The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Free Market May Not Work With Education" by the Detroit Free Press, 10/1/95.

Original Title:
School Choice: An Experiment About to Run Amuck?
by Barry McGhan

Michigan's Republicans have a theory--that offering more school choices to parents and students will improve education. The theory is based on the classic free market notion that goods and services are improved through competition. For example, WalMart thrives and KMart struggles; Ford's Taurus and Honda's Accord outsell lower-rated competing models from General Motors and Chrysler, and so forth.

While there may be evidence that this theory works (at least some of the time) in the marketplace of commercial goods and services, there is no existing proof that it will work in education. No conclusive evidence exists to show that private schools educate students either more or less effectively than public schools. Research shows, for example, that when comparable groups of students are examined, public and private school achievement levels are about the same.

Also, it may be a bit of a leap of faith to think that a market economy can be successfully imposed on K-12 education. Consider this: in a free market, knowledgeable people make occasional purchases as they have the time and money to do so. Compare this with schools, where the service has to be "purchased" for six hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year. This seems to be more like services provided by municipalities (water, sewer, public safety) than the goods and services we get from our groceries, clothing stores, and car dealerships.

Also, consider the mobility factor related to obtaining goods and services. Adults can hop in a car and get what they need at a store fairly easily. But children cannot obtain educational "goods and services" for themselves unless they are within a reasonable walking distance from home. Thus, basic transportation becomes a key element in the school choice picture. And, if we mean that all children should have access to choices, this means mass transportation--another service that's not so easy to privatize. These reservations might make us wonder if the idea of school choice isn't a little more theoretical than it may at first have seemed.

Republicans, however, have at least dreamed up an interesting theory, and it deserves to be given a fair and careful test. The conditions for such a test--or experiment--were created last year with the passage of Michigan's unique public charter school legislation. A few of these schools will begin operation during the 95/96 school year.

This legislation has several commendable features. For example, no religious affiliation is allowed. Also, public charter schools must be non-discriminatory. They may not close their doors to anyone of the appropriate age for any reason except that the school is full. Even then, charter schools must use a lottery system to enroll students from a waiting list.

Most importantly, charter schools are not allowed to accept additional tuition from parents--all they get is the $5500 per child that the state allows for school aid. This is important because it reduces the advantages that children from more well-to-do homes would have over children from poor homes. To put it another way, kids from poor families are worth just as much as children from wealthier families, as far as charter school funding is concerned.

Another commendable feature of the current charter school law is the limit on the number of charters which can be launched. This is important because it provides control for the experiment. Uncontrolled experiments either provide no useful information, or they cause unexpected and potentially unpleasant consequences. (You have seen the movie Frankenstein haven't you?)

The possible loss of control has become a matter of immediate concern, because it looks like the Republicans--the Governor, his legislators, and the State Board of Education--are on the verge of turning up the juice on their charter school experiment by extending it beyond the bounds originally set. News sources have predicted that additional charter school changes will be enacted during the next legislative session. These changes may dramatically increase the number of charters. While the proposed changes may satisfy the dreamer-theorists within the Republican ranks, they threaten to disrupt the experimental conditions set up by the original charter school legislation. All of this school choice fever makes us wonder--what's the hurry? Why not wait for several years so that data from the current charter schools can accumulate? Perhaps we could then make an informed decision about expanding their role in public education based on the facts. For example, we might learn that charter schools work better in some locations, or under certain conditions, than regular public schools, and vice versa. Too much tinkering too early in the experiment will probably not serve the public interest.

If this concerns you, call your legislator. You might be able to help reduce the ideological fever rising in state government, and encourage the experiment to proceed in a reasonable manner. Think of it as your contribution to the science of education.


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