing compulsory attendance laws so Michigan can return to the voluntary public education system we had earlier in this century. Otherwise, you're asking public school teachers to compete in a game with one or both hands tied behind their backs.

There is another important angle to private school vouchers that is rarely discussed. They cannot possibly help all children.

If vouchers are truly a good idea, then they should be available to all public school students. But, where can families go to find private instruction? Nationwide, only about 12% of children attend private schools. Even if private schools could double their classroom capacity overnight, that would only accommodate a second 12% of students. Seventy-six percent of children would still be left in public schools. If vouchers are our only solution for improving education, how are those without vouchers to be helped?

Suppose we really do intend for vouchers to be the principal solution to our educational problems. Imagine that we keep making vouchers available to more and more students. Eventually, in five or ten or fifteen years, the private school infrastructure--driven by this infusion of public funds--will become large enough to accommodate all students. Then, public education will be completely privatized. And since private schools will retain their right to be choosy about their students, some difficult-to-educate children will find no school to attend (and no one responsible for educating them). In effect, we will have de facto non-compulsory education.

It only takes a little reflection about vouchers to see that they are at best a partial--fundamentally undemocratic--solution to educational problems. Vouchers only make sense for a lucky portion of the population. They only make sense in relation to a compulsory public education system where someone has to try to teach the most difficult students. Vouchers are a false solution, seducing us away from our responsibility to understand schools' real needs and find ways to offer a good education to all of our children.


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