"The Impact of Emerging Market-Based Public Policy on Urban Schools and a Democratic Society." By Carolyn S. Ridenour, Thomas J. Lasley, II and William L. Bainbridge. Education and Urban Society. November 2001.


The Impact of Emerging Market-Based Public Policy

On Urban Schools and a Democratic Society


Carolyn Ridenour


Department of Educational Leadership

University of Dayton

Dayton, Ohio


Thomas J. Lasley, II


School of Education and Allied Professions

University of Dayton

Dayton, Ohio


William L. Bainbridge



Columbus, Ohio



Published in

Education and Urban Society

November 2001



The Impact of Emerging Market-Based Public Policy on Urban Schools and a Democratic Society

Whether research has served the best interests of urban schools is debatable, but no doubt exists that research on urban schools has proliferated. However, during the past two decades educational researchers have switched their focus, moving away from studies of opportunity, equity, and the racial resegregation of urban schools and toward studies of "excellence." The excellence movement, which began with research on the characteristics of effective and ineffective schools, now focuses more particularly on creating uniform academic standards, substantially increasing reading and math requirements, and utilizing market approaches to enhance competition. University voices have been "surprisingly silent" regarding urban education (Orfield, 1996). That "silence" has occurred for different reasons. Most notably, though, acquiescence by the academy through the 1970s and 1980s was attributed by Orfield (1996) to the fact that the "research community and most research funders…follow rather than challenge political cycles" (p. 341).

Two political worlds currently invoke striking contrasts: the wider social world continues to aspire to racial and social justice; the narrower classroom world focuses on a discourse of "academic excellence." The tensions between social justice and academic rigor are not new. Indeed, they have dominated much of the past 100 years in debates between the progressivists embracing Dewey and traditionalists and reform advocates who resonate with writers such as E.D. Hirsch. We examine the tensions from a particular framework that addresses the following questions: Given current public policy initiatives related to urban schools, who benefits, who suffers, and what are the political and social complications?

We argue, first, that public education is intended to serve the public good. Second, we discuss the underlying shift from public policy based on democratic principles to a public policy based on market assumptions. Third, we substantiate our claim that the most disadvantaged students and families will be left behind if a market-based policy shift takes place without appropriate public policy safeguards. In the fourth and last section, we draw conclusions from these discussions and suggest implications for policymakers to consider. The dramatic shifts in the politics of urban schools become apparent only by looking at attacks on traditional governance structures and the rise of the market.

The Allure of the Market

During the 1990s, market force advocates began to emerge on the political scene and demanded changes in the policies and practices of urban schools. The market approach has historical roots. Adam Smith argued against monopolies as a mechanism for providing service; Milton and Rose Friedman (1980) then "modernized" the concept suggesting that economic competition could and should influence both school efficiency and effectiveness. Indeed, the Friedmans argued for a voucher plan that "would give parents at all income levels freedom to choose the schools their children attend"

(p. 188). Few educators or educational critics questioned the fact that urban schools were struggling to succeed in the 1990s. The issue was whether market force remedies offered an appropriate palliative. The public apprehension and uncertainties with choice became evident in the 2000 elections as voters largely rejected choice initiatives around the country but embraced a presidential candidate who ran on a strong market-oriented educational agenda. Once elected, President Bush proffered vouchers and competition as a strategy to improve failing schools. Federal funds, he proposed, would be allocated to parents of children in failing schools where lack of adequate improvement is evidenced after three years. Choice advocates bemoaned the long lead-time (not for five or six years would "action" be likely); opponents of vouchers maintained their opposition but perceived only a flimsy threat. For both groups, implementing widespread choice retains its uncertain future; however, the many forms of choice, including most notably charter schools and vouchers, continue to expand across the political and educational landscape - - see Figures 1 and 2 for data on the rapid expansion of charter schools.

Charter schools first emerged in Minnesota in 1992. Advocates envisioned in charters a way to reform public schools while still keeping them public. The movement started slowly but by the turn of the century charter schools were evident in almost every state and most urban centers. Once an educational anomaly, by 2000 they were almost normative within urban education. Even liberal politicians embraced charters. Former President Clinton called for expanding them in his 1997 state of the union speech. Political candidates across the political spectrum embraced the charter solution as a necessary way to solve the public school educational problem.




Year Number of Charter Schools

SOURCE: Center for Education Reform (www.edreform.com).

The research on the effectiveness of charters is still quite mixed (Gardner, 2000). Though advocates readily justify the charter school expansion with a substantial body of research (Finn, Manno, & Vanourek, 2000), those who question the charter solution as the answer quickly proffer their own evidence, questioning whether charters really make the difference that advocates claim (Gardner, 2000). The safest conclusion is likely that success within charters is situational – some succeed, some fail. Advocates assert that therein lies a critical element to the efficacy of the charter concept. When regular public schools fail, they continue to do business. When charter schools fail, they are closed, and clearly some are closed each year (Berman, Nelson, Ericson, Perry, & Silverman, 1998); of 2,150 charters, 86 had closed by December 2000 (Bowman, 2001) - - See also

The choice phenomenon is complex and political. Choice advocates argue that by creating competition and giving parents options, strong schools will thrive; weak schools will be forced to change or close. But for the market approaches to work certain conditions must be evidenced. Robenstine (2001) writes:

The success of school choice policy is highly dependent on individual consumers being first able to act, and then second actually acting in the ways expected by those who conceived and formulated the policy. The greater the deviation from expected behavior, the greater the likelihood of policy failure. Though in the school choice debate there is some attention paid to whether parents actually act in the ways school choice proponents presume parents will act, [the critical question is] …whether all parents are even able to act in the ways presumed. If the answer is "no," this deficiency would indicate forcefully that unregulated school choice educational policy has a very low probability of achieving its stated goal: improving the educational experiences for and raising the achievement levels of all students, especially those from minority and/or low socioeconomic backgrounds. (p. 56-57)



Charter Schools Opened and Closed Through December 2000






















District of Columbia





















New Jersey



North Carolina












South Carolina









SOURCE: Center for Education Reform (www.edreform.com).

Throughout much of the past decade, research on choice has proliferated. Interestingly, those who tacitly advocate for choice as public policy have conducted much of that research. Howell, Wolf, Peterson, &Campbell (2001) and others have conducted studies in urban areas such as New York City, Washington, DC, Dayton, and Cleveland in an effort to illustrate the power of "choice." Throughout the country business leaders have put big dollars behind the ideology. Literally millions of dollars have been devoted to the choice experiment. The findings, though, on whether choice results in better schools remain highly mixed, especially with regard to enhancing student achievement. Parent satisfaction with choice initiatives is clear. Few researchers question the fact that parents in choice environments are more satisfied with the schools their children attend. Some evidence suggests that African-American students may benefit from choice environments (Howell, Wolf, Peterson, and Campbell, 2001), but other critics claim that the way in which choice researchers combined data sets may have confounded the results (Carnoy, 2001).

If quantitative researchers debate what the data suggest, those engaged in qualitative studies of choice environments are equally cautious in finding clear direction for policymakers. Fiske and Ladd (2000) compellingly argue, for example, that voucher-like practices present some real dilemmas that necessitate close scrutiny if choice is to become a matter of public policy. Using New Zealand’s choice experiment as an example, the authors highlight the potential "adverse selection" problems associated with choice initiatives. Two of the Fiske and Ladd (2000) findings appear especially relevant.

Especially problematic as evidenced in the Fiske and Ladd research is the fact that some students lack adult advocates and those students are "adversely selected" to attend what ultimately may become inferior schools. Of course, voucher advocates claim that this result could be mitigated by adjusting the system (e.g., create larger voucher amounts for those most at risk and most difficult to educate), but Fiske and Ladd (2000) note that:

Attaching differential dollar amounts to individual students raises additional practical, ethical, and political problems. From a practical point of view, it is difficult to determine a measure of educational disadvantage that can be applied fairly to individual students. Presumably, the appropriate measure of disadvantage is some complicated combination of parental income, parental educational level (especially of the mother), living conditions, and ethnicity. Gathering such information for each student would be a formidable, if not impossible, task. (pp. 302 – 303)

That public education can continue to serve the public good if governed by the invisible hand of the market is questionable; such a shift means that those most at risk have the most to lose; it also means a kind of Baskin-Robbins approach to education with a multitude of "vendors" offering education but few who look beyond self-interest to the broader public good. When families are customers and self interest a desired end, the value for the common good fades.

Public Education: a Public not a Private Good

Market assumptions foster a view that public education is a private good (Labaree, 2000). Choosing a good school for one’s children is an activity in which one responds to a market just as one would in purchasing other goods and services. It is a self-interested endeavor. Yet, two possible purposes of public education, according to Labaree, are democratic equality (producing competent citizens who can make valid judgments about democratic life and who have a common set of social experiences) and social efficiency (basically producing a productive workforce). Both these goals stabilize the common good, according to Labaree. He claims that they are:

strikingly similar in that they both see education as a public good. The nature of a public good is that it affects everyone in the community: you can’t escape it, even if you want to…. everyone gains if a public school system produces competent citizens and productive workers, and everyone loses if it fails to do so. That includes people who do not have children in public school. (p. 32)

A third possible purpose is social mobility, which is the lens of the individual "consumer" of education. Schools exist not because of their benefits to the common world of all of us, but because of what they can do for each individual personally: "Educational credentials give individuals an advantage over competitors, and that advantage pays off handsomely, helping some to get ahead and others to stay ahead" (p. 32). This purpose relies on sorting and selecting out certain students over others. This view establishes education as a private good within the broader context of the public good. In essence, schooling serves a private good but nonetheless remains dedicated to the common public welfare.

Halchin (1999) conceptually differentiates education from other institutions that putatively serve the public good. She cites the work of Gutmann (1987) and Henig (1994) in claiming: "Education is not the same as public safety, garbage collection, road construction and maintenance, and the regulation of food and drugs. These functions and activities make life safer, convenient, and more pleasant. But they are not essential to the functioning of democracy. Education sustains democracy by producing an educated citizenry equipped to participate in self-government" (p. 20). As a result, public policy must be structured to mitigate threats to the common good and foster practices that ensure a democratic way of life that embraces equality and fairness. In Fiske and Ladd’s (2000) words:

The basic forces unleashed by parental choice – including the tendency to judge school quality by the mix of a school’s student body – are likely to push systems toward greater ethnic and socioeconomic polarization under almost any circumstance. (p. 305)

To prevent polarization and fragmentation, contemporary public policy initiatives require a set of core values that reinforce and sustain the notion that schools exist to ensure the common good and that education for all is best achieved when education is removed from the market place. The rationale for the removal is simple: Whereas businesses seek to maximize personal and corporate profits, schools focus on securing the public good and fostering equity, and in the words of Finkelstein and Grubb (2000) "proponents of equity have everything to fear from…market-like mechanisms" (p. 623). Whereas one business failure leads to a competitor’s win; in education the costs of failure compromise the social fabric because failure erodes the fundamental capacity for equity and mitigates the emergence of a common vision of what it means to be a productive and knowledgeable adult in a democratic society.

School choice is viewed as a legitimate way that parents as consumers can act on behalf of their own children even to the neglect of the common good. Parents, critics suggest, have a right to seek what is best for their children even at the risk of compromising an educational system oriented to the public good. Halchin (1999) warns against an abating sense of the common good:

this [choice] education reform assure[s] parents that it is permissible to focus on one’s own interests to the exclusion of the community’s interests. The intended targets of information about charter schools could lose sight of government’s overall responsibility to promote the public good or could overlook their own role in the community and the neighborhood school. In short, the consumer mind-set might suppress civic impulses. (p. 31)

Kozol (1992), well known for his social justice emphasis and his criticism of what he describes as boutique charter schools, is even more disparaging in his criticism of choice: "Choice will fragmentize ambition, so that the individual parent will be forced to claw and scramble for the good of her kid and her kid only, at whatever cost to everybody else" (p. 92). That cost, according to Maran (2000), will have serious consequences for public schools. In her words, "private school vouchers [represent] an insidiously seductive scheme to siphon much needed public funds from desperately underfunded public schools" (p. 290).

The marketplace is not concerned with equity or stability. Yet, state systems of compulsory education must be if the interests of all constituents are to be protected (Gardner, 2000). The public policy consequences of market force educational practices would seem to be clear: If the only stakeholders are the parents of children in schools, then others will become disengaged from schooling and those with children not in public schools will increasingly disengage from public schools. The practical outcomes seem even more problematic: No longer would there be a common understanding of and broad-based citizen focus on schools. Furthermore, without such focus it is likely that not all children would receive the education they deserve if inequitable practices persist.

Education as a public good is the foundation of schooling in the United States. School choice, in the form of vouchers and charters, transforms education into a private good. According to Halchin, (1999), "As a market-based education system, charter schools present education as a consumer good, parents as consumers and students as commodities. The fragmentation of the school system, the weakening of the common school ethos, and explicit messages encouraging parents to shop around, all challenge views of education as a public good" (p. 24). The inevitable winners (the privileged or skilled choosers) and losers (the disconnected choosers) of this shift from public to private good are clearer when we examine more closely the move from a democratic base to a market base for public school policy.

A Move from Democratic Theory to Market Theory

Urban schools are faced with many complex challenges. Some believe that market forces will help meet those challenges. Unequal access to good education underlies one argument in favor of school choice and the use of market approaches (Carnoy, 2001). While the affluent have always had the power and the capital to choose the neighborhood in which they live, the poor have not. Housing patterns, then, predetermine schooling patterns -- the zip code approach to predicting student achievement. Though there are some excellent teachers in poor schools (Sanders, 2001), the opportunities available to those in poor neighborhoods are vastly different than those available to the wealthy. Some believe that vouchers, charters and choice will help poor families access better education because they will create more options. Finklestein and Grubb (2001) assert, however, "in the U.S., [those focused on reform have found that] it is easier to expand the quantity rather than the quality of education" (p. 612). Rather than ameliorating the serious challenges facing urban schools, policies on school choice can place urban school communities at risk – weakening faith-based schools, diminishing the capacity of urban schools to serve the least advantaged students (immediately and long-term), and undermining the morale of urban teachers. Furthermore, low-income parents may lack the background or time to make essential school choices.

When the theory base moves from housing to schools the object of parents’ choices move, too. The market-based educational approach works only if parents exercise choice consistent with the way predicted by those who conceived the policy. One assumption is that "informed" parents will choose schools and that the schools that exhibit the highest academic quality or at least strive toward that goal will be those chosen. Unfortunately, this is not always the case even with more "sophisticated" parents. Henig (1996) found that parents in Montgomery County, Maryland chose schools with higher student/teacher ratios, not what one would expect if pure market theory and informed consumers were at play, because parents, too, tended to select schools where more of their own ethnic group members were enrolled. In essence, parents may become consumers but they may not be skilled educational choosers.

Not all parents are inclined or capable of becoming informed and judicious consumers in the education marketplace, a prominent problem highlighted by Fiske and Ladd (2000). Indeed, the parents who emerge as beneficiaries of market systems are likely those who know how to choose more selective schools (the privileged/skilled chooser) because of substantial personal experiences with schools and social capital. To a lesser extent, the semi-skilled chooser, who has some knowledge but who is less able to discern hype from fact, may experience subtle personal benefits (see Robenstine, 2001). But a third group (the disconnected chooser) is unable to critically examine and compare a wide range of schools. For this group, it is not a lack of interest; it is more often an absence of knowledge. The question is whether the benefits to the privileged/skilled choosers are worth the social costs to either the less well prepared choosers or to those who are socially disconnected.

The options from which parents choose may not substantially differ educationally as much as they differ socioeconomically or in terms of parental interest in education. For example, many magnet school programs, while differently labeled, are not dissimilar. When differences are invisible, it is unlikely that parents make their choice on the basis of some aspect of the school that would benefit their children’s learning. Furthermore, parents appear to be more inclined to choose based on convenience and social demographics rather than relevant academic characteristics that might benefit their children (Elmore & Fuller, 1996, p. l97). These bases for choice may be similar to the bases for housing choices; and, both are limited by circumstances not all of which are under parental control, including, inequity, lack of fairness, and unequal opportunity. For example, information that would seem to be essential for informed choices all too often simply is not available to parents.

Recall that market theory posits that families must be free to act and able to choose a school based on the design of social policy: better schools will flourish; poorer schools will be forced to improve or will close. Competition underlies the benefits of choice. The theory requires that the bureaucracy in school organizations will be trumped by the energy pressured by the market, and schools will be, as a result, more efficient. The market, according to pro-market libertarians and those with strong business interests, will drive out the bad and reinforce the good. One of the spurious assumptions made by market-oriented reformers is that competition produces quality ---as anyone knows who has flown recently, that simply is not true. It also is questionable as an educational reform strategy as has been evidenced in both New Zealand (Fiske & Ladd, 2000) and England (Finkelstein & Grubb, 2001).

Market theorists assume the imperative of an ongoing quest for the balance of supply and demand; and experiments in school choice suggest possibilities on both sides, the supply side and the demand side (Elmore & Fuller, 1996). Pressures from parent demand have received the most attention as advocates for choice appeal to the public for political support. Appealing to parents, choice promoters project its benefits: parents (especially the poor) will have rights to control their children’s education; they will be more involved; their children will benefit when there’s a greater match between what the children need and the choices that parents make to fill those needs. Market approaches work best when more sophisticated consumers (privileged skilled choosers) have a selection between a multitude of strong providers (Finkelstein & Grubb, 2001). The problem, of course, is that most poor parents are not privileged skilled choosers and most providers in poor neighborhoods are not strong.

Whether high quality alternative schools will be available (the supply side) for the urban poor cannot be assured through current reforms. Further, assuming that those who access programs possess the requisite sophistication to understand the choices is even more problematic. Elmore and Fuller (1996) suggest that the policy community must necessarily turn its attention to the supply side, the capacity of schools to respond to increased choice. They state:

…since parents and students with the least social capital seem also to be the ones who are least likely to engage in active choice, there are few demand-side incentives in choice programs for educators to engage in the deliberate design of programs that appeal to, and work well for, the most disadvantaged students. So it seems unlikely that choice, by itself, will stimulate creativity and improvement in the development of new, more effective educational programs. The problem seems to lie in the fact that the designers of choice programs have focused most of their attention, in all but a few cases, on demand-side issues, such as who gets to choose and how choices will be coordinated, rather than on crucial supply-side details, such as how schools and classroom actually differ. (p. 197)

Much more attention to establishing viable schooling alternatives needs to be made if market approaches are to have any opportunity to succeed and redound to the favor of all children. The focus must be on quality not quantity. In Elmore and Fuller’s (1996) words: "In the absence of serious progress on this front [creating more alternatives], it is unlikely that choice will do anything other than simply move high achievers around from one school to another, mistaking the effect of concentrating strong and motivated students for an effect of the school or the choice system" (p. 200).

Another danger, of course, is that if market choices expand too rapidly the traditional public schools will be weakened to the point that the government cannot guarantee space for a child if a "choice" school fails. Such a governmental guarantee is essential within a compulsory educational system. Many who oppose choice as a false and empty solution to failing urban schools call for massive investments in existing public schools. Their bottom line is that all children must have access to high performing schools and excellent teachers and that all students need options if choice schools fail (Fiske & Ladd, 2000).

Losers and Winners in Market Driven Schools

A universal program of school competition is based on a premise of winners and losers and, ultimately, of forcing losers out of business. In this section we argue that those students most in need, not the schools they attend, will be the "losers" if market approaches are implemented on a widespread basis. Further, race, class, ethnic, and geographic differences likely separate choosers and nonchoosers among parents in urban schools. These differences likely separate the winners and losers as well. Unhesitatingly, Wells (1996) asks,

What will happen to these children in an educational free market predicated on the existence of both winners and losers? Who will advocate for them? Who will respond to their sense of injustice or their need for the security and cultural familiarity of a neighborhood schools? These are important policy questions. In a truly deregulated system there is no guarantee and no safety net for these students. (p. 48)

The explanatory power of market theory belies any potential universal benefit. Because there are necessarily winners and losers in any competition, what is to become of the so-called "losers?" If choice emerges as established public policy, Americans would be establishing a system that not only expects but also accepts tacitly the fact that some will be left behind. Of course, some might argue that even those left behind might be better off because choice will create options, but the New Zealand experience belies this reality. Fiske and Ladd (2000) write:

We do not have the systematic test score data needed to determine which schools have improved the quality of their academic offerings under tomorrow’s Schools and which have not. Given the fact that the most desirable schools are now in an enhanced position to attract the brightest students and to tailor high-powered academic programs to them, we must presume that the academic levels of some schools have risen under Tomorrow’s Schools. However, we can confidently say that schools that have lost enrollment and that have taken on greater concentration of dysfunctional students as a result of Tomorrow’s Schools are worse off than they were before. Thus whatever the benefits to some institutions and some students, the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms have not produced a rising tide that raises all boats and increases the overall quality of the entire system. (pp. 306 – 307)

Studies to date of voluntary programs suggest that substantial differences exist between parents who choose and parents who don’t choose their child’s schools, and those differences are important. Choosers take several forms but share a concern for their children and a desire for something better. The "nonchoosers" are more likely to be poor, minority, and less actively involved in their children’s education (Elmore & Fuller, 1996). Several explanations for this circumstance are possible. For example, nonchoosers might be expressing a choice by not choosing, defining their own cultural beliefs in this way (Elmore & Fuller, 1996). Just as some suburban schools choose not to be included in choice programs (Ridenour & St. John, 2000), so, too, some families as a matter of principle, make the decision not to be involved in making a choice. Nonchoosers may also feel that they do not know how to make a choice; they may not perceive that they possess the ability or knowledge to even know how to "engage" the system.

If one justifies choice strictly on the grounds of a market theory it would follow that all parents, despite their social class, deserve the right to choose their children’s schools and that all parents possess the knowledge to make choices. As we discussed earlier, even if the first "right" is granted, the assumption that follows it is highly questionable. Interestingly, middle class and upper class communities have not welcomed choice initiatives (Lee, Croninger, & Smith, 1996; Ridenour & St. John, 2000; Zernike, 2000). A recent New York Times article tells the story of a suburban community on Long Island that actively resisted charter schools. Local citizens attempted to prevent them because their schools were "good enough" (Zernike, 2000). Implied in the "good enough" observation is a clear satisfaction with schools as they are currently constituted. Thus, choice emerges as a situational dynamic, evident in some communities, unnecessary or nonexistent in others.

In the privately funded scholarship program in Dayton, suburban school districts initially signed on as participants to receive choice students, but prior to implementation, backed away from the commitment. Choice programs such as privately funded vouchers and charter schools have been relegated to urban communities; understandably, school choice is a reform solution for failing schools. That urban communities are the settings for choice establishes a first layer of social sorting. Indeed, studies that have been conducted on school choice, so far, bear this out (see Fiske & Ladd, 2000), and suggest that stratification by race, class, ethnicity, and religion is likely to be more prevalent within social environments with policies mandating choice. In essence, choice may exacerbate socioeconomic apartheid to an even greater degree than already occurs in urban communities.

In the 1970’s in an effort to reduce segregation (and respond to court-ordered desegregation directives) magnet schools were established in many American cities. Thematically based magnet schools were designed to attract parents and their children of different social and racial backgrounds to attend the same schools. Unique identities were developed to entice students to enroll. Rather than deeply conceptualized thematic curriculums, magnet schools were mostly a practical response to laws mandating desegregation (Henig, 1996).

The success of magnet schools, like other reforms, is still not clear. What is evident, though, is that white families avoid schools with predominantly black students enrolled (Saporito and Lareau, 1999). In America, a "marked preference of white families to avoid black schools" exists and this behavior could exacerbate segregation rather than reduce racial isolation. Choices are shaped by social factors. White families were most likely to choose schools with low numbers of minorities (Henig, 1996). Elmore and Fuller (1996) found similar data in their research. Black families did not show the same pattern of preference by race. Some of the social results regarding race may be cultural in origin. For example, in London, a difference existed in the schools that were selected by the wealthy as opposed to those schools that attracted the working class (Brighouse, 2000). Thus, while markets didn’t cause racial segregation of schools in England and Wales, they failed to lead to desegregation (Gorard and Fitz, 2000).

A social sorting effect is likely to result from choice (Sykes, Plank, & Arsen, 2000; Ridenour & St. John, 2000). Wells (1996) found that black inner city high school students who chose not to opt for transferring to a predominantly white suburban school came from families where parents were less well educated and were employed at lower paying jobs than were similar students who choose to move to the same suburban schools. She further found that students who remained in the inner city school were choosing a culture familiar and comfortable to them. They minimized the importance of differences in school quality:

This is not a portrait of self-maximizing families who carefully evaluated their options and their long-term goals and decided that a city school would better serve their needs than a county school. Offering these students the choice of higher-status schools did not free them from a habitus of fear and insecurity in a world that places them at the bottom of the social structure. (p. 35)

What seems to be clear is that charters and choice are impacting education. And, further, the rapid expansion of the choice and charter movement before the consequences are known represents a real threat to government guarantees of quality education for all students. In Fiske’s and Ladd’s (2000) words:

There is a big difference between a few charter schools operating on the fringe of a public school system and a whole system of self-governing schools functioning in a competitive environment. When there are just a few charter schools, the government can be assured that if a school does not meet the needs of a particular child, that child will have a guaranteed place in a traditional public school, over which the government has direct operational control. Such a guarantee would seem to be important in a system of compulsory education. (p. 297)

Who’s left behind and how to achieve educational equity are questions that are relevant to practical issues such as housing patterns and public policy concerns relative to sustaining our democratic way of life. Thoughtful researchers, after having spent much time studying this question, seem far from hopeful that answers are apparent. Witte (2000), in drawing conclusions from several years of study of Milwaukee’s voucher experiment, questions whether or not resources would go to the neediest schools given widespread choice:

If the [dramatic change in urban schools] requires a universal voucher program, I believe it will backfire for poor districts. The money will simply go elsewhere and once it is being routinely spent in the suburbs and selective inner-city schools, it will never be retrieved. If most of the money ends up in the suburbs or private schools, and inner-city students cannot follow the money, what is the incentive to improve inner-city schools? (p. 208)


Many of the urban problems of today are the result of pernicious policy mandates in the past. Desegregation (and its concomitant busing strategy) was well intentioned. Regrettably, it resulted in the dismantling of many urban school districts. Those now embracing market-based approaches can neither prove that choice works nor disprove assertions that it will negatively impact the common good. Given that uncertainty, public policy changes should be measured and limited but always structured to ensure the integrity of a system of public schools that provide real educational guarantees for all students. In the words of Fiske and Ladd (2000), educational policy makers have an obligation to "First do no harm." They also have an obligation to protect the learners and improve learning conditions. Such a goal can only be achieved if policymakers consider two strategies. First, state governmental leaders need to manage the rate of change so that those most in need of help by the creation of improved schools are not those most hurt if the "experiment" fails. Expanding options without working to strengthen existing schools compromises the common good because it potentially limits necessary government guarantees. School systems in states such as Ohio now require an advocacy group that takes into account the needs of the most needy children and ensures educational stability for them.

The real opportunity rests in trying to determine how best to serve those most in need. In New Zealand, equity requires significant government expenditures to offset the overwhelming disadvantages faced by schools serving at-risk students. If we fail to find a similar balance, choice will not be enough. Exercising choice, though creating pockets of opportunity, will more likely continue to force those most in need to move restlessly from one provider to another. That outcome is not good for a person’s health care, and it is equally pernicious for education.

Second, create educational policy that manages reform for schools with high percentages of children from disadvantaged homes. In order to ensure that the public’s interests are protected, such action is imperative. In that regard, a second policy perspective should be considered for areas with concentrated poverty: Create strategic partnerships to ensure a more collaborative relationship between those with conflicting ideologies. This can best be assured by studying carefully the effects of change and investing in new models of cooperation between those arguing for choice and those representing the current system. New models will not emerge without debate or confrontation, but the outcomes should be ones that create viable and stable educational options for students of all socioeconomic classes.


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