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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

School Choice and Equality

School Choice and Equality
Conference Abstracts
Friday, March 9th


Glenn Loury, Boston University
"Will Educational Choice Lead to Greater Equality of Opportunity?"

Proponents and opponents of school choice mainly frame the argument in terms of the policy's likely effects on the performance of public schools (competition may or may not induce improved performance), and its efficacy in expanding educational options for low income families (those with resources have choices, so why not the poor?). These are important issues, to be sure, but they relate only indirectly to what should be a crucial object of public policy -- namely, to equalize developmental opportunities for all American youngsters. Neither more effective public education, nor greater access for the poor to private education guarantee that the current large disparities in developmental opportunity between children from different class and ethnic backgrounds will necessarily be eliminated. This is so for at least two reasons: much of what matters for child development takes place outside of the school. And, much of current class/ethnic inequality in educational opportunity arises in within-school, rather than between-school, differences in students' experience. This essay will provide support for these assertions and explore their implications for evaluating the desirability of alternative approaches to school choice.

Stephen Macedo, Princeton University
"Equality and Education: Ideals and Realities"

Equality (or, as I prefer, equity) is a crucial standard for assessing school choice proposals. But equity is interpreted in various ways. The best arguments for school choice invoke equity, but so do the least defensible arguments and the least attractive forms of school choice. So it all depends on what we mean by equity.

The strongest arguments for school choice are based on improving the education of the most deprived children in the worst performing urban schools. Some of the weakest arguments for publicly funded school choice argue on the basis of fairness or equity among parents with differing religious and cultural values. Focusing on the wrong sorts of equity will lead us astray. Focusing on the right sorts of equity will at least encourage us to ask the right questions, but it will not yield easy answers. Limited school choice experiments, and more extensive school choice plans advanced by scholars, can be designed so as to promote greater equity and equality of opportunity. But we cannot say with confidence that the political will can be mustered to preserve these equity-enhancing features in practice. The practical consequences of taking school choice seriously will be complex and difficult to predict. We should proceed cautiously.

Joseph Viteritti, New York University
"Defining Equity: Politics, Markets and Public Policy"

We are now in the second generation of debate on school choice. During the first generation, discussion focused on the economic goal of market efficiency. Proponents of the market approach have a dismal outlook on the condition of education. They place primary blame on a monopolistic system that limits government support to public schools, where ninety percent of our students are enrolled. They advocate a radical re-structuring of education so that parents would be able to send their children to non-public schools at government expense. They believe that market competition would result in a better quality of education for all students, winnowing out low performing institutions as parents have the opportunity to select from a wider array of offerings.

The second generation of discussion has focused on an equity model. Advocates of this approach define the problem in education more sharply, and see choice as a mechanism for improving educational opportunities for under-served communities, primarily low income racial minorities whose children attend failing schools. Rather than make government supported choice available to all, proponents of the equity model - now more popular among reformers -would target vouchers to disadvantaged children.

There is empirical support for both perspectives. Although education spending in the United States has risen by more than sixty percent in real dollars since 1970, student performance on national exams in reading has remained stagnant and math scores have improved only slightly. The results of tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that sixty percent of our twelfth graders are below proficiency in reading. This suggests that our system of schooling is not only inefficient but also ineffective.

The learning gap between black and white students has been a matter of public record for several decades. Today the average black twelfth grader reads with the same proficiency as the average white eighth grader. These racial disparities paint a different picture of American education. Instead of whole scale breakdown we see a system of education that is serving some students and not others, or perhaps two systems - one that works fairly well, and another that does not seem to work at all.

The gap is not just a matter of efficiency and effectiveness, but it also has normative implications for our ideals as a democratic nation. So long as black and white children enjoy dramatically different levels of educational achievement, there can be no real hope of attaining social, economic, or political equality between the races. Education is correlated with nearly every positive social attribute imaginable: from economic security, to civic participation, to a healthy family life.

As a result of their more focused attention on disadvantaged populations, advocates of the equity model have laid claim to the high moral ground of the choice debate. There is validity to their claim, but it is over-stated. Liberal social scientists are apt to draw cartoon-like caricatures of market schemes, exaggerating their less attractive features. These pictures entertain sympathetic colleagues, but confuse the uninformed.

Conservative social thinkers have contributed to the negative images with theoretical tracts that attempt to treat greed as an enlightened virtue. There is no virtue in greed; but the market has intrinsic and extrinsic merits worthy of attention. For one, the equity model could not work effectively without relying on the market.

There are different ways to define equity when designing choice programs, and each has unique consequences in determining who gets rewarded. What is apparent under the present arrangement is that some parents enjoy the opportunity to choose the school their children attend, and some children get assigned to schools whether or not their parents want them there. It is also clear that the difference between those who have choice and those who do not is associated with race and class.

It is difficult to believe that the great numbers of African American and Hispanic children who attend failing inner city public schools are there because their mothers and fathers want them there. They are there because they have no choice. For reasons that go beyond considerations of test scores, their predicament is fundamentally unjust. In this sense it may seem that any form of choice is better than no form of choice. But based on what we already know from ongoing choice experiments, that assumption is open to dispute. My objective in this paper is to explore a variety of approaches to school choice and explain why I believe some are more compelling than others.

Discussant:  Paul Weithman, University of Notre Dame