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Issue Analysis: Public School Choice

Issue Analysis: Public School Choice

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Sarah Friesen-Johnson

March 6, 2015

P. Cohen, Schools in American Cities

Issue Analysis Paper


School choice is not a simple issue. From it’s inception it has sparked controversy. With the adage of charter schools, magnet schools and voucher systems, school choice has increasingly become one of the most central issues to the United States’ educational system. However, given its contentiousness and complexity, the fundamental purpose of school choice has been forgotten or often goes misunderstood. In class discussions and in readings on choice, I have often been confused by the complexity of the issue. Therefore, I’ve sought outside sources to better understand the core concepts of school choice that aren’t necessarily clear in readings. In this review, I focus on the basics of school choice. By basics, I mean school choice as a way to move students between public schools in the same district, regardless of their allocated “home school.” In removing some of the complexity in the issue, I hope to gain understanding of the ideology that inspires policy makers and administrators to encourage school choice and to decipher whether or not that ideology is being practiced effectively. In this, there might be some clarity on whether or not, in its fundamental purpose, school choice is still a good option for school systems within the United States.

Though school choice existed early in our nation’s history, our modern conception of it emerged with Nobel laureate Dr. Milton Friedman when, in 1955, he articulated the idea that tax dollars should follow a child to a school of their choice. (Parents for Choice in Education). However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that choice became a movement when Cambridge instituted a controlled choice model in an attempt to desegregate schools. (Tan, N., 1990; Peterkin, R. S. & Jackson, J. E., 1994). Other districts followed and  several years later, in 1983, Ronald Reagan endorsed school choice, inciting the controversies surrounding choice that we know today. (Peterkin, R.S. & Jackson, J. E., 1994).

The ideology for each of these trends toward choice was simple. It was believed that children should have access to an education that best suits them. Many have added their voices to support this movement. Mary Anne Raywid, a pioneer of school choice wrote,

“...we know for a fact that different youngsters learn in different ways and according to different patterns. When we persist in imposing a single instructional approach on all children, we succeed with some students and systematically handicap others. There is no reason (beyond our own perversity) to continue to assume that some single "right" approach exists that will suit every student.” (Raywid, M. 1989).


Therefore, as Raywid would argue, there is no one school that can support all learners’ needs. Instead, students should be directed toward a school that suits their individual characters rather than standardizing education. As another supporter of choice, Seymour Fliegel, a former deputy superintendent in East Harlem said, “Every kid is important; every kid can learn if you put him or her in the right environment. But since kids have this huge range of different needs, different interests, and different ways of learning, we've got to have a wide diversity of schools.” (Clinchy, E., 1989).

Other authors and thinkers agree. Howard Gardner, a professor former professor of developmental psychology at Harvard University and the originator of the theory of multiple intelligences agreed with school choice on the grounds that, “The single most important contribution education can make to a child’s development is to help him toward a field where his talents best suit him, where he will be satisfied and competent.” (Clinchy, E., 1989). In order to achieve that success, according to Gardner’s view, a student must be in an environment that allows him or her to develop abilities uniquely, which is what Raywid describes as a choice system.

An alternate, but no less present ideology about school choice is the market concept. Some believe that the market model is the best way to reform the school system by bringing in accountability and competition. (Schneider, M., Teske, P., Marschall, M. & Mintrom, M., 1997). This is perhaps the most hotly debated aspect of school choice. It is far less palatable to some than the argument of making sure students receive an education that benefits their individuality. Creating a capitalist school system would make students and parents customers of sorts and could quickly lead to inequality, at least in the eyes of some. This research is especially aligned with charter schools and magnets, which arguably engage in this consumerism-promoting inequality. This review is not long enough to delve into the complexity of charters and magnets within the market model, but it should be mentioned nonetheless as it is pertinent to extended discussions on this topic. Somewhat in contrast to this idea, is a final ideology behind choice movements which promotes it as a way of integrating schools. Rather than having homogenous student populations made up solely of those that can afford to live, or can only afford to live, in a specific neighborhood, school choice might provide a means of diversifying classrooms both racially and socioeconomically.

The issue of choice has supporters on both sides of the aisle with many arguing for individuality and diversity in education and others arguing for a market system, but both agreeing on a central point, that school choice would benefit our schools. There are, of course, opponents and their reasonings will be reviewed shortly, but first, the evidence or arguments to support these ideologies behind school choice are considered. The question is, does this evidence or these arguments provide enough support to definitively prove that school choice is best for our educational system?

Arguments for school choice are plentiful. However, the most poignant and frequent are: achievement increase, parental engagement, ease of mobility and forced reform. The most talked about argument is that there is a perceivable increase in student achievement when there is a choice system in place. The reasons may be numerous, but the results include higher test scores, higher grades and higher student satisfaction. The study done on Cambridge’s choice program, which was mentioned earlier, showed dramatic academic improvement. Elementary schools went from 54% of students passing mandated tests in 1985 to 87% passing by 1988. (Peterkin, R.S. & Jackson, J. E., 1994). Another examination of a choice system revealed that, after its implementation, students gained 3 to 5 percentile points in reading on average after three years. Further results show that the same population gained 1.5 to 2.3 percentile points in math on average. (Schneider, M.; Teske, P.; Marschall, M. & Mintrom, M. 1997). Second, concerning the mobility argument, it has been shown that public schools, particularly those in urban contexts, have mobility rates of 30% to 60% each year. (Peterkin, R.S. & Jackson, J. E., 1994). If choice was used, when students move, which may happen frequently in some cases, students can continue in their current school without having to readjust to new physical layouts, peer groups, teachers or curriculum. This may increase their achievement rates as well as they would spend less time getting used to a new school and teachers and administration would be more familiar with their needs. Parental engagement is also important to consider, not only because it is a dynamic issue, as will be explored further later on, but also because it is a legitimate argument for choice. The people behind this argument believe that academic achievement may be the result of parents and students being more satisfied with their school if they get to choose it. One article states that “giving parents greater choice over the public schools their children attend creates incentives for parents as "citizen/consumers" to engage in activities that build social capital.” (Schneider, M.; Teske, P.; Marschall, M.; Mintrom, M. 1997). This leads back to the ideology of school choice creating a market model for education, an ideology which is further supported by the argument of forced reform. It is believed that, when schools are in such a competitive environment that school choice fosters, they are not only naturally accountable, they are also more efficient and responsive to change efforts. The schools are not allowed to remain stagnant, they must continue to develop to keep up with the changing landscape of public education. There may not be a great deal of evidence to back up these arguments, but they are nonetheless valuable points to consider when thinking about school choice.

There are, of course, arguments that directly oppose those I have just described. First, to contradict the idea that achievement increases when school choice exists, there is evidence to the contrary. Some believe that, rather than increased achievement being obvious, the results are unclear and inconsistent and it can be argued that achievement is a result of negative aspects of choice. The negative aspects of choice, which directly oppose most of the ideologies described above, are almost accidental impacts of choice. For example, it is argued that choice programs, rather than desegregating, actually segregate schools. The same market that helps schools to reform also creates a divide between classes. Students with involved or affluent parents are more likely to gain access to the top choice schools or to gain access to choice at all. (Peterkin, R.S. & Jackson, J. E., 1994). Therefore, the lower achieving schools are left with lower achieving students with little hope of improvement or help to improve. A news article found a woman who, despite her master’s degree and professional background, struggled to navigate through the complexity of the system of choice to gain access to a good school for her young son. If this woman is incapable of understanding and negotiating the school system, the struggles of someone with low English ability or a more time consuming working life can only be imagined. (Herold, B. 2012). There is evidence, in fact, that parents choose schools for cultural a social variables rather than exclusively choosing schools for instruction and programmatic focus. These choices are “Profound enough to change racial composition of classrooms or entire schools.” (Chad, H. 2007). Choice systems, therefore, may lead to further racial and socioeconomic segregation rather than increasing their diversity as they are touted to do. Instead, they might only help the upper class.

There is an author, however, that makes a strong point against considering this last factor of segregation. As he asks, “Why do opponents say choice would leave no one in public schools but the poor? Who is there now?” (Moloney, W.J., 1992). Perhaps, rather than eliminating the choice system, therefore, efforts should be put in place to improve it, to include all people in the choice process equally regardless of socioeconomic standing. As Evans Clinchy says in “Public school choice: Absolutely necessary but not wholly sufficient author(s)” says,

“Choice instituted in a hasty, ill-conceived fashion can easily turn out to be - and in all too many cases is turning out to be - no choice at all: a charade and even a hoax, a pseudo innovation that produces no significant change in the old authoritarian school system that adopts a choice plan.” (1989).


What if choice wasn’t instituted in a “hasty, ill-conceived fashion” and was instead implemented with care and with a larger picture in mind. Would it work then? What lengths would the US have to go to to achieve that goal?

The supporters and opponents of choice have both been given voice in this review, but the balance of these arguments does not lead to a clear solution. In class discussions and readings, there has also been no obvious path revealed for those seeking to understand whether choice is or isn’t good for the school system. It seems there is no one answer. However, it should be considered that choice has been implemented widely across the country and is unlikely to be given up in such a widespread manner. The best option may then be to work with school choice to improve it rather than to remove it. In truth, supporters of choice have strong arguments, particularly ideologically. The thoughts that lead to choice were good, so why can’t choice one day be beneficial? Perhaps that is why choice is still being instituted, in spite of its lack of consistently proven effect. People still believe that, if implemented effectively, choice could affirm all the ideologies afore mentioned and create a genuinely good educational environment within the United States.


Chad, H. (2007). School choice and diversity: what the evidence says. New York: Teachers College

Press. The Education Forum 72,2.


Clinchy, Evans. (1989). Public school choice: Absolutely necessary but not wholly sufficient author(s).

Source: The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), pp. 289-294 Published by: Phi

Delta Kappa International Stable URL: Accessed: 03-03-2015 01:41 UTC


Herold, B. (2012). Painful choices: For one mother, Philadelphia’s portfolio of school options brings

opportunity and heartache. NewWorks. Retrieved from:


Moloney, W.J. (1992). A public school superintendent’s case for choice. The Clearing House,

Proquest Education Journals, pg. 87.


Parents for Choice in Education. School choice info: History of the movement. Retrieved from:


Peterkin, R.S. & Jackson, J.E. (1994). Public school choice: Implications for African American

students. The Journal of Negro Education. 63:1:126.


Raywid, M. (1989). The mounting case for schools of choice. In J. Nathan (Ed.), Public schools by

choice (pp. 13-40). St. Paul, MN: The Institute for Learning and Teaching.


Schneider, M.; Teske, P.; Marschall, M. & Mintrom, M. (1997). The American Political Science

Review. 91.1: 82-83


Tan, N., (1990). The Cambridge controlled choice program: Improving educational equity and

integration (Education Policy Paper Number 4). New York, NY: Manhattan Institute, Center

for Educational Innovation.


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