Zoo Station

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How should be go about school choice?

Posted by Chance on July 27, 2006

There are basically three ways that people discuss concerning the reform of our public school system. One way is to keep the existing public school system, but work on reform, either through increased funding, or other ideas. There are two more radical ways that involve school choice. One school choice method is to continue public funding of education, but allow school choice through vouchers or charter schools. The much more radical one involves the complete privatization of schools.

I like the idea of complete privatization, but I think it is a little radical for right now, and I don’t think it has much support, primarily because it would cut off universal guaranteed funding. So, the school voucher/charter school method seems like a reasonable compromise, or a major first step. But the question is, would this, in fact, be an improvement, or could it potentially make things worse. Andrew Coulson deals with this question:

Will charter schools enlarge the existing government monopoly in the long run?

We know this is a delicate question, but our own history demands that it be asked. A close historical analogue to a modern charter school is a conventional U.S. public school of the mid-to-late 1800s. In fact, early public schools had greater local control and autonomy than most charters do today.

Look what has become of them.

The natural pattern for public schools has been relentlessly increasing centralization and regulation. Is there any reason to think that charter schools, or any public school choice variation, will escape that fate?

Many private schools are opting to convert to charter schools as a way of alleviating financial pressures, so the eventual result could be a nearly universal government monopoly that is as heavily regulated as are public schools today. Is that a tolerable risk?

The late Harry Browne echoed a similar concern, stating that school vouchers are not really “school choice” and would actually make things worse. Private schools would begin to accept public funds, through the form of vouchers, but with this money, strings would probably be attached. As a consequence, private schools would be molded to fit the public school model, and then private schools would have the same flaws as the public school system of today.

So, the middle road of school choice raises concerns about the fate of private schools. From a religious establishment issue, I still have no problems with private schools receiving money that follows the student, because it is done so by the student’s choice, not through any coercion. However, I have to consider the concerns raised by Browne and Coulson. In an earlier post I stated by opposition to government funding of faith based initiatives, because it would change the nature of the initiative, and I wonder if the same would happen to private schools. At the same time, I like the idea of the money following the student; we are funding the student anyway, why not let him choose where to go? If we could get the funding without the regulation, that would be great, but that is unlikely to happen.

Perhaps a good solution would be to allow school choice, but only in the public arena. This would mimic the situation in higher education. The student would still be stuck in a public school system, but they would have their choice of schools. This seems to work well in the college arena. Where a child lives would not determine what school they had to attend, it would basically be an issue of how the parents are willing to drive. I am not sure how this would work exactly, because it would not be a free market, so I would have to spend time thinking about the ramifications of such a system. The good schools would attract all the students, but what motivation would the school have to grow? Maybe increased funding that eventually means higher teacher and administrator pay. That would provide motivation for schools to do better jobs. But, even then, the school system is still somewhat closed, so I am not sure how good it would do. Just some things to think about.

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