from educational Horizons Fall 1992

"Choice" in Schooling
©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 8/17/11

For more than a decade both the Reagan and Bush administrations have advocated "choice" in schooling. Left unsaid is what this "choice" will amount to in concrete cases. We know only that public funds will be spent for private schooling; but it is anybody's guess what else is entailed.

For instance, we do not know what will happen when popular schools are flooded with more applicants than they can handle. Will public schools still have to accept one and all? If not, who or what will decide who gets in and who is rejected? Will racial or other quotas still pertain for public schools? Will private schools have to take anyone who wants to attend? If not, on what basis will they discriminate and what will prevent public schools from becoming dumping grounds for kids with problems that make a school less attractive?

Will local students be displaced from their neighborhood public or parish schools? If so, will neighborhood schools eventually cease to exist? Will it still be possible for religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring? Will private schools have to meet meaningful standards to qualify for tax dollars? If so, who will set and enforce them? If not, what will prevent the KKK or some similar group from opening schools and collecting voucher money?

If they have to meet standards will the uniqueness of the private school be lost? Where will the money for financing "choice" come from? If there is no new money will "choice" bankrupt public schools? Will teacher's qualifications and salaries be reduced below acceptable levels by privatization? All such questions remain unanswered.

Whatever "choice," is and however it is to be administered, it is supposed to kindle the purifying fires of competition. This, in turn, is supposed to compel school improvements. What sorts of improvements? Let's be very generous and assume those that characterize America's most well-managed corporations. Peters and Waterman summarized these in their best-selling book, In Search of Excellence, (New York: Harper and Row, 1982):

A bias for action -- a preference for doing something rather than sending a question through cycles and cycles of analyses and committee reports.

Staying close to the customer -- learning his preferences and catering to them.

Autonomy and entrepreneurship -- breaking the corporation into small companies and encouraging them to think independently and competitively.

Productivity through people -- creating in all employees the awareness that their best efforts are essential and that they will share in the rewards of the company's success.

Hands-on, value driven -- insisting that executives keep in touch with the firm's essential business.

Stick with the knitting -- remaining with the business the company knows best.

Simple form, lean staff -- few administrative layers, few people at upper levels.

Simultaneous loose-tight properties -- fostering a climate where there is dedication to the central values of the company combined with tolerance for all employees who accept these values.
What a delight if "choice" would bring the nation's schools into compliance with these principles! But these are America's best-run companies. The vast majority fall far short of this ideal. After all, there is more to keeping a large organization vital than merely exposing it to choice. Under "choice" most schools would probably be managed like Sears or K-Mart (Anybody for a schooling blue-light special?) Some would doubtless be handled like the very worst Savings and Loan or bankrupt Pan American World Airways. With "choice" things would change; but there is no reason to believe that they would necessarily change for the better.

Yes, competition from Walmart impelled K-Mart to start spending a billions of dollars remodeling and upgrading. But it remains to be seen whether they can mount an effective response to the Walmart challenge. Sprucing up and adding a greeter at the door is far easier than changing managerial style and organizational ethos. K-Mart's enormous spending may ultimately only effect cosmetics; and school "choice" could add up to the same thing.

Remember too that the most obvious features of a market economy is that only the affluent can choose the best. (When was the last time you shopped for a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari?) Those in the rapidly shrinking middle class make do. The poor just do without. Will school "choice" further exaggerate the already great differences between America's rich and poor? Will it further erode the dwindling advantages of the middle class by, for example, making schooling more dependent on parentally paid tuition. Will it shift teaching jobs to the private sector where qualifications are often only ideological and salaries shockingly low? (Several million teachers might end up moving from public to private employment which would probably reduce their salaries below middle class levels.)

One final thing. Remember when no one had to pretend that the U. S. Postal Service was supposed to make a profit? It used to be a government service provided under the "general welfare clause of the Constitution. Revenue from postage provided a sizable income, but mail was largely paid for by taxes. Nevertheless, you could rely on it being speedily delivered twice a day despite snow, rain, heat and gloom of night. (Yes, for those of you under fifty, mail once was delivered twice a day.) Now, the Postal Service combines the worst, not best, features of a government bureaucracy and robber baron capitalism. Unenlightened by the management styles used in progressive corporations, the Postal Service has apparently adopted an Ebenezer Scrooge style of oversight that infuriates and alienates employees to the point where, in alarmingly frequent and well-documented cases, they literally murder their bosses. Meanwhile, despite the availability of very efficient choices like Federal Express, the price of postage continues to catapult, mail arrives once a day after a very l-e-i-s-u-r-e-l-y journey and, unless cuts of 30,000 managerial jobs do the trick, a $2 billion deficit is in the offing for 1993.

Maybe these are growing pains and the semi-privatized Postal Service will eventually emerge leaner and more efficient than ever before. But there is no guarantee that it will. Similarly "choice" and the mechanisms of the marketplace are no guarantee of higher quality schooling. We could easily end up with K-Mart quality and governmental inefficiency at one and the same time. And isn't that what we have already?

Let's take another look at those eight characteristics of America's best-run companies. Can public schools as presently constituted have a bias for thoughtful action instead of endless committees? Sure. Can they learn to stay closer to the customer and to break themselves into smaller entities which think independently and creatively? Some already have. Can they create in employees the awareness that there best efforts are essential and that they will benefit from the school's success. I don't see why not. Can they insist that administrators be hands on and in touch with the school's essential business? Yep. Can they stick with what they know best ? With some guts. Can they keep staff lean and give teachers room to be creative provided they endorse the school's central values? Why not? In short, it would be entirely possible to bring public schools in line with all of these principles without introducing "choice." Think not? Take a look at the performance of the American military in Desert Storm. There is only one U.S. military to choose from, but they annihilated Iraq's armed forces. Unlike U.S educators, however, the American military had the necessary resources and what we wanted them to do was clear.

"Choice" distracts us from really urgent issues like: rampant greed and selfishness: unrestrained materialism; the disintegration of the nuclear family; child abuse and neglect, the disappearance of decent paying jobs; appalling numbers of U.S. kids living in third-world poverty with no medical care; rampant crime; wretched spiritual values peddled to our kids via network television, the recording industry and MTV; habitual school disorder and violence; chronic school under-funding; crumbling school buildings; Teach for America and other unconscionably easy shortcuts into teaching; etc., etc.. These things detract from American youngsters academic achievement in countless ways; but the politicians would have us believe that schools alone are responsible for whatever is wrong.

There has been virtually no leadership on the part of the President (or Congress) in helping Americans face, much less deal with these realities. Who has the guts to remind us that we must live within our present means, or raise taxes, rather than charge an astoninshing $400 billion a year to our national credit card? Who is brave enough to challenge our narrow-mindedness and growing atomization? Who is encouraging us to be less greedy? Who is trying to revitalize our sense of community rather than further divide us to get some votes? Who is reminding us to keep our individualism within reasonable bounds? Who is advising us that there are no easy solutions for complex problems? Who points out to us that meaningful change still requires personal sacrifice? And who tries to bring us together in realistic agreement on what we can expect from our schools and what we can only expect from ourselves? This sort of leadership requires guts, vision, intelligence and real executive ability. Sloganeering about "choice," on the other hand, just panders to our worst instincts.