The many questions of school choice

Owen B. Butler

July 24, 1991|By Owen B. Butler

AFTER an initial clamorous burst, the debate over the administration's proposal for a voucher plan to encourage school districts to offer parents the choice of both public and private schools has unfortunately faded.

School choice is a tempting idea. As a veteran of more than 40 years in corporate America, I strongly believe in the benefits of competition and free enterprise.

But schools are not businesses and students are neither products nor consumers.

Including private schools in the choice system may be a good idea, but it may also be a very bad idea. The problem is that we just don't know. There are numbers of issues that need to be addressed before we leap on this bandwagon.

How do we deal with the students attending private schools who would be eligible for vouchers? More than 5 million students are enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools. Doesn't a voucher system require that we give vouchers to all the students in private schools?

Public schools now spend an average of $4,000 per pupil. The additional cost would be $20 billion per year without any change in current school attendance patterns.

If large numbers of public-school students decided to transfer to private schools, what would these new schools be like? Would they be excellent schools or would many of them be established by opportunists to take advantage of a huge new source of revenue?

Would private schools that accepted public money be permitted to remain selective, a characteristic that has contributed to their effectiveness? Suppose 10 students applied for admission to a private school. The six who were admitted were white; the four rejected were black. Would the courts allow such behavior if it were a consistent pattern?

Would private schools that accepted public money be permitted to expel children who are behavior problems or who cannot keep up? If private schools are required by the courts to operate under the same rules as the public schools, would they be any different from public schools?

If they were not required to abide by these rules, how could we claim we were creating a free-market educational system when some of the suppliers had to comply with a severe set of requirements that their competitors could ignore?

If private schools were required to accept the kinds of students they now turn away, would the teachers who chose to work in private schools continue to seek such jobs?

This list of concerns is far from complete.

While some private schools operate on relatively low per-pupil expenditures, many of the best have annual tuitions of $6,000 to $7,000 and often supplement tuition with endowments and private fund raising.

If private-school enrollment swelled and new schools had to be built, legal fees expended, special programs added and new specialists employed, what would be the cost per pupil in these schools?

None of this says permitting private schools to compete for public funds cannot work. It only says there are many unknowns and we can't predict with confidence whether this program would produce change for the better.

We do know that choice among public schools can work.

We have more than half a century of experience with magnet schools. They were a success when I attended Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute more than 50 years ago and are a success today. Magnet schools can bring competition to public schools without opening an insurmountable array of moral and legal issues.

Let's get on with accountability, deregulation and competition among schools. But let's not put our private and public schools at risk.

If the Bush administration is determined to introduce private school choice, this should be done as a carefully controlled experiment. The nation should not be rushing headlong down the path of private-school vouchers until we know how the system might work in practice.

Owen B. Butler, former chairman of Procter & Gamble, is chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, a business policy research organization.

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