Articles, essays, ideas, opinions, unabridged


search icon

School privatization and choice: A sociopolitical analysis

A red apple in front of a dollar bill


9 May 1994


Choice remains a controversial solution to urban educational problems. In this article, I will discuss some of the consequences of school choice when applied to urban education. My intention is to focus on the way ideology has run roughshod over well-reasoned debate, how the seemingly neutral term "choice" is used as a cover for the actuation of corporate objectives, and the role of voucher plans in perpetuating narrow class and race interests.

School choice plans — which vary from one location to another and one proponent to another — are diverse in the extreme. The full impact of school choice on urban education is beyond the scope of this paper. Particular reference will be made to the public school privatization scheme underway in Baltimore and the controlled-choice, voucher program in Milwaukee. These examples were chosen for their particular relevance to the race, class, and corporate issues that I wished to examine. Although not really a true choice plan, the Baltimore scheme will be used to illustrate some of the claims made in favor of deregulated, private school choice. The Milwaukee program was chosen because of its implications for choice and affirmative action. In addition, as a Milwaukee native I have a particular interest in that city's program and have followed it more closely than the others.

Neoconservative choice: statistics in service to ideology

A nation at risk

School choice would not be an issue today were it not for the neoconservative interest in education during the Reagan-Bush years and its focus on "choice" as the preferred method of educational reform. Any neoconservative summary of the status of education in the United States must begin with the report of the National Commission for Excellence in Education — A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. In order to understand the basis of their discontent we must look to the oft repeated mantra of the Commission.

We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished, ... the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people (5).

The purported four decade decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and the apparent last place status of American students in world math and science ability are cited as evidence of inexorable personal decline. The neoconservative position has been to assume that the educational reform movements of the 1960s fostered too much freedom and openness and not enough respect for authority and that test score declines are the result of the promotion of an irresponsible, hedonistic lifestyle. When the rhetoric is stripped away, however, and a serious analysis performed, a more complex picture emerges.

First, the test figures quoted by the Commission were unadjusted for changes in the demographics of the test-taking population. Recent renormings of the major standardized tests show the test score decline was never really as deep nor as prolonged as was originally claimed. There never really was a genuine decline in SAT scores. When one examines renormed averages, a surprising phenomenon occurs — while the average of all students taking the test has indeed declined, the average of any normed subgroup has risen rather steadily. The apparent paradox is caused by an increase in the number of students taking the test from the bottom half of the class (Carson, Huelskamp & Woodall). More students are aspiring to achieve a college education today than ever before, including those for whom it is a greater challenge. This seems to indicate that American students view their education in a more serious light than was previously believed.

Second, the period of genuine test score decline occurred long after the experimentation of the 1960s was swallowed up in the back-to-basics emphasis of the 1970s.

The timing of the explanations is off. The greatest decline in standardized test scores took place between 1971 and 1978 [while most of the radical social movements] took place between 1968 and 1971. Blaming the decline on the effects of social unrest in the schools may be fashionable, but the middle to late 1970s were years of educational retrenchment, characterized by a renewed emphasis on the basics.... The Iowa Tests of Basic Skills [for example] showed general improvement with scores rising dramatically between 1977 and 1984. The National Commission on Excellence in education, with its dire warnings of 'a nation at risk' in 1983, was about five years too late. Instead of a 'rising tide of mediocrity,' A Nation at Risk should have proclaimed a rising tide of test scores (Stedman & Kaestle 204, 207, 208).

Signs of a crisis blown all out of proportion are beginning to surface in other research endeavors. A Department of Energy initiated report by the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico calls into question much of the crisis reported in A Nation at Risk including test score decline and the unfavorable comparisons of American and foreign students. Their rather comprehensive research portrays the nation's school system in a more realistic light. Based largely on existing data, the Sandia researchers found that high school completion rates in the US are among the highest in the world, that SAT score decline has been caused by changes in the demographics of the test-taking population, and that comparisons between American and foreign students are invalid due to the selective — often elitist — nature of overseas educational systems. In addition, claims that increased funding have not lead to increased educational outcomes ignore the fact that additional expenditures have gone almost entirely to special education and transportation (Carson, Huelskamp & Woodall).

These findings are completely at odds with the neoconservative party line. Controversy surfaced in 1991 when reports began circulating that the Bush Administration was involved in suppressing the Sandia study because of "conflicts with its own rhetoric." For nearly two years the authors of the report were not in a position to respond to or even talk about their study. Education Week reported that "the Sandia researchers 'were told it would never see the light of day, that they had better be quiet,' [and] one source said 'I fear for their careers'" (Miller 1, 32). The irony of the Sandia report is that it was initially undertaken in response to challenges to the national laboratories from the notoriously pro-market Bush Administration to become more involved in education. The selective analysis of data to substantiate ideologically based policy reforms typifies a great deal of the purported evidence for neoconservative choice programs.

The Chubb & Moe plan

Given the putative validity of the claims of A Nation at Risk, Chubb & Moe in their book Politics, Markets and American Schools have suggested a radical solution — the complete and utter dissolution of the public school "monopoly" and its replacement with a nationwide market-driven school choice program. Their plan is monumental in scope and contains elements common to many voucher plans.

High school and beyond

To a large extent, Chubb & Moe justify these sweeping changes on the basis of the effective schools research of James Coleman. High School Achievement (Coleman, et al. 1982a) is the monographic version of Coleman, Hoffer & Kilgore's much earlier, much publicized, and highly controversial report on achievement in public, Catholic, and private schools (Coleman, et al. 1982b). The meaty middle of Chubb & Moe's work consists of a reanalysis of their massive High School and Beyond (HSB) data set. The focus of the Coleman studies was to identify the factors that differentiated "effective" and "ineffective" schools. According to their research, socioeconomic status, race, and per-pupil expenditures had little effect on the differentiation of one type of school from another. Most important for Chubb & Moe, however, was their conclusion that private schools were better at educating students than private schools when all other factors were controlled for. Chubb & Moe augmented this study with further data and concluded that there were no factors other than school organization that were important in determining whether or not a school was effective or ineffective. Chubb & Moe's rationalization of the causes of student achievement is, however, completely indecipherable.

Somehow in their tangle of statistical inference they can only find that school organization has "somewhat" of an effect on student achievement — saying that it "appears that students can really gain a great deal from attending an effectively organized school." This is followed by the equally cryptic claim that "generally, the results indicate that the effects of school organization on student achievement are not the product of particular school policies or practices" (129, 130). What is the organization of a particular school if not its policies and practices? From these vague statements they generalize without proof to the conclusion that the key organizational difference that makes private schools more effective is their freedom from direct democratic control. In a sound bite — democracy promotes bureaucracy, markets promote autonomy. Thus Chubb & Moe arrive at their earth-shaking conclusion that public schools can never be effective. They cannot solve the problems of education because they are the problem. The only hope for educational improvement is not reform but revolution. The public school monopoly must be rendered impotent.

The inadequacies of effective schools research is well documented. Both Sociology of Education and Harvard Educational Review devoted full issues to critiques of Coleman et al. The original HSB study was not designed to provide contrasts between public and private high schools. Rossi & Wright accused them of a superficial job of analysis.

Making do with whatever is at hand, when there is plenty of time to do better; ... failing to think through the design, measurement, and analysis before starting a project; [and] accepting a rather loose fit between the design and its implementation. Coleman et al. have undertaken a secondary analysis of someone else's study, force-fitting sample design, cognitive tests and questionnaire items into an analytic framework to which the data are only tangentially suited (83, 79).

As with A Nation at Risk, High School Achievement was a case of data squeezed and pushed to create a convenient illustration for their ideologically driven policy changes. Rossi & Wright asked:

[Why] was the study not designed initially to suit the analysis better? Why the hurry? Why rush out early in 1992? [Perhaps] they felt some urgency to publish findings quickly, while a potentially sympathetic administration was still in power (83).

Chubb & Moe's tortured reanalysis was an overstatement of the policy implications of this study. Apparently well aware of this charge, they mentioned it in their book — "Politically the timing could not have been more perfect" (16).

Self-selection is likely to be one of the factors which produced the observed differences in public and private school achievements. The over-representation of elite, preparatory schools in the HSB survey likely skewed the student bodies towards the well-behaved, college bound, upper-middle class students that conventional education has always served so well. As McPartland & McDill suggest, private school organization may simply accommodate to the orderliness of its students rather than the other way around. Thus, it is not likely that private ownership of the nation's schools will lead to educational improvement on the scale that Chubb & Moe envision. As has been shown, predictions for the efficacy of market-based school improvement are largely the trumpeting of ideological claims and not serious analysis.

The ideology of the marketplace

Most free market choice plans have their historical origins in the reflections of conservative economist Milton Friedman. The numerous neoconservative analyses of the past ten years drew heavily on his 1955 essay "The Role of Government in Education." In Friedman's view, the present system of democratically controlled public schools in the United States is "an indiscriminate extension of governmental responsibility" beyond that which is required (123). In his reexamination, the freedom of the market takes precedence over all other considerations. He the goes on to propose a market-driven school choice program wholly based on ideological considerations. In Friedman's plan:

Governments would require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year.... Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an 'approved' institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds. The role of government would be limited to assuring that schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards (127).

Quality would be insured by preserving "the rules of the game, enforcing contracts, preventing coercion, and keeping markets free" (124). Democracy would be replaced with market mechanisms. Parents would no longer assert themselves through elected officials or at public meetings, but "directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another [emphasis added]" (129). All market-driven choice programs are basically a rewrite of these musings.

Market myths

Friedman and Chubb & Moe idealize the role of market mechanisms in the improvement of the human condition to the point of fantasy and demonize democracy in a way which is antithetical to the philosophical foundations of the United States. In their own words:

We think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways. Indeed, if choice is to work to greatest advantage, it must be adopted without these other reforms, since the latter are predicated on democratic control and are implemented by bureaucratic means [emphasis original] (217).

Previous empirical hand-waving aside, Chubb & Moe's real support for school choice is based on a delusion Their marketplace is an ideological Superman — faster than a speeding superintendent, more powerful than a democracy, and able to leap rising tides of mediocrity in a single bound. The market Superman is as mythical as the comic book one.

The primary myth of school choice is that there really can be "choice" for the majority of students. First, there is nothing in a choice system to assure either a full supply of choices at the right price or the level of support needed to make real choices available. Second, as long as parents or school districts are allowed to supplement the usually meager vouchers with their own funds or additional taxes, the poor will always wind up with fewer choices — possibly none. Last, contrary to advertising slogans, private enterprise is rarely as concerned with delivering high quality, low-cost services to consumers as it is with making a profit.

The minuscule size of most vouchers and the opportunities of the well-off to supplement them will insure that any choice system quickly degenerates into a two tiered system — a separate and unequal, Nineteenth Century flashback. This is due largely to the free-market economists' confusion of democratic choice with consumer choice. As Robert Lowe — editor of the progressive education journal Rethinking Schools pointed out — this is largely a marketing gimmick.

Last summer The New York Times ran a Bloomingdale's advertisement with the headline 'It's All About Choices, And Individual Freedom.' The choices advertised included a turtleneck for $215, Spandex pants for $385, and a red skating coat for $1495. Since the words 'choice' and 'freedom' appeal to deeply-held American values, they make a great advertising gimmick for Bloomingdale's — and also for voucher supporters who have succeeded in labeling their agenda 'choice' (Lowe 1994, 14).

How many people can afford to "choose" these items? Market-driven school choice programs are likely to make educational options available to the majority of Americans comparable to those that are available in other sectors of the economy. Chubb & Moe fully subscribe to the notion that:

Private schools and many fine public schools have students whose parents place a high value on education and have chosen to pay tuition or hefty mortgages and property taxes to place their children in schools with reputations for effectiveness [emphasis added] (111).

"Choices" for the wealthy will multiply, while those for the poor will no doubt decrease along with quality. If other enterprises are any indication, the poor are likely to meet with rough sledding.

Among the public policies serving the poor, one of the most important has been the Medicaid program that allows people to choose doctors on the open market. Here we have a multi-billion dollar program based on the same ideology that Friedman and Chubb & Moe praise. It has not has served the poor in any improved capacity. As Gary Orfield of the University of Chicago noted:

If Medicaid made the market work for low income black residents of the South Side of Chicago, the quality of health care should have soared as doctors and clinics rushed in to compete for the hundreds of millions of dollars of business. Just the opposite happened. Medical practitioners have not rushed into the area and many refuse Medicaid patients. Many hospitals and clinics have gone bankrupt and shut their doors, including the city's only black-controlled hospital. Far from efficient and low-cost, much of the treatment is extremely expensive, highly inefficient, and very inconvenient emergency room treatment of conditions neglected for much too long. The system has been far more expensive than predicted, has left tremendous inequalities in place, and has produced a strikingly inferior level of care by decaying institutions (12).

If recent economic developments are any indication of what is likely to happen, the possibility exists for an extension of predatory services designed especially to take advantage of the poor's lack of choices. One of the few new profit centers for retail banking has been in the field of "fringe banking" — check cashing outlets that typically rake in 2–10% of a check's value to cash it. Such enterprises are a part of the rapidly expanding "poverty industry" in the United States. Other components of the poverty industry include: rent-to-own stores, finance corporations, second-mortgage companies, and pawn shops (Hudson & Bates). The poverty industry has already encroached into the realm of higher education through the growth of proprietary schools — for profit, post-secondary institutions that entice students with the prospect of government loans but leave them with no marketable skills and big debts. Full-blown, nationwide privatization of the rest of the education system will no doubt lead to the creation of massive numbers of similar K–12 enterprises.

Perhaps the best kept secret of the free-market proponents is the dearth of evidence that private enterprise has any binding reason to serve the needs of the customer over the needs of the ledger. Deregulation in the savings and loan, cable television, and meat packing industries has not lead to increased levels of service. The S&L crisis is already the most costly financial disaster in American history, cable television is perceived as wicked enough to warrant reregulation, and salmonella and other food borne diseases have returned to plague the consumer. Those who believe the notion of a self-regulating marketplace that yields to the slightest breeze of customer dissatisfaction are living in a Reaganesque fantasy land.

The educational industrial complex: Follow the money

The Edison Project

While Chubb & Moe leave open the possibility that public schools might still be around after the voucher revolution, some conservative analysts propose an end to all government participation in education. Like Chubb & Moe, Myron Lieberman, in his book Beyond Public Education, charges that public schools have nothing of value worth contributing and it is his contention that the only solution is to create a nationwide network of profit-making entrepreneurial schools. Several corporations have begun investing in research and development with the intent of creating networks such of institutions. Established during a more auspicious political climate, many of these entrepreneurial adventures were begun in anticipation of a Bush Administration pledge to support "break-the-mold" private schools with public funds. Among those fixing their sites on the potential feeding trough of federal education funds are Apple, IBM, Burger King, and Johnson Controls. The most famous and most influential of all of these is likely to be Christopher Whittle, the multimillionaire founder of the infamous Channel One and good buddy of one-time Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

Whittle — whose Edison Project aims to break-the-mold with the creation of 200 profit-making schools by 1996 — gained attention for his earlier attempts at bringing compulsory commercial television viewing to the public schools under the guise of current events education. Schools agreeing to show his fifteen minute news programs get an impressive array of dedicated television monitors wired to a satellite dish. In return, Whittle's commercials are required viewing. Under the contract that school districts sign, 90% of the children in a school must watch the program 90% of the time, each of the programs must be watched in its entirety, a show cannot be interrupted, and the teacher does not have the right to turn it off (Kozol 17). The results have been an educational wash for the students, but an economic windfall for Channel One's founder. The "impresario of captive-audience marketing" as the New York Times dubbed him (Kozol 17), Whittle — with a personal fortune estimated at $40 million — earns an estimated three-quarters of a million dollars a day in advertising fees through Channel One (Brodinsky 540, 542). Meanwhile, critics have argued that the time spent watching Channel One is an instructional waste. The shows are not linked in any meaningful way to curriculum or skills, filled with fluff, and take up valuable class time. On the refutation of claims for learning and on the principled stand that gathering students to watch a sale pitch is unethical, many school systems — most notably New York State's — have banned Channel one from the classroom.

Such setbacks have not seemed to deter Whittle. At a recent Governors meeting, the following plan was announced:

Over the next four years we will be investing $2.5 billion in new educational infrastructure. That may be something you want to compete for. It includes over 20,000 construction jobs and more than 5,000 educational positions in the schools we will be developing (Brodinsky 542).

The announcement of such investment sent the revenue-starved Governors panting. Tommy Thompson — the notoriously pro-big business, pro-voucher, Republican Governor of Wisconsin — shamelessly took the bait. "How do states buy into this? How can I, as governor, get your schools to come to Wisconsin" (Brodinsky 542).

In spite of brazen attempts to purchase public education and an unerring knack for amassing profits, Whittle claims to have nothing but good intentions. "Our efforts," he said "are not about privatization... not about vouchers... not about profits. [They're about] service" (Brodinsky 540). The suspicious nature of such claims has not gone unnoticed. As Jonathan Kozol pointed out:

Chris Whittle insists he wants to improve public education through competition. I don't believe it. You don't improve the public water supply by selling Coca-Cola. [He] is selling the idea that the public schools can be used as a marketing place for commercial products. He's opening the doors for a massive new industry — the Educational Industrial Complex (Brodinsky 546).

Whittle, who is no doubt a smart guy, is undoubtedly aware of the profiteering charges leveled at him. In anticipation, he is prepared for an all out propaganda war to sell his vision of American schools. Of his core team — headed by Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale University — four out of seven are specialists in management or mass-media, the remainder — a Chicago inner-city principal, a former Brookings Institution fellow, and a former professor — supply the ideological foundations. Whittle has so far spent some $640,000 to recruit high-powered lobbyists with the intent of capturing legislative support (Kozol 18).

Educational Alternatives, Inc.

The force behind many proposals for market-driven choice is not the improvement of public education but the pursuit of unrestrained greed. A large-scale privatization experiment is currently underway in Baltimore where the Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) — in alliance with Johnson Controls and KPMG Peat Marwick — received a 5 year $135 million contract to run eight elementary schools and one middle school (Miner 16). No sooner had the doors opened on the newly privatized schools when then Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander stepped in to present company officials with a "break-the-mold" award. He has yet to return to the school which is well into its second year of operation.

Educational achievement at EAI-run schools declined dramatically at a time when overall district scores were improving. In EAI schools, average reading achievement dropped from the 31st to the 27th percentile and mathematics achievement from the 36th to the 28th percentile. In the same period, overall student achievements rose moderately in each category — reading from the 31st to the 32nd percentile and mathematics from the 36th to the 37th percentile (Rose 10). That the claims of EAI should turn out unfulfilled is of little consequence to the free-market supporters. Ineffective schools must be allowed to fail in their plan for the effective schools to emerge. This leads to a non-sequitur in their reasoning — the claim that private schools are inherently and unequivocally superior to public schools does not agree with the necessity of school failure in the educational marketplace. If privatization were the sole factor in determining whether or not a school was effective then there never would be any failures.

This decrease in achievement at the EAI-run schools is due in no small part to their slash and burn employment policies. Student-teacher ratios rose from approximately 1:19 to 1:25 as 27% of the regular teaching, 50% of the special education, and 63% of the paraprofessional positions were eliminated. Non-certified, college intern, replacement workers were hired to cover for the lost paraprofessionals at wages of $7 an hour — well below the regular rate of $10 an hour — and with none of the normal benefits. Turnover among interns has been so great that some classes have had as many as four interns in a single year. Additional cuts were made in the areas of librarians, art, music, reading, and resource teachers. The special education department — which was more or less eliminated — suffered the greatest under the fiscal tyranny of EAI. Although the EAI schools represent only 5% of the Baltimore public schools, they account for 89% of the compensatory hours charged to the district for failing to provide services. (Rose 10–11, Miner 16). The employment policies of a private corporation are completely at odds with the creation of a climate conducive to quality education.

Not only did EAI fail to deliver academic achievement, they failed to deliver it with fiscal responsibility. EAI has been unable to improve the schools in its charge despite a $500 per-pupil increase in expenditures. In addition to the personnel cuts mentioned above, 11% percent of the federal dollars received for the education of disadvantaged children — $400,000 — are presently unaccounted for. During all of this, the greatest injustice has been the diversion of funds out of the classroom and into administration and profits. For their role in the fiasco, the inept EAI project administrators were rewarded with a cool $2.6 million in legal and accounting fees, corporate travel, and profit. $650 of per per-pupil expenditures were lost to these categories as the in-classroom expenditures fell from $4,077 to $3,777 (Rose 11).

By all accounts, Baltimore followed Chubb & Moe's instructions and did not tell the EAI schools how they must be internally organized nor did it hold them accountable for student achievement or school performance. In a contract Chubb & Moe would be proud of, EAI are completely without obligation to the students or the school district. The EAI schools were:

The EAI schools played by rules that were completely different from those of the public schools and yet were outperformed by them on standard measures of effectiveness. In view of such results, it's hard to see how Chubb & Moe could have the confidence in the efficacy of the market that they do. Competition in business depends heavily on cost-cutting. Libraries and special education can justifiably be eliminated as commercial "frills" in order to maximize the "necessity" that defines a successful corporation — profit. As long as the business of business is still profit, education will never be improved through privatization.

The philosophy of an unrestricted market raises some serious questions. Without public accountability, how can we insure that unscrupulous executives won't squander their revenues on golden parachutes and massive stock options? Will we be able to buy and sell shares in major education corporations? What would happen were a major educational corporation to be acquired in a hostile takeover? What if a corporation decided to divert funds from its education division in order to keep another less profitable division afloat? Might a corporation decide to sell off its less than profitable education subsidiary, dismantling it in the process? Do we want an education system that could casually "lay-off" thousands of students the way the manufacturing sector has laid off thousands of workers? What repercussions would an educational crisis on the scale of the S&L crisis have on the nation? Chubb & Moe's free-market can offer little in response. Its guiding philosophy — one that supporters of deregulation in many other spheres subscribe to — doesn't address the global market of transnational corporations that exists today. Their theories are based on a system of capitalism that hasn't existed for a very long time. Enlightened self-interest died with it. The coming telecommunications revolution will effectively disintegrate any notion of community and with it the shred of responsibility the rich had towards that community before they became the super-rich.

Educational triage

Whether or not such a goal is explicitly stated at its outset, any choice system in which competition plays a major role will destroy the current system of public schools. Corporations with a disposition to try their hand at education have a ready and familiar access to marketing and — when profits can be smelled — to capital. This is a competition that public educators have neither the experience nor the assets to win. Public schools can't compete because it has never been a part of their structure.

The first for-profit demonstration schools created in the wake of any large-scale voucher program are likely to be well-funded, educational wonders. Economies of scale and intensive investment will make them stunning beyond compare. A promotional momentum will be built up beforehand that will make them the talk of the town. Everyone will be jockeying to get their kids enrolled. Tuition will be subsidized at first and applicants will outnumber openings, ensuring a well-groomed, easily satisfied customer base. Public schools will revert to warehouses of special education and at-risk students and find themselves struggling to get by on tiny vouchers, forbidden by an increasingly dissatisfied constituency from raising additional revenues.

The original loss-leader prices will disappear and the law of supply and demand will return with a vengeance. As the public schools sink further and further into decay, additional for-profit schools will open, offering reduced services at lower cost. The flagship schools will be priced out or reason for more and more families and their corporate sponsors will make only token overtures to the growing class and race stratification of their system. Vast numbers of teachers will be replaced by computerized workstations that look wonderful on first examination, but will be loaded with dry, unimaginative software. Standardized test scores will no doubt rise as the curriculum narrows in scope to accommodate them. The larger school corporations will acquire their own testing services to assure the perfect match of test to curriculum and auxiliary services will be contracted out to companies staffed by temporary and replacement workers.

When the public school system finally collapses, the educational-industrial complex will rush in to snap up the remaining students, providing them with a parody of the flagship school's curriculum and pedagogy. The new system will replicate the old one. Class and race distinctions will be greater than ever before and a new para-statal organization will have been created. Unbound by the constraints of the constitution, it serves the interests of the shareholders and replicates a world to their liking. Jonathan Kozol envisions a similar outcome.

As parents scramble to get children into one of Whittle's schools... they will, by necessity, view almost every other parent as a rival. Instead of fighting for a system of excellence and equity for all, we will have taught them to advance their own kids whatever [the] cost to other people's children. Strip away the fancy language and we are looking at a Social Darwinist scenario, a triage operation that will filter off the fortunate and leave the rest in schools where children of the 'better' parents do not need to see them (18).

All claims of devotion to "service" aside, these are Whittle's real intentions. "You have to have a West Berlin for East Berlin to fall, and what we're really doing here is building West Berlin" (Kozol 17).

Marketing & corporate values

Large segments of the school choice movement are engaged in propaganda battle for the affections of the American public. The presence of for-profit corporations in the discussion has meant an increased dependence on sophisticated marketing techniques. It is quite likely that such techniques will institutionalize themselves in the curriculum and pedagogy of corporate-sponsored schools. The manipulation of words and images to elicit a favorable reaction to consumer products will no longer be limited to the four-to-six hours of television the average student watches. The corporate ethos will more or less permeate the lives of children throughout the day. The intended consequence is no doubt the systematic propagation of corporate values.

Advertising is designed to encourage consumers to develop needs for goods and services they could probably live without and enhance the perception that one product is significantly better at fulfilling this "need" than another. Great debates are taking place across the country at this very moment on the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi. The war for the hearts of consumers is waged on the battlefield of the unconscious mind. Coke is warmhearted and traditional, with a visceral appeal to friendship and harmony. Pepsi is the path to excitement and vigor, a hip drink that promises youthful adventure. While both campaigns promise membership in a group that will support and nurture its members, a serious inquiry into the correct choice — assuming one were possible — would end rather quickly. The names are deceptive (there's no coca in Coke and no cola in Pepsi), the differences are few (both are caramel-colored phosphoric acid), and neither is a part of anyone's definition of the good life. In reducing choice to the level of selecting the best campaign, advertising sells a way of looking at the world and ourselves that interferes with the rational decision-making processes.

Education is not in so terrible a state that nothing is worth saving from the current system. For-profit schools are more likely to appropriate the attitudes and structures of today's schools than to engage in radical, untested methodologies. Differences between schools perceived as effective and those perceived as ineffective will no doubt depend on the quality of the advertising they engage in. Differences between schools are likely to be as minimal those between Coke and Pepsi.

Profit-driven choice advocates are well aware of the power of advertising — they use it every day in their current endeavors. Out of their own self-interests, they have chosen a method of framing the overall debate that obscures the reality of the situation. All choice programs are filled with significant obstacles to real choice — lack of accountability will insure the creation of bad schools, funding without equity will limit educational opportunities, and the uneven distribution of personal wealth will further stratify the population. Choice is meaningless in the absence of an appropriate context. As long as marketing wizards are framing the debate, their proposals can do anything. Used "correctly," advertising can obscure even the vilest of intentions. With its feel-good potential and patriotic associations choice is "an almost perfect political concept" (Orfield 12). "Advocates of an educational marketplace have won a significant ideological and marketing victory by successfully labeling their program 'choice' rather than the more neutral sounding 'voucher'" (Lowe 1992a 28). Peter Cookson's experience with a choice supporter illustrates the visceral appeal of the choice campaign. This marketing strategy reduces choice to an obvious solution. "How can you not be for choice?"

The irrational power of advertising is sure to be foisted on the students of a for-profit school. As every teacher knows schools, curricula, and pedagogy are never neutral. Values are propagated through textbooks, scheduling, desk arrangements, and other intentional and unintentional mechanisms. When corporations control the schools, corporate values will be the ones propagated. The first lesson will be that the owners of the school can do no wrong. Students at the EAI controlled schools in Baltimore start each day with a 15–20 minute "pep rally." Getting the students fired up about being in school provides an excellent opportunity to inculcate them with love for their school and the corporation which sponsors it. A profit-making organization — especially one which is unregulated — is unlikely to inform either its students or parents the private internal knowledge of inefficacy or danger. Regulations are sometimes the only reasons that corporations pay attention to such "burdensome" obligations as environmental protection or worker safety. The political and economic climate being what it is, many Americans are just a regulation away from a lifetime of exposure to carcinogenic toxins or an accidental death and dismemberment on the factory floor. The decades long suppression by Johns Mansville of studies linking occupational asbestos exposure with lung diseases is perhaps the best example of corporate disregard for human life. Why should we expect that profit-driven business interests will suddenly reform themselves once they enter into the educational marketplace? Unregulated, for-profit schools would never engage in the kind of critical self-examination that might detail their own failings. The incentive to maximize profits is inherently at odds with the social responsibility of education.

Vouchers & the public schools: How low can you go?

The best things in life are free

Support for market-driven school choice plans by the average citizen are motivated, to a large extent, by the glowing promises of reduced educational expenditures. As Chubb & Moe proudly state:

[Schools] probably do not require lots of expensive equipment or huge new buildings or vast libraries. Nor do they require paying teachers substantially more. Money is not what makes some schools more effective than others. Private schools — which outperform public schools — tend to spend less than the public schools do in educating their students. They get better schools for less money (194, 193).

The claims that market-forces will ensure education of equal or better value for less money and that increased per-pupil expenditures do not necessarily lead to increased educational outcomes are well received. Legislators take heed when opportunities arise to reduce the burden of taxation. No politician was ever elected on the well-principled stand that quality public services need adequate funding. The debate has been marketed as a battle between decent, hardworking Americans everywhere and an entrenched bureaucracy beholden to the needs of "special interests" in an uncontrolled "tax and spend" orgy. The same logicians that gave us "Why Ask Why?" and "Just Do It!" are essentially telling us to shout at the top of our lungs, "I'm not gonna pay a lot for this education!"

What often gets lost in the hype is the absolute ruin that education has experienced at the hands of a tax-stingy public. This circumvents one of the hallowed tenets of the conservative movement — that money doesn't really matter. The truth is, money does matter and it matters a whole hell of a lot. If money didn't matter, why then would one school district spend more money than any other? "Why not spend less, especially since, so many schools are godless places populated by lazy, unionized, tenured teachers and gum-chewing, dope-smoking, rowdy students?" (Finn 511). If educational expenditures are irrelevant to quality education, Chubb & Moe should convince the over-funded school districts across the nation and their wealthy taxpayers that they are wasting their money.

Wealthy conservatives in the suburbs are generally happy with their schools and would not dream of spoiling them with reduced expenditures. The unusually low levels of funding found in most voucher programs are designed to prevent the unwashed masses from "choosing" the schools of the affluent. If voucher supporters really advocated "freedom of choice" in a serious way, every student enrolled in a state would receive at least $10,000. Unless state governments are willing to adequately fund voucher programs poor families will be left with but one choice — to send their children to the unsatisfactory, neighborhood comprehensive schools they always attended. Choice for some but not for all is not real choice.

This has lead some conservatives to predict the nightmarish cooptation of the free-market by wealth-redistributing liberals. The following quotes by Michael Kinsley of The New Republic and Charlotte Allen of The American Spectator are indicative of their fears:

Would 'school choice' zealots favor a 'park choice' system, whereby the government would pay for poor people to 'opt out' of the public parks and join country clubs? (Kinsley in Rethinking Schools Editors 19).

How about a favorite argument of voucher enthusiasts: rich people get to send their children to private school, so why shouldn't poor people? Huh? Rich people get to live in mansions, too. Does that mean the government, which provides housing for the poor, has to give welfare recipients fancy estates in Beverly Hills? I thought it was liberals not conservatives, who argued that when the government guarantees people a right, it has an obligation to subsidize that right (Allen in Rethinking Schools Editors 19).

When "freedom of choice" is taken to its ultimate end conservative support vanishes. Comparisons of the funds needed to totally equate per-pupil expenditures with those of other conservative supported programs proves most interesting. Total expenditures on K–12 public education in the United States resulted in a paltry per-pupil expenditure of $3,752 in 1988 (Harris & Harris). Raising this to the earlier described minimum of $10,000 would result in a near tripling of national school expenditures to about $400 billion. This is 60% greater than the budget of the Pentagon. Conservatives have never advocated reduced military expenditures with the same fervor as they have for reduced expenditures on other peoples children.

The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program

In contrast to the programs described previously, Milwaukee's choice program is driven by minority discontent with education. National attention has been focused on the program thanks to the support of the Tommy Thompson and Annette "Polly" Williams. Thompson gained favor with the Bush administration in recent years for of his conservative reform of the state's welfare program and has been integral in the coalition of governors attempting to instigate statewide voucher programs. Even before the school term began, the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program won praise from the Bush administration and rumors began to circulate of a possible cabinet position for Thompson in 1992.

Williams, the representative to the city assembly from the largely black and impoverished north side, has become the darling of the voucher movement. As an African-American, former welfare mother, and supporter of Jesse Jackson, her advocacy has been used to deflect some of the criticisms that vouchers are primarily the domain of white, middle-class, xenophobes. Many, including Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, see her as the unwitting accomplice of right-wing business interests intent on privatizing the state's public education system (Lowe 1992a 4). Whatever her role, Ms. Williams discontent is well-founded. African-Americans — especially males — have been traditionally disserved by the Milwaukee Public School system (MPS). According to their own statistics:

The Parental Choice Law, introduced by Williams in 1990, was designed with the intent of rectifying these inequities in the manner of an affirmative action program. Admission to the program was determined by lottery. Qualifying students from economically impoverished families were awarded vouchers worth roughly $2,500 which would then be used to supplement a family contribution towards private school tuition. Restrictions on the program were designed to insure that no money went to schools that included religion as a part of their curriculum and that pupils would demonstrate adequate academic progress and attendance (Cookson 66–67).

The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program has received attention far out of proportion to its immediate impact. For the students who applied, the value of the voucher was insufficient for most of the parents to send their children to the wealthiest, elite private schools. The modest number of students who participated, for the most part attended poorly funded, inner city urban academies. In comparison, minority students enrolled in suburban public schools through the metropolitan desegregation program experienced higher levels of funding than either the academies or MPS could provide.

Lost in the shuffle, between the governor's posturing for a cabinet position and the praise of such conservative interests groups as the Bradley Foundation, has been the real effect of the program on its participants. The students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program — 100% low-income and 96% African-American or Latino — represent an opportunity for supporters to demonstrate the efficacy of vouchers on an at-risk population. If vouchers really are the be-all-and-end-all of America's educational ills, then the Parent Choice Program should have been the place to prove it. Although still a bit premature, the studies of John Whitte and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin show little improvement in the collective academic performance of the voucher students when compared to the performance of low-income students still in the MPS system (Whitte, Bailey & Thorn).

Discontent with the program has been pervasive. The program's original intent was to serve 1,000 of the district's of nearly 100,000 students but only 558 applications were filed in the first year and only 341 ultimately enrolled in the seven schools that agreed to participate. Overall participation was better in the second year, but of the 333 non-graduating students who began the program, 155 or 47% elected not to participate in the second year (Lowe 1992a 4, 5). Moreover, one of the schools abandoned its participation in the program midway through the first year after non-voucher parents decided the school should resume religious education. The disorder at the school and the ensuing chaos effectively denied a year's worth of education to the 63 students who made the wrong choice (Lowe 1992b 30). One can only imagine the disastrous effects were such a practice to become as common on the national level as Chubb & Moe desire.

Race & choice

Choice programs across the nation are often disproportionately white and affluent. Those who support private school choice are frequently the same as those who oppose equitable funding. The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program — although apparently an attempt at affirmative action — is another example of how established interests can manipulate policies to reinforce existing disparity.

Milwaukee is a hyper-segregated city where attitudes and priorities divide sharply along racial lines. Whites compose two-thirds of the general population but only 26% of public school students. In a recent grade-based survey of attitudes towards MPS, those with children in the system rated their schools at just under a "B" (2.88) while the rating of the general population was just under a "C" (1.81). The appreciably different levels discontent are in no small part due to the racist attitudes of large segments of the white population. When a $474 million facilities plan was tabled as a referendum, Milwaukee voters overturned it by a three-to-one margin. Whites overwhelmingly opposed the referendum while African-Americans approved it by a wide margin (Lowe 1992a 23). The vote suggests the unwillingness of many whites to support the schools of other people's children. A woman exiting a voting booth told a local news reporter quite matter-of-factly that she had voted against the referendum because her children attended private schools (Lowe 1992c 39).

Discriminatory spending practices have been implicated with other school choice reforms. In California — where a school choice initiatives have been repeatedly tabled — public school students are asked to bear the brunt of most of the state's spending cuts. The Wilson Administration issued warnings about a daunting 35% increase in the number of school age children in the state in this decade and suggested it cannot meet all their needs. From 1940–1970, however, the state went through an average increase in the school-age population of 62% each decade. By the time children born this year graduate from high school the state's Latino population is expected to double and the Asian population will have grown by two-thirds. The truth is that California is abandoning its children just as a majority of them will be non-white (Shultz 28, 29).


There's no shortcut to building good schools. The advocacy of choice as a panacea for the nations school system depends heavily on unsubstantiated ideological claims. Chubb & Moe's argument is dominated by a statistical hand-waving that obscures the true etiologies of public school deficiencies. The private sector — which already supplies textbooks and standardized tests — is easily implicated in the nation's educational deficiencies. Businesses and wealthy individuals stand to benefit the most from large-scale privatization efforts. Taxes will likely decrease in wealthy upper-class suburbs and opportunities will arise for capital rich investors to reap millions of dollars in profits from the newly created "Educational-Industrial Complex." Choice is code word that perpetuates positions of privilege that are inherited and not earned. If the affluent "choose" to live gracious homes while the destitute "choose" to be homeless then one can easily justify an educational choice scheme where the wealthy "choose" elite academies and the poor "choose" public education or worse. The tyranny of the market and its Jim Crow dimensions have not gone unnoticed. The reduced public expenditures and fiscal restructuring which many choice plans inflict are taking place at a time when the nation's urban, public schools are becoming majorities of minorities.

Capitalism in the schools exchanges short-term monetary profits for long-term societal gains. The market ethos ignores the well-documented effects of education on success in later life — 40% of pregnant teenagers are behind two-to-three grade levels, 80% of children in juvenile detention homes read at a fifth-grade level or below, 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and 90% of those on welfare have difficulty with the written word (Prentiss 9). With education you either pay now or you pay later. Any philosophy of school reform that destroys the futures of large segments of the population is not worth considering.


February 1996: Steve Jobs: The voice of under-represented billionaires

Quote from an interview with Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple computers.

It's a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they're inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I'm one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system.

I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school. This private school is the best school I've seen in my life. It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal. The tuition was $5,500 a year, which is a lot of money for most parents. But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers — so it's not about money at the teacher level. I asked the state treasurer that year what California pays on average to send kids to school, and I believe it was $4,400. While there are not many parents who could come up with $5,500 a year, there are many who could come up with $1,000 a year.

If we gave vouchers to parents for $4,400 a year, schools would be starting right and left. People would get out of college and say, "Let's start a school." You could have a track at Stanford within the MBA program on how to be the businessperson of a school. And that MBA would get together with somebody else, and they'd start schools. And you'd have these young, idealistic people starting schools, working for pennies.

They'd do it because they'd be able to set the curriculum. When you have kids you think, What exactly do I want them to learn? Most of the stuff they study in school is completely useless. But some incredibly valuable things you don't learn until you're older — yet you could learn them when you're younger. And you start to think, What would I do if I set a curriculum for a school?

God, how exciting that could be! But you can't do it today. You'd be crazy to work in a school today. You don't get to do what you want. You don't get to pick your books, your curriculum. You get to teach one narrow specialization. Who would ever want to do that? (Wolf 158)

How exciting indeed! You're right Steve, I am paid too much. I can't wait to start working for pennies. I feel so deprived teaching only one narrow specialization. Throw some more work my way. Unions? They just get in the way, don't they. All these teachers with more education than you demanding reasonable salaries and decent working conditions. The temerity! Send a couple of MBAs our way, Steve. We need their leadership and insightful knowledge. How did I ever manage to teach without a Stanford grad manning the whip? Thank you, Steve. Thank you for solving our nations educational problems. Please excuse my tears of joy.

December 2000: Same old, same old

Education funds are disproportionately disbursed in the state of New York according to a long-standing pattern.

... treating each pupil in New York City, where public enrollment is overwhelmingly non-white, as 94% of a student [when allocating state funds]. The echoes of the US Constitution's original calculus of slavery was appropriately symbolic (Karp).

New York City now receives 35.1 percent of the regular [state] education budget, up slightly from 34.9 percent. This, however, is still well short of the city's share of the enrollment which is 38.6 percent of all public school students in the state (Spielman).

Governor Pataki yesterday proposed a budget that would shrink the city's share of state school aid — despite his promise two years ago to stop shortchanging the city.... City schools educate 37.4% of the state's students, but Pataki's budget would give the city a 35.2% share of state school aid — down from 35.5% this year (Lombardi & Finnegan).

For decades, Albany has short-changed New York city schools. While our school system educates 38% percent [sic] of the state's children, it receives only 35% of the state's funding (Scheiderman).

[This graphic popped up in the middle of the local news here in New York City. Sorry, but I can't remember which station this came from. I thinks it's NY1, the local cable news channel, but it could also have come from the 11 o'clock news on WNBC.]

January 2001: School funding system ruled unconstitutional

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity wins! On Wednesday, January 10, New York State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse declared the current school funding system unconstitutional. He has ordered the state legislature to come up with a new one by September 15, 2001. The following excerpts come from the court's findings of fact regarding the New York City School District and Justice DeGrasse's final decision.

Measures of teacher quality
By each of these measures, the quality of New York City's public school teachers — in the aggregate — is inadequate. The court hastens to add that there are many excellent and dedicated teachers employed in New York City public schools — many of whom foster learning under extremely adverse conditions. It is not hyperbolic to describe some New York City public school teachers as heroes. However, there are too many ill-trained and inexperienced teachers to meet the difficult challenges presented in the New York City public schools.

The highest percentage of uncertified teachers in New York City high schools tend to be in math and sciences. BOE records show that as of October 1, 1999, 476 uncertified teachers taught high school biology, 152 taught high school chemistry, and 435 taught high school mathematics. Using the conservative assumptions that each teacher instructs five classes a day of 25 students each (most high school classes are larger), and that these uncertified teachers were not replaced by certified ones, last year 59,500 students were taught high school biology by an uncertified teacher [more than 70% by my estimate], 19,000 students were taught high school chemistry by an uncertified teacher, and 54,375 students were taught high school mathematics by an uncertified teacher.

Defendants contend that these shortages are in subjects in which there is a nationwide shortage of teachers. However, in New York State localities other than New York City experience nowhere near the shortages seen in the City.

Competition for qualified teachers
New York City competes in a common labor market for teachers and other college-educated individuals with Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, and, to a lesser extent, Orange and Putnam counties. New York City is at a competitive disadvantage in this labor market, principally because New York City School teachers make substantially less and generally labor under more difficult working conditions than their suburban counterparts....

Salary differentials are consistently mentioned in SED and BOE documents as the primary reason qualified teachers choose to work in suburban rather than City schools. These findings were echoed in the testimony of BOE personnel most knowledgeable about hiring. Additionally, Dr. Ferguson's analysis of the Texas data establishes a clear statistically significant association between the performance of students within a school district and the salaries paid to teachers within that school district. Salary differentials hurt New York City in its search for qualified teachers....

Finally, defendants criticize BOE's recruitment efforts and argue that BOE's poor outreach is in part to blame for any shortage of qualified teachers. For example, BOE has lost opportunities to hire qualified teachers by late recruiting. The court finds that, given lower salaries and often difficult working conditions, BOE has done an adequate job in recruiting new teachers. While BOE's efforts prior to 1997 were sometimes haphazard and even counter-productive, it has since engaged in a number of initiatives designed to attract new teachers to its schools. The problem is not BOE's sales pitch, but its product.

The failure to assure the delivery of core curricula has been exacerbated by a chronic defunding over the last twenty years of two non-core subjects that can play an important supporting role in preparing students to become productive citizens: arts and physical education.

The Court of Appeals' definition of sound basic education does not mention arts instruction or physical education. The court interprets this omission — in conjunction with the Court of Appeals' emphasis on a "minimally adequate" education — to mean that arts instruction and physical instruction for their own sake are not part of a sound basic education under the State's Education Article.

However, arts education and physical education are important means of supporting the teaching of other subject areas that are part of a sound basic education.

Old buildings and changing needs
In addition to the major structural deficiencies described above, New York City public school buildings contain antiquated science laboratories and wiring, heating, and air conditioning systems. In large measure this is a function of the buildings' age. Most City school buildings were built in an era when there was no need for computers, summer school, or more than rudimentary laboratory equipment. More than half of the buildings in the system are more than 58 years old.

Science labs are often obsolete or absent altogether in City public schools. According to BOE figures a minimum of 31 high schools lack a science lab of any description, leaving over 16,000 high school students without access to this crucial resource. In schools that do have labs, a single lab must be used for biology, chemistry and physics classes. Each subject area involves different equipment, and the near-constant use of labs in schools can restrict the complexity of experiments performed in the lab.

Remedy & order
New York State has over the course of many years consistently violated the Education Article of the State Constitution by failing to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education to New York City public school students. In addition, the State's public school financing system has also had an unjustified disparate impact on minority students in violation of federal law....

The court hereby declares that defendants' method for funding education in the State of New York violates plaintiffs' rights under The Education Article of the New York State Constitution, (Article XI, Section 1); and

The court further declares that defendants' method for funding education in the State of New York violates plaintiffs' rights under regulations passed by the U.S. Department of Education pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 USC § 2000d; 34 CFR § 100.3[b][1], [2]); and

The court orders that the defendants shall put in place reforms of school financing and governance designed to redress the constitutional and regulatory violations set forth in this opinion. Defendants shall have until September 15, 2001 to implement these reforms. The parties shall appear before the court on June 15, 2001 to describe the progress of these reforms. The court will retain jurisdiction over this matter for as long as necessary to ensure that the constitutional and statutory/regulatory violations set forth herein have been corrected (DeGrasse).

October 2002: In need of cash, Edison Schools sell textbooks, lab equipment, musical instruments, and computers

How does a publicly-traded, for-profit corporation deal with economic hard times? Sell off assets and reduce payroll costs. How does a publicly-traded, for-profit school deal with economic hard times? Sell off textbooks, lab equipment, musical instruments, and computers and use students as unpaid workers.

Facing an educational crisis last year, [Philadelphia] handed 20 of its worst-off high schools, in some of the most abject slums in the country, to a private, for-profit company called Edison Schools Inc. Now, those institutions appear to be going the way of Enron, Tyco and WorldCom....

Days before classes were to begin in September, trucks arrived to take away most of the textbooks, computers, lab supplies and musical instruments the company had provided — Edison had to sell them off for cash....

As a final humiliation, Chris Whittle, the company's charismatic chief executive and founder, recently told a meeting of school principals that he'd thought up an ingenious solution to the company's financial woes: Take advantage of the free supply of child labor, and force each student to work an hour a day, presumably without pay, in the school offices.

"We could have less adult staff," Mr. Whittle reportedly said at a summit for employees and principals in Colorado Springs. "I think it's an important concept for education and economics." In a school with 600 students, he said, this unpaid work would be the equivalent of "75 adults" on salary.

Although Mr. Whittle said he could have the child-labor plan in place by 2004, school board officials were quick to say they would have nothing to do with the proposal (Saunders).

Works cited


Essays from the special edition of Rethinking Schools