The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by Phi Delta Kappan, April, 1998.

Choice and Compulsion: The End of an Era
by Barry McGhan

Those who debate the pros and cons of school choice have missed the central point. Parents want to send their kids to schools that are free not to teach all children.

So far, the debate has wallowed in the details of various forms of school choice, seemingly led by conservative ideologues who believe creating a competitive market system within K-12 education will lead to improved schools. Resistance to this idea comes from educators who believe that some of these choices will reduce the educational opportunities many children now have.

If there is support for school choice within the public, it isn't based on the interests and concerns debated so far. It is based on what the public believes about children, schools, and society. To learn those beliefs we can look at data from public opinion polls. Several good data sources exist--for example, the 1996 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll of public attitudes about schools, and recent reports from the Public Agenda Foundation.(1)

The Public's Attitudes on Schools

According to this research, the public believes schools should be safe, orderly, disciplined developers of basic skills, and that private schools are better providers of these essentials. This last belief--that private schools are better--is the key to understanding the nature of the support the public might have for increased school choice.

The public knows parents are paying good money to send their kids to schools that don't have to put up with children (and parents) who are not serious about education.(2) Children are not compelled to go to private schools, and what is more important, private schools are not compelled to keep every child who enrolls. Thus, private schools have less disruption and more discipline, and so, seem more likely to deliver basic skills.

If this is the public's view, then its interest in school choice is based mostly on a desire to broaden access to schools that can drop disruptive and uncooperative children.(3) Paradoxically, for meaningful choices to be available to most parents, schools need to have the freedom to deny choice to a few families.

While the school choice controversy rages among ideologues and experts, non-educators have a simpler, more pragmatic view. This is the most important of all viewpoints because it is based on the public's assessment of how society has changed and will continue to change.

Societal changes relevant to school-age children often point toward an increase in violence, gang activity, substance abuse, and other negative indicators. Research and the media tell us these negative behaviors are spreading--from cities to suburbs, from boys to girls, and from older to younger children. Schools are susceptible to the disorder in society. As long as these elements of social life are present--and that could be a very long time--the pressure to provide school choices that offer "safe havens" for learning will persist.

The Public School's Response

If public education is to adjust to the pressure to increase parents' choices for schooling their children, then it will be necessary for public educators to entertain the idea that their schools need to be free to choose not to teach certain students. We have recently seen moves in this direction with the AFT's call for a "zero-tolerance" policy toward disruptive students, and with New York State's consideration of a bill to let teachers drop unruly students for 10-day periods.(4) Such measures may be effective or not. Or, they may turn out to be tantamount to canceling compulsory attendance laws.

The most direct way to provide public schools with the freedom to drop students is to eliminate compulsory attendance regulations--thus making public education voluntary. Then, a school or school system could devise whatever "dropping policy" it wants to protect the learning environment of its schools.

Some Pros and Cons

Although voluntary public education may sound threatening at first, a little reflection may ease concern. A small benefit is that it eliminates the need for vouchers for private schools. If the main attraction of private schools is their freedom to control the clientele they work with, then giving that same freedom to public schools eliminates the main reason for a voucher. Of course, there are other attractions of private schools (e.g., special religious training), but taxpayers have no responsibility to provide access to private schools for such reasons.

Under a voluntary public education system all schools would operate much like public magnet and alternative schools. Magnet schools usually draw students from a region served by several regular public schools. Magnet schools can easily drop students who don't "work out," since the child still has a neighborhood school that has to take him in. This control over the clientele is similar to private schools. It--together with the public funding such schools enjoy--probably accounts as much for the continuing popularity of public magnet schools as any special instructional programs they offer.

What about some of the possible negative consequences of voluntary public education? Would the number of children attending school decline? Would literacy rates fall? Would juvenile crime rates go up? Would certain types of students be systematically denied access to education? No one knows the answers to these kinds of questions, and that is the reason we ought not to rush into creating voluntary education systems.

Although we don't know the answers to these questions we can make some educated guesses. For example, it is now widely believed that a good education is the key to a successful life for most people. This probably wasn't the case in the early years of this century when many compulsory attendance laws were passed. This modern belief should encourage many parents and children to seek schooling.

In addition, the custodial function of school should not be disregarded. Parents often want help with child care. Under a voluntary system, a parent whose main interest in schooling is to gain child care is likely to be especially cooperative with the education goals of the school. Parents may have other less-than-educationally-desirable motives. But, no matter what the parent's motive, a voluntary attendance system gives the school the level of control needed to encourage cooperation from the parent, and appropriate behavior from the student.

Compulsory Education: An Oxymoron?

It is even questionable that a school is the kind of organization where compulsion can be an effective way to gain cooperation. The ideas of sociologist Amitai Etzioni are helpful in understanding this point.(5) Etzioni (1961) devised a system for classifying organizations according to the ways they control the behavior of people who participate in them, as well as the ways people react to the control exercised over them. He sees organizations as using one or a combination of three kinds of power to gain compliance from individuals--coercive, remunerative, and normative. The three types of reactions people typically have to the different forms of power are, respectively, alienative, calculative, and moral.

Some examples will clarify the idea. Prisons exercise coercive power over individuals who have an alienative response; businesses use remunerative power with people who have a calculative orientation; churches exercise normative (sometimes called persuasive or suggestive) power over participants who have a moral response.

Etzioni classifies schools as primarily normative organizations. He notes they have reduced the use of corporal punishment, and rely instead on psychological insight, teacher leadership, classroom climate, and other normative means of gaining compliance from students.

Normative organizations often have the strongest commitment from the people in them. But, they have the weakest means of enforcing cooperation when it isn't volunteered. Usually, when individuals won't cooperate, the normative organization's only choice is to exclude them.

 We also note that schools are limited in effectively shaping behavior because students are there for only a few hours a day. In addition, they are usually handled in groups of 20 or 30 at a time. These conditions reduce the school's influence on an individual student. In a very real sense, students can only benefit from a school-based education if they agree to cooperate. If not, the school has little recourse to protect its learning environment. It can compromise and adapt to the intolerable behavior, or it can disengage and drop the student from the rolls.(6)

A psychological viewpoint is also relevant here. Many learning theorists believe learning is most profound, satisfying, and thorough when students engage in it for intrinsic reasons. These reasons may be influenced by the teacher's persuasiveness and the personal relationship between student and teacher. This influence is not of a coercive/alienative nature. It is based more on the kind of relationship described by the 16th Century philosopher Erasmus.

"It is a hindrance to a boy's progress which nothing will ever nullify, when his master succeeds in making his pupil hate learning before he is old enough to like it for its own sake. For a boy is often drawn to a subject first for his master's sake, and afterwards for its own. Learning, like many other things, wins our liking for the reason that it is offered to us by one we love."(7)

Necessary Components

What are other important components of a voluntary education system? At the outset it must be said that eliminating compulsory attendance laws alone is not appropriate. Some needed related changes are discussed below. Also, such a change in practice should not be launched everywhere simultaneously, but in stages.

First, a tight connection between attendance and per-pupil state aid must be established and zealously monitored. High schools (for example) can now drop students with little cost to the operation of the school--starting the year with 1800 students and finishing with 1600--with no change in staff. To prevent this, when a school loses a student it must lose, at the same time, the aid allotment for that student. In a state where a student is worth about $5,000 in state aid and teachers receive $50,000 a year, one would expect the loss of 10 students to be equivalent to the loss of one teacher. Actually, what might happen under a voluntary system is that some schools would start a semester somewhat understaffed, in anticipation of losing a few students. Then, if few are dropped, the school would be commended for being more productive than expected.

The decision to drop a student should be well-discussed and generally agreed to by all teachers--rather than the decision of a single administrator, as often happens. That's because it is the teachers who will suffer loss of income if "exiting" students becomes an overused strategy for dealing with discipline problems. An additional safeguard against unwarranted dropping could be to set up a review committee composed of teachers and parents to arbitrate disputed cases.

Second, regulations preventing students from attending schools outside their neighborhood or district need to be eliminated. If they are, then a student dropped from one school will have an opportunity to try again at another location--call this the redemption provision. A child should always be eligible to enroll in any age-appropriate public school, but should only continue if his/her behavior conforms to the reasonable rules of the school. Students who voluntarily drop out of school should also be allowed and encouraged to return at some later date. A K-12 education should come to be thought of as an educational allotment to be used up sometime during an individual's life, rather than as something that happens between the ages of 5 and 18.

The state could also promote the formation of special programs aimed at working with difficult children. These schools could receive funds above the normal per-pupil allotment. They might use the extra money for transportation, specially trained staff, or even as a form of "combat pay" bonus for teachers.

Such changes would tend to defuse the forced exiting process and make it less negative. Schools could say, "Our school just isn't working for you right now. Here's a list of other suitable schools for you to try." Schools could even say, "If nothing else works out, come back to see us in six months and we'll consider reenrolling you here." Suspension and expulsion policies--which imply "you're out and you've got nowhere to go until we say you can come back in"--wouldn't be needed. The whole idea of a child not being in school could be treated as a temporary problem the family will probably solve for itself. Families who can't appropriately solve such problems are likely to need help from some social institution other than a school.

Third, a good, robust system that measures school quality in fair, honest, and meaningful ways and distributes that information widely needs to be developed. This would enable parents to make informed decisions about where to send their children to school. Organizations something like Consumer Reports magazine need to be formed to routinely examine the way schools are run and report on the outcomes they achieve for their clients.

Fourth, a recommended state/district core curriculum should be developed. Democratically elected government units are the sources of funding for public schools. They have both a right and a responsibility to say what they, as representatives of the public, want for their money. Once this curriculum is determined it will provide several benefits to a voluntary system. It will help reduce the instructional differences students might encounter if they move from school to school. Also, this core curriculum would be an important basis for a testing program that would be part of the measurement of school quality mentioned above.

It's possible a voluntary school system would tend to increase the variation in ages of students studying at a given grade level. That is, higher numbers of older students--having missed some time in school--might be studying at lower levels than is the case with the typical age cohort system. This means that a more performance-based curriculum needs to be developed so one's grade level is defined more by what one knows and can do, and less by one's age. After such a curriculum is developed, it would then become possible for higher numbers of younger students to study at more advanced levels of the curriculum. What would eventually result is a voluntary, performance-based public education system that would provide the equivalent of 13 calendar years of education for those who want it.

Other benefits are likely to flow from a voluntary public education system. Public schools' role in society would be clarified. People would know the main business of school is to educate children. Under the compulsory system we have now, children with all sorts of noneducational problems are handled in school simply because that's where they are required to be. Schools in effect "cover" for parents and other social institutions that might be better suited to handle the problems.

Making public education voluntary at all levels will give everyone involved an opportunity to exercise more responsibility for their own behavior. Students and parents will be responsible--from the first day of school--for respecting the educational rights of others. Teachers and other educators will be more responsible to set and enforce reasonable standards of performance and behavior, and to look for good alternatives for students with problems before giving up the funding each brings to the school.

Voluntary public education systems will not solve all the problems this nation faces as it tries to educate its citizens. Voluntary systems, however, would be less compromised than the ones we have now, and so would be more effective with most students--who do come to learn. They would be more in tune with the themes of self-reliance, individualism, and opportunity so prominent in American culture. Voluntary public education would truly make school a matter of choice.



(1) Elam, Stanley M., Rose, Lowell C. and Gallup, Alec M. (September, 1996) "The 28th Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." Phi Delta Kappan. 78 1: 41-59.

Johnson, Jean and Immerwahr, John. First Things First: What Americans Expect From the Public Schools. New York: Public Agenda (1994).

Johnson, Jean. Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform. New York: Public Agenda (1995).

Farkas, Steve and Johnson, Jean. Given The Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today. New York: Public Agenda (1996).

(2) The question of what the public "knows" about schools is still unanswered in some important ways. The public is probably unaware that research comparing the effectiveness of private and public schooling has been generally inconclusive [see Cibulka, James G. (May, 1989) "Searching for Clarity in Public and Private School Comparisons." Educational Researcher 18 4:52-55]. Both the Kappan/Gallup and Public Agenda polling results show that private schools are favored over public schools because they are "better." However, neither poll investigates just how private schools are believed to be better. Do they have better trained teachers, curricula, methods, materials, or facilities? It is possible--on this topic--that we should conclude the same thing the Kappan/Gallup authors conclude about other topics. Namely, that (with the obvious exception of non-compulsoriness) the public is uninformed about the differences in public and private education.

(3) The Public Agenda's report First Things First supports this. Three out of four respondents endorse removal of public school students caught with drugs or weapons, or who are persistent troublemakers (p. 42). The Kappan/Gallup poll shows even stronger approval of this measure (p. 50).

(4) Portner, Jessica (April 19, 1995). "Districts Turn to Expulsion to Keep Order." Education Week, XV 22: 1.

Lindsey, Drew (March 13, 1996). "N.Y. Bills Give Teachers Power to Oust Pupils." Education Week, XV 25: 1.

(5) Etzioni, Amitai (1961). A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations. New York: The Free Press.

(6) I am not suggesting that children's behavior cannot be coerced. A family is effective in shaping behavior because it has an intensive relation to a child. A culture shapes a child's behavior because it has an extensive relation to the child. The school's relation to the child is much more limited than either of these and therefore, is less likely to be effective.

(7) Woodward, William H. (1971). Desiderius Erasmus Concerning The Aim and Method of Education. New York: Teachers College Press. pg. 203.


Home Philosophy Projects Publications Purpose/History Comments Other Sites