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Vouchers, School Choice and the Public’s Interest

School Choice and the Public’s Interest

Recent trends toward privatizing schools and relieving them of state requirements wrongly imply that schools should mirror the desires of parents and ignore the public’s interest in having citizens educated for democracy.

Rob Reich, who recently earned his doctorate in philosophy of education at Stanford, is writing a book on school vouchers, charter schools and home schooling. Reich stated his view that the nation is slipping too far into deregulated schooling. “The guiding idea behind privatization, whether it is vouchers, charter schools or home schooling, is that parents should be the sole decision-making agents about the kind of education their children receive. But this eviscerates the public or civic purposes of schooling.”

Public schooling itself is not the goal, he said, and public schools don’t necessarily do better than private schools in educating children to meet the state’s interests, which he defined as preparing children for both workforce and democratic participation. Those who joined in the discussion pushed Reich to specify the content of an education for democratic participation. “Some would say reading and writing is enough,” he responded. “Personally, I would go a few steps further to say that students should learn to come into dialogue with others on a public stage.” Voluntary national standards for civic education suggest “a combination of making sure students know the history and shape of the structure of government, and how to influence public deliberation and policy,” he said. Others suggest experience-oriented programs, often called service learning. “My model has been the Socratic dialogue, where the teacher is a leader and p…

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…ploded among white, middle-class, religious families who want more control over the values their children are exposed to or who fear for their children’s safety, Reich said. “I’m convinced that further privatization is inevitable,” he added. Supporters have framed the argument for it as “a civil rights issue or a matter of social justice.” he said. “People say President Clinton sent his daughter to private school. If we are serious about social justice, we should give all parents the same choice that wealthy parents have.”

How would he change the situation? Reich was asked. “I can imagine a variety of institutional arrangements but where private schools are still subject to state oversight,” he said. “Perhaps public dollars could flow to them if the curriculum met the state’s interests. A democracy has needs, but that doesn’t mean public schools have to meet them.”

Parents Want Vouchers and School Choice

Parents Want School Choice

Choice-based reforms, such as vouchers and charter schools, depend on the idea that schools will have to satisfy parents to keep their customers. Thus the wisdom of choice-based reforms depends on what parents want. If parents place a high priority on academics, then schools with strong academic programs will do well under school choice. If parents want their children to learn disciplined work habits, then schools that teach such habits will thrive under school choice. If parents choose schools based on their sports programs, then schools emphasizing sports will succeed. In short, the question “What would parents look for in schools?” is central to the debate on school choice.

One way to answer this question is to survey parents. When surveyed, parents overwhelmingly say that their first priority is learning, especially in core areas: reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history. Parents also say that they want schools to uphold standards of hard work, honesty, courtesy, and responsibility. Although parents do not ignore extracurricular activities such as sports, they give them little weight compared to academics and standards of behavior.

Many people in the education establishment are skeptical of parent surveys, saying that parents who do not care about academics are embarrassed to say so. They point out that it is not enough for parents to say that they want high standards for academics and behavior. What matters, they say, is how parents respond when their children get bad grades or face the consequences of breaking school rules.

Another way to find out what parents want is to see what sorts of charter schools they choose. Most of the 1,700 charter schools in the nation emphasize academics, although their approach varies from back to basics to high technology. Charter schools also strive to create students who are upstanding human beings. No known charter schools so far have academics taking a back seat to sports.

The same people who are skeptical of parent surveys, however, are skeptical of evidence based on charter schools. The movement is still in its infancy, they say, and today’s charter school parents are atypical.

So the toughest test of what parents want may be in areas where it is easy for parents to choose a school because there are so many public school districts. In some medium-sized metropolitan areas, such as Boston, there are more than one hundred school districts.

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