Theresa O’Connor

Toward School Choice for America

The current state of the education system in America is deplorable, and throwing money at the problem has not been effective. Introducing market reforms into the educational system would help it to improve, however, entrenched special interest groups make the political reform necessary to bring this about difficult. I suggest a strategy for making the necessary reforms politically palatable, and outline a policy for future advocacy.

Introduction: America’s Failed Schools

America’s schools are broken. Few challenge this, and many clamor for change. Americans demand better education. The globalizing, fast-paced, technologically-advanced economy of the new era requires a work force of quick-thinking, technologically-savvy, and pro-active people. Our education system’s mechanisms for change are ossified and it is becoming increasingly unrelated to the needs and desires of its customers. It is vitally important that we discover methods for improving our schools, and that we adopt such methods as we find them efficacious.

Fundamentally, the worth of the education system in this country must be evaluated by reference to its results. Is the system effectively teaching its students basic material such as reading, writing, and arithmetic? Are students being adequately prepared for life in college and the “real world?” Consider some relevant data:

Such a list of problems could continue indefinitely.

Federal, state, and local funding for education has been increased many times this quarter-century in attempts to cure our ailing schools. And yet the problem persists.

Education and Market Mechanisms

Classical liberals since and including Adam Smith have argued that, while education may (or may not) be a proper governmental function, it performs this task so poorly that prudence demands education be left private.4 Such commentators note that where there is government interference, there is inefficiency and disequilibrium. If the interference were decreased or ceased, market forces would provide the mechanism for responding to consumer needs far more effectively than the government. “Education is far to important to be excluded from the virtues of the profit motive.”13

There are several reasons to expect the introduction of market mechanisms to education to improve our educational system. Competition between education providers would lead to improved services and reduced costs.7. An open market would be more responsive to consumer demand, because the consumer would be able to pick and choose amongst vendors. Related to this is the fact that providers would be able to more easily adapt to the expressed wishes of the consumers.5, ch. 7

School Choice

For those that can afford it, parochial and private school systems do exist and, on the whole, perform much better than the public school system. In fact, many public school teachers, including my own mother, have found it necessary to send their own children to private schools. “[…]Many public school teachers, those that probably know the public schools best, are exercising an option that low-income families do not have — to opt out of ineffective public schools and send their children to private schools[…] In Boston, 44.6 percent of public school teachers enroll their children in private schools.”3

There are various movements directed at opening up such options to lower-income families. There are essentially two kinds of school choice programs that have been started in America: voucher programs and charter schools.

Voucher programs work by providing parents with a voucher of some stated monetary value which they then choose to direct toward the public or private school of their choice.

Charter schools operate as independent public schools within a public school district, and parents in the district may choose to send their children to the charter school. Typically, charter schools are subject to far less regulation and control than traditional public schools.

Voucher programs have been on the national agenda for quite some time, having been first proposed by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason. Educational reform by vouchers entered the modern national debate from Milton Friedman, and there have been several local and state attempts to institute voucher systems.

The city of Milwaukee, one of the first communities to experiment with a voucher system, instituted a voucher program in 1990. This program “provided a voucher to a limited number of students from low income families, to be used to pay tuition at their choice of secular, private school in Milwaukee.” The Milwaukee voucher program was and is in many respects a limited voucher program, and many of the private educational institutions involved experienced financial difficulties. While the first two years of the program produced statistically negligible results, beginning with the third year, mathematics performance improved for those in the program by over 10.7 percent. Interestingly, “students who were given a choice of school performed better than did the control group, regardless of the public or private school they attended[…] These results suggest that when families are given a choice between public and private schools, they choose the option best suited to their child.”7

There were only a handful of charter schools in the country at the beginning of the 1990’s. The Nineties were a period of rapid growth in the charter school movement. Today, thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted charter school programs.

Parents in Princeton, New Jersey, dissatisfied with the curriculum and rigor of the program in the Princeton Regional Schools (PRS), attempted to reform the school program. Some were elected to the school board, but their reforms were blocked by the teachers’ union and another group of parents. Taking advantage of a 1996 New Jersey law allowing the formation of charter schools, the parents founded the Princeton Charter School (PCS), which opened in September, 1997.10 One out of every four Princeton children in the requisite age group applied for a seat at the school, and this application rate has remained steady since then.

The school has been a resounding success, so much so in fact that the PRS has altered its policies and educational standards in order to remain competitive. “[A] board member said, 'If you were in business and 25 percent of your customers suddenly decided to go with another firm, you would be very, very concerned.'”10

Opposition to School Choice

If introducing market forces to our educational system would result in an improved system, why is it that proposed voucher programs have almost all failed to be instituted? Who could oppose empowering parents to choose the safest and best schools for their children? The answer may surprise you.

Public school teachers are entrusted with the intellectual well-being of the students in their charge, and yet it is teachers’ unions who most vocally oppose the adoption of school choice programs the nation over, and who continue to argue for increased federal and state funding for public education.

To understand why this is the case, we turn to public choice economics, the application of economic methodology to the problems of political change and political institutions. Because of the dispersed costs of public education, voters remain rationally ignorant of the issues surrounding its reform. Conversely, due to the concentrated benefits of current education policies, it is in the teachers’ unions interests to throw millions of dollars into lobbying to preserve their cash cow.

Matthew Brouillette and Jeffrey Williams completed a study in 1999 for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan entitled “The Impact of School Choice on School Employee Labor Unions,” in which they found that “unions have powerful financial incentives to maintain the current barriers to school choice[…]”1, p. 1 “Unions have not been successful at organizing the employees of charter and private schools[…] Preservation of school employee union power and influences therefore requires union officials to defend the system they now dominate, and resist the growth of schools in which they have been unable to gain a foothold.”10, p. 15

Economist Milton Friedman, in a 1995 briefing paper of the Cato Institute, observed that “the teachers’ unions are bitterly opposed to any reform that lessens their own power, and they have acquired enormous political and financial strength that they are prepared to devote to defeating any attempt to adopt a voucher system.”6 He cited the 1993 defeat of California’s Proposition 174 as an example.

In Princeton, the most active and vocal opposition to the parents’ push for reform was from the PRS teachers, who “[…] missed no opportunity to undermine the charter school.”10, p. 12 Teachers actively campaigned for union-friendly school board candidates and encouraged high school students to protest the reforms.10, pp. 12–14

Toward Free Minds and Free Markets

Given that there is a large, well-organized and well-funded opposition, how can supporters of school choice effectively bring about change? School choice activists need to make visible, simple arguments for school choice that anticipate the arguments of the opposition.

For instance, the Milwaukee voucher program was adopted, whereas most other voucher proposals have been rejected. This could be because the Milwaukee proposal was specifically targeted at low income, urban families, precisely the market that would benefit the most by a voucher program and precisely the market that voucher program opponents claim would be hurt.

Another common argument employed against voucher programs is the claim that such programs divert funds that would otherwise be spent on improving education in the traditional public schools, thus worsening the education of those who remain in the public schools. This is the position of Vice-President Al Gore.12 The observed trends of voucher programs of the past decade, as well as argument from economic theory, reject this position. A simple example: If there are 100 students in a school, and the per-student expenditure of the school system is $10.00, a $10.00 voucher program would not decrease the per-student funds of the school. Most voucher programs and charter schools (successful and otherwise) are run with per-student funding far less than that of public school, so a voucher of perhaps $8.50 may do in this case, which leaves the public school with more money to spend helping to educate each student. Thomas Sowell succinctly argues this point: “[…]If ten percent of the students leave the public school system and take ten percent of the money with them, how is that any less money available per student among those remaining[…]? […] Only if you think the public schools exist primarily to provide jobs for teachers’ union members does it make any sense to think that the money should stay after the students have gone.”12

Robert Holland of the Lexington Institute surveyed the effects of introducing school choice in troubled school districts around the country.8 He found there to be “a growing body of evidence that vouchers, whether privately or publicly funded, substantially help students who remain in the public schools.”8 In Milwaukee, for instance, “public schools now offer tutors to all third-graders who have not been taught how to read. The school system proclaims that offer on billboards throughout the city — evidence that the challenge of choice is prompting the public schools to offer effective services lest they lose their customers.”8

Advocates of school choice programs need to be informed about the ramifications of their own positions, so that they can respond to such criticism quickly and effectively. This is not for the benefit of the entrenched opposition, whose minds we hope to change but do not expect to, but rather for the onlookers who are genuinely concerned about the quality of education in America.

Proposing reform programs that take into account the more common (and altogether incorrect) arguments wielded by reform opponents, such as the initial design of the Milwaukee voucher program, and that demonstrate a clear and deliberate concern for the intellectual well-being of all of our children is a strategy far more likely to succeed than arguments from the classical liberal moral high-ground. While it is true that the current education system severely violates the rights of America’s citizens, parents and legislators are more easily swayed by arguments rooted in improving education. This is a manifestation of the fact that the moral solution (the separation of state and school, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church) is also the most effective solution.

Vouchers and charter schools are the first steps in making education what it could be and ought to be. And what important steps they are! As is often the case, I find that another has put into words what I intend to convey with more eloquence than I can muster: “The way forward for education is to bring in the incentives that push forward quality and innovation in all other areas of our lives. Children, especially disadvantaged children, deserve more than to be trapped in an industry forever sidelined.”13


  1. Matthew Brouillette and Jeffrey Williams.

    The Impact of School Choice on School Employee Labor Unions.

    Technical report, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Midland, Michigan, Jun 1999.
  2. Andrew Coulson.

    Are Public Schools Hazardous To Public Education.

    Education Week, (18.30):64–66, Mar 2000.
  3. David DeSchryver.

    Private Scholarship Programs: A Matter of Priority.

    Aug 2000.
  4. David Friedman.

    The Weak Case for Public Schooling.

    Jul 1993.
  5. Milton Friedman.

    Capitalism and Freedom.

    University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.
  6. Milton Friedman.

    Public Schools: Make Them Private.

    Briefing Paper 23, Cato Institute, Jun 1995.
  7. Jay Greene, Paul Peterson, and Jiangtao Du.

    Effectiveness of School Choice: The Milwakee Experiment.

    Technical report, Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, 1997.
  8. Robert Holland.

    How Vouchers and Other Forms of School Choice Help Students Who Remain in the Public Schools.

    Issue Brief, Lexington Institute, Feb 2000.
  9. Dirk Johnson.

    ‘F’ for Kansas City Schools Add to the District’s Woes.

    New York Times, page A14, May 2000.
  10. Chiara Nappi.

    Why Charter Schools? The Princeton Story.

    Technical report, Thomas Fordham Foundation, Oct 1999.
  11. U.S. Rep. Richard Armey.

    The State of American Education.

    EducationNews, Apr 2000.
  12. Thomas Sowell.

    School Choice Wars.

    Jewish World Review, Sep 1999.
  13. James Tooley.

    Should the Private Sector Profit from Education?

    May 1999.