Commentary Magazine


School Choice

To the Editor:

In “A Report Card on School Choice” [October 1997], Paul E. Peterson answers most of the arguments put forward by opponents of choice, but fails to address the crucial financial issue raised by critics like Education Secretary Richard Riley. This issue involves the children who are already enrolled in private schools, around five million nationwide, at an average tuition of $3,000, for a total of $15 billion. If there were a national voucher plan for private, not just public, schools, wouldn’t it have to be made available to the parents of these children, too? If vouchers were allowed only for children currently in public schools, as some propose, one could argue, on the basis of the Constitution’s equal-protection clause, that parents whose children currently attend private schools were being discriminated against. Or private-school parents could simply enroll their children in public schools, and then use vouchers to reenroll them in the same private school they had previously attended. Never underestimate what people will do for $3,000.

Where would the $15 billion in new money come from for such a nationwide plan? I have not yet heard a clearly reasoned answer to this question, but would like to hear one from Mr. Peterson. My own response is that (1) no one is proposing a national voucher scheme just yet, only partial city, or city-wide, or state-wide programs, and (2) vouchers could be means-tested. But even under both these approaches, many students now in parochial schools would be included in the plan.

This brings us back to the basic argument that it is not simply a matter of transferring existing money from public to private schools, which is what voucher proponents emphasize, but also of coming up with new money, which is going to be very hard with all the pressure for cutting spending and taxes. That is why I believe that tuition tax credits rather than vouchers will be the preferred vehicle in the school-choice debate.

Carl Pearlston
Torrance, California

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To the Editor:

Paul E. Peterson’s article on school choice is very enlightening. As a public- and private-school teacher since 1987, I can tell you that he is correct in saying that something has to change. The present system of public education is not working. But let me also say that the private schools I have taught in have been managed far less efficiently than even the public schools. Private schools survive, first, because their student/parent population is far superior to the student/parent population in the public schools, and, second, because they are not stuck with problem students as the public schools are. Private schools can expel such students.

Yes, public schools are a disaster. Private schools, however, while fulfilling the needs of the communities they serve, are no substitute. A partial choice system that adds an element of free enterprise to the education system would seem to be of benefit. We should, however, avoid the conclusion that if a little bit of a particular medicine is good, then a lot of it would be better.

I believe that the abolition of the public-education system that would result from the full-scale implementation of vouchers would be a nationwide tragedy that would make today’s disgrace seem a pleasant problem.

Alan S. Frankel
Paramus, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

As Paul E. Peterson writes, “school choice is an experiment we cannot afford to pass up.” But in truth it is an experiment that is well under way, and the results are that private and parochial schools do a better job at a lower cost because their purpose is not to provide jobs for teachers, custodians, and bureaucrats but to educate children.

A study of 126 public and eight religious schools by the Indiana Policy Review Foundation found that, holding other factors constant, parochial-school students perform better than public-school students. Despite spending less than half the amount per pupil that the public schools spend, and despite having larger class sizes, five of the eight religious schools in the study, all located in low-income neighborhoods, placed in the top thirteen schools in academic performance, with the other three in the top third.

Public schools in East Orange, New Jersey, a poor district, spend $7,000 per pupil, 18 percent more than the national average, compared with expenditures of $2,760 per pupil in East Orange Catholic schools. Yet these Catholic schools send 83 percent of their graduates to college, compared with 52 percent of the public-school graduates.

The newest evidence comes from University of Chicago economist Derek Neal, who compared the performance of public and Catholic high schools in urban areas. He found that a typical minority student who attends an urban public high school has only a 62-percent likelihood of graduating. The same student attending a Catholic school is 42-percent more likely to get a diploma. He also discovered that 91 percent of minority students in urban Catholic schools graduate, compared with 87 percent of white students in Catholic schools and 75 percent of white public-school students.

In his State of the Union address, President Clinton briefly embraced school choice as part of a commitment to teach every eight-year-old to read, admitting that 40 percent of them were currently functionally illiterate. But he limited his recommendation to choice among public schools, which is like telling consumers they can buy any car they want so long as it is an Edsel.

As Urban League President Hugh Price said at the League’s annual convention:

If urban schools as we know them continue to fail in the face of all we know about how to improve them, then [parents] will be obliged to shop elsewhere for quality education. We Urban Leaguers believe passionately in public education. But make no mistake. We love our children even more.

Amen.

Daniel John Sobieski
Chicago, Illinois

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Paul E. Peterson writes:

Creating more effective learning opportunities, especially for children living in central cities, remains the most important objective of school reform. If this can be done, gains in productivity and reduced social expenditures will soon repay reasonable costs of reform.

In addition to these benefits, the introduction of school choice can be expected to reduce taxpayer costs, not increase them as Carl Pearlston maintains, To be sure, some families whose children are currently enrolled in private schools will take advantage of vouchers. But these additional costs, which at their very maximum would not constitute as much as 10 percent of today’s publicly-financed costs, will be more than offset by savings realized from a more competitive system.

Today, private-school costs are somewhere between one-half and two-thirds those of public schools. Moreover, the Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby has found that even public-school costs are reduced (without adversely affecting student performance) in metropolitan areas where there is competition among school districts. Thus, the magnitude of these savings is larger than the estimated costs of even a fully phased-in voucher program.

As for Alan S. Frankel’s point that private schools can expel recalcitrant children, let me say that our study of Cleveland’s scholarship program found that only 0.2 percent of low-income, inner-city parents reported that their child had been expelled from a private school during the program’s first year. But because the potential for exclusion is present, private schools are able to spend less time and energy on enforcing rules and more on teaching and learning. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, since private schools “carry a big stick,” they can speak softly—usually a good way to teach.

Finally, I will let Daniel John Sobieski’s letter speak for itself.

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