School choice refers to the use of public funds that give parents more discretion in their children’s education. It usually entails making available to parents a wider variety of educational options beyond a standard, local public school. Examples of choice initiatives include charter schools, home schooling, voucher programs, tax credits for private schools, and the formation of magnet schools. While many parents exercise a “hidden” form of school choice via their selection of residential location, choice programs stir most controversy when they entail privatization, that is, the redirecting of governing authority from a public body to parents and/or school staff.
In North America the impetus for choice needs to be understood in the context of the mass expansion of public education. The achievement of universal enrolments at elementary and then secondary levels over the twentieth century gave rise to large, bureaucratic schools. Known somewhat derisively as the ”one best system” approach to education, large urban schools grew to be characterized by standardized offerings and a bureaucratic governing structure (Tyack 1974). While perhaps administratively efficient, such schools disenchanted many educators, students, and parents in the 1960s and 1970s. A variety of actors, including minority advocates and experimental pedagogues, portrayed mass public schools as dehumanizing, inequitable, and unresponsive to children’s needs. In response, they initiated a flurry of educational alternatives, including ”Free” and ”Open” schools, often mandated to serve collective goals and notions of minority rights. Though most of these innovations were short lived, they brought to the public system a more ”progressive” curriculum, and a greater concern with educational equity.
A very different type of choice movement emerged in the early 1980s, marked by rationales of providing avenues for individual status striving and for the benefits of school competition. Declaring public schools to be substandard, many policymakers began to seek initiatives to boost the quality of education. Some reasoned that if public schools faced competition for clients from new schools of choice, the quality of both would necessarily rise. Simultaneously, many middle class parents acquired preferences for more intensive education, looking to prep their children for prized slots in higher education, or to provide them an experience tailored to their needs. Choice was seen as a solution to both of these concerns.
This type of choice resonates with policy makers who embrace a ”market” approach to schooling. A resounding theme among these proponents is that markets can be an antidote to the ”one best system.” They see public bureaucracies as too slow to adapt to a world in which parent, student, and teacher preferences for pedagogy are increasingly specialized and varied. According to Chubb and Moe (1990), the most renowned market theorists, markets can free schools from the grip of central administration. Regular public funding arrangements, they argue, encourage schools to conform to legal conventions rather than provide effective service, and thus make public schools unresponsive to their clients. In contrast, many choice arrangements force schools to attract fee paying parents in order to survive. This is said to make their educational decision making more entrepreneurial and attuned to boosting student achievement. Markets are thus hailed by their advocates as the optimal medium for linking the preferences of parents to educators, and delivering a more personalized, customized education.
This theory of market based choice has spawned one of the most polarized debates in contemporary education. The intensity of this controversy is rooted in enduring philosophical issues. Many defenders of public schools see choice initiatives as threatening the common school tradition, in which schools draw students from the immediate area and bind them into a vibrant local citizenry, creating the grounds for grassroots democracy (see Fuller 2000). Choice, some warn, can only further decay the populace’s common experience and their participation in collective endeavors. Further, many fault the choice movement for equating the value of school with individualistic status striving rather than collective goals, thereby further diluting the public spirit of education.
Beyond these philosophical disputes, sociologists commonly address empirical dimensions of choice, and in so doing have made some advances. Much of the choice literature in the early 1990s was highly polemical, due partly to the absence of adequate data and the novelty of most choice initiatives. The past decade, however, has produced a sprawling interdisciplinary literature, with an extensive stockpile of studies conducted by educationalists, sociologists, political scientists, and, increasingly, economists. This corpus of research has four major themes.
One theme examines how choice affects the sorting of students among schools. Advocates claim that choice can effectively reduce race and class segregation by allowing poor and minority families to escape substandard institutions. In contrast, critics claim that such policies will only ”cream off” the best students from mediocre schools, resulting in a renewed form of segregation. Interestingly, research to date suggests that choice neither lessens nor worsens existing levels of segregation. While relatively few minority parents take advantage of choice initiatives, charter schools appear roughly to reflect the com position of their neighborhoods, since they are often bound to regulations that ensure minimal levels of diversity (Goldhaber 1999).
The second theme has received the greatest attention in the US: the impact of choice on performance outcomes, particularly standardized test scores. While students in private schools have higher aggregate scores than their public counterparts, private schools can select more affluent and motivated students. The core issue is therefore whether or not choice mechanisms boost student performance net of the com position of students. A body of research has emerged that attempts to sort out those effects. While there is little consensus, and while disputes usually entail statistical intricacies, there is not any clear data that choice indeed provides a net increase in test scores. Evidence suggests that parents of students in such schools report high levels of satisfaction, and that choice can allow schools to be responsive to the vagaries of parental demand. But such evidence has led some to conclude that public schools would perform similarly given the same resources and ability to select students (Witte 2000).
A third issue deals with organizational characteristics. A central claim by choice advocates is that market forces spark innovations in school pedagogy, curricula, and personnel. Yet research to date on this issue is mixed. American studies suggest that innovation among charter schools is limited (Lubienski 2003). Canadian research similarly suggests that new private schools are rarely innovative in their instruction and structure, though many form niches and specialized identities (Davies & Quirke 2005). One provisional conclusion is that market style choice can trigger more specialized schools, but that such schools rarely deviate from the ”fundamental grammar” of schooling that has been institutionalized over the past century.
A fourth issue involves whether the presence of market competition motivates local public schools to improve, presumably by threatening those schools with the risk of losing students to rivals. For instance, after making a series of bold statistical assumptions, Hoxby (2003) claims that public school test scores indeed climb when they face greater competition. Others acknowledge this broad finding, but attribute it to the greater resources available to public schools in areas with large private enrolments (Arum 1996).
Much of this research is embroiled in methodological disputes. A core issue among quantitative researchers is how to isolate differences in school performance that are attributable to student versus school characteristics. To better sort out these effects, many researchers use measures of achievement growth instead of cross sectional data, but these longitudinal data are sometimes beset by attrition effects and by limited measures that fail to fully capture differences in motivation and academic preparedness among students. Qualitative researchers face the challenge of exploring emerging types of choice, such as home schooling, private tutoring, and the variety of charter schools. Such studies can potentially contribute to the choice literature by addressing holistic issues such as how parents and educators understand and experience choice, as well as its impact on less quantifiable outcomes like citizenship and community cohesion.
Choice movements will likely continue to thrive as long as competition for prized slots in post-secondary education continues, and as families continue to embrace ”intensive parenting,” a practice that values intimate educational experiences tailored to children’s unique needs (Davies & Quirke 2005). It will probably thrive best where public education is not strong, creating niches for schools with small classes and/or special curricular themes, or in cities with atrophied public offerings. While public schools will continue to cater to the vast bulk of students, choice will be sought by those who are most advantaged, and sometimes by those who are most disadvantaged.
- Arum, R. (1996) Do Private Schools Force Public Schools to Compete? American Sociological Review 61(1): 29-46.
- Chubb, J. & Moe, T. (1990) Politics, Markets and American Schools. Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.
- Davies, S. & Quirke, L. (2005) Providing for the Priceless Student: Ideologies of Choice in an Emerging Educational Market. American Journal of Education 111(4).
- Fuller, B. (2000) Introduction. In: Fuller, B. (Ed.), Inside Charter Schools. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 1-11.
- Goldhaber, D. D. (1999) School Choice: An Examination of the Empirical Evidence on Achievement, Parental Decision-Making, and Equity. Educational Researcher 28(9): 16-25.
- Hoxby, C. M. (2003) The Economics of School Choice. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Lubienski, C. (2003) Innovation in Education Markets: Theory and Evidence on the Impact of Competition and Choice in Charter Schools. American Education Research Journal 40(2): 395-443.
- Tyack, D. (1974) The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Witte, J. F. (2000) The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America’s First Voucher Program. Princeton University Press, Princeton.