Event Transcript of Panel on the Issues of School Choice

With Dr. Jay Greene and Professor Henry Levin
Louis Finkelstein Institute
March 15, 2005

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PROF. LEVIN: One of the problems with presenting after Jay is that there are so many things that he has said that I agree with, and yet I have a very different take on what the likely outcomes are of some of the changes in policy that are being discussed.

Now let me just begin by telling you I've respected his work a great deal, it's always interesting. We don't always agree on the consequences of different policies, but this is very good work. I also want to say that I'm happy to be here. This is going back in a way to my birth because my great uncle, Joseph Herman Hertz, was the first graduate of JTS long, long, long before it was situated here. So we have a kind of very early tie to JTS. He was my mother's uncle.

Let me begin by saying that you can go down each of the arguments that Dr. Greene has presented, but where we probably differ is this: I think there are tensions among those arguments. I'm going to argue that you can't have it all. I'm going to argue that there are four criteria that most of us are concerned with; however, we place different weights on each one of those. And based on how much weight we place on each one of them, we come out differently on this issue.

I want to say also that I'm not against school choice. I want to emphasize that there are many, many different forms of school choice, but I'll show you a few of them, and that I agree with Jay that, in particular, children in the inner city need more choice.

Let me begin by just asking your indulgence with respect to some of the details because we have a website with about 100 research papers and topics, and I think that some of the evidence that I'll talk about would be illuminated if you look at these papers to see where it comes from and what the issues are as we set them out. [National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, see: http://www.ncspe.org]

Now the second part, and this is also very much in agreement with Jay Greene's analysis, is that there is considerable school choice today but the school choice tends to be restricted because of residential location, people who move to particular neighborhoods to get good schools for their children. Ten percent of students are in private schools. Otherwise, we have about ten percent, home schooling, about two percent, charter schools, about one percent, inter-district choice, and then private or public vouchers, about one-tenth of one percent, a very small number at the present time.

So there is a lot of school choice, but what is missing here if you analyze this is that of the poor people in very segregated neighborhoods who are dependent on the schools in their neighborhoods.

Now what I want to emphasize in the basic problem that we face is that we can't have it all. And I'm going to put up four criteria for assessing voucher plans or choice.

As you can see there are four criteria. [PowerPoint presentation] You can argue that they are goals. One is freedom to choose, giving parents the options to choose schools that reflect their moral values, political values. It goes much farther than just moral values. Their academic orientations in terms of what kinds of schools they are interested in, what kinds of subjects and so on. And that's a basic right in this society, in a democratic society. We have a right to bring up our children the way that we want within very broad limits. Indeed, we have an obligation to do that.

Let's go to the bottom here. Society also has an obligation and that is to bring young people to adulthood in such a way that they have a common educational experience with respect to curriculum values, goals, language, political socialization, all of the things that mold us together as a society so that we speak a common language so that when we settle disputes, we don't do this with our fists but with the range of tools within democratic discourse to resolve this, as well as political agreements on institutions and mechanisms to do that.

These are in fundamental conflict, and they always been. This didn't happen yesterday. There is a tension between saying that people have the right to bring up their children precisely the way that they want, including, not stopping at the schoolhouse door—and creating an institution to reproduce the basic social, political, economic foundations of a society through its children, through its youth. Because this suggests a common educational experience, this suggests an experience based on family guidance— essentially grafting on to what families are living through with their children; and placing that into a school environment that reinforces that as opposed to presenting broader range of perspectives, institutional options for addressing differences, and so on.

Now in addition we see a lot of discussion in the newspapers on the issue of efficiency—getting the best educational result relative to the resources that are expended. And of course equity is something that most people agree is a very, very important criterion for judging how good a school system is. So there are four of these that we find and that permeate the work that we do in our Center, and we use this framework to analyze all educational systems—whether we are talking about charter schools, whether we are talking about conventional public schools, whether we are talking about educational vouchers, or tuition tax credits. This is a framework that we tend to use for our work.

Now I mentioned before that there are many forms of school choice. And the forms of school choice that I have to tell you that I believe in tend to be forms in which you have a common educational experience up to some point and then you permit individual differences among schools on top of that. So that the idea is that all students will gain a background that assures social cohesion in this society and that assures political and economic and social integration into the society and its institutions but at the same time that respects the differences among families and communities. And the question is, how you get balance between these.

Now I mentioned that this is not a new thing. How did we do it historically? The way we did it historically was quite interesting. As you know the federal constitution says nothing about education. So did the Tenth Amendment. The states get it if they want it, every state said, yeah we want it; every state put it in its constitution. Some state constitutions call for a uniform system of common schools or, as in New Jersey, a thorough and efficient system. In New York, a sound basic education. But each one has some kind of language that states that all children will get some kind of common education, uniform education in somewhat different language. And that the legislatures will be responsible for implementing that.

How did the legislatures implement that? What they did basically is they said, "Here is a common law," and then they said to the local communities that . . . "You guys do it." And they put some criteria out there but what they did do is they allowed large differences, for example, in the funding of education. So even if there were great inequalities, if you lived in a wealthy community generally more was spent on the education of your children in that public school system guaranteed by the state constitution than if you lived in the poor, or particularly rural communities, historically. We know that the schools at a local level could take special-education kids or could decide not to take them. There was a lot of discretion. There were differences in the treatment of genders, race, or religion.

When I went to school we had to sing all the Protestant hymns because that was the school that we were in. So religion was a part of the school—but whose religion? The religion of the local community.

So to an historian this is called democratic localism. And that's the way this thing was solved. In your local community, even in public schools, they hired teachers of the predominant religion in that particular area.

Now what happened in, particularly in the latter part of the twentieth century, all kinds of prescriptions took place to eliminate these kinds of differences. And when that happens, privilege is lost, and people whose privilege was lost push to get a new set of choices, a new set of opportunities. And these people were not people in the inner city. People in the inner city were struggling to survive. People in the inner city were trying to push public schools just to reflect their needs. But a lot of the demand for choice is coming from people who are already on the other list that I gave you, only it's a different kind of choice, it's a choice where they get a voucher to go to a private school. That's another way of solving the problems. But that moves much farther in this direction than in that direction. Unless you have such restrictions on schools that they make a highly regulated marketplace. And if you make a highly regulated marketplace, then there is not going to be a lot of choice anyway. So the movement in this direction and toward vouchers is to try to get a marketplace where there are significant differences in choice, but I would argue that they often violate these kinds of problems. And I'll come back to that in just a moment.

Now the important point that I want to make is that to say, "I'm against school choice" is really an empty statement. There are all kinds of school choice. Here I indicate school choice by design. This is something that we work on. Depending upon the method of finance, the level of finance, parents can add on to whatever is being spent in public funds. Regulation can be very restricted or it can be very loose. Admissions, curriculum, testing, educational accountability, the eligibility to establish schools that qualify for public funds, personnel requirements, program offerings, for example, for the handicapped. And then the issue that Jay brought out that in order to have access to choice, you need transportation. You also need information. Choice systems don't work well if people are not well informed. And all of these have to be provided, at least predominantly, at public cost if you are going to have them.

You can design a system that is highly egalitarian by working through here . . . that puts an emphasis on social choice. But in doing that you are going to restrict, I'm sorry, social cohesion, you are going to restrict school choice because schools will be more and more alike when you do these kinds of things.

And so the point that I want to make is that there are real trade-offs that are involved in doing these kinds of things. And let me just give a couple of examples here. The provision of information and transportation will increase choice but raises cost considerably. And therefore reduces productive efficiency. That means that in every given budget, less is going to be spent on instruction and in classrooms because you have to build a much more costly infrastructure.

Parental add-ons. Now this is where parents could get a fixed amount for education from the state and then add on to it. That won't increase choice but it will do . . . considerably since poor families don't have funds to add on and are going to be stuck in the lowest-cost schools that don't require these so-called parental add-ons.

A regulated curriculum and testing will certainly increase social cohesion and accountability, but it will reduce choice. So there are trade-offs. And what I'm saying is that among those four criteria, your values are very important. If you are a libertarian for example, it may not really matter very much what these other things mean. For example you may, libertarians generally believe—and this is the title of Milton Friedman's book, Free to Choose—that the choice mechanism itself, if done well, will lead to greater efficiency through competition, will lead to equity in the sense that everyone has a shot at going to certain schools, although in the Friedman system those with more resources have a greater shot, and as far as social cohesion is concerned, they pretty much stay away from that particular issue. Milton Friedman's original voucher plan says almost nothing about social cohesion and equity is simply giving a minimal voucher to everyone and letting . . . to add on to it and he calls that equity. And so that's his set of values. Milton Friedman is a libertarian. His best-known book is not called "capitalism and equity," it's not even called "capitalism and efficiency," it's called Capitalism and Freedom. And that's the goal. And that's an honest goal, that's fine. I can't criticize that.

But the important point here is that people who tend to worry about social cohesion and equity tend to worry less about freedom to choose, and are willing to make a trade-off on freedom to choose in order to get these results.

Now Jay has suggested that all of these results are kind of a happy coincidence in terms of the evidence, because you find that it all comes out in the wash when you have choice. And that's, I think, where we differ. I'll make just a few comments on that.

It's true that freedom of choice always . . . with more choices, and that's a . . . and I agree with Jay, competition tends to increase students' achievement but it's by a small amount, it's about four percentile in our studies that we reviewed. Let's forget about percentile. Most of you have had children or grandchildren or taken the SAT or GRE, it's about ten points on the verbal SAT, and ten points aren't a difference between getting into a non-competitive, non-selective institution or a highly selective institution. Ten points get lost in rounding errors on the SAT. So they are there, it's statistically significant but it's not educationally significant.

And yet if you want a few more points, that's fine. The question is what are we going to trade off for them. What are we going to trade off?

Where Jay and I may disagree is that I think that the evidence points to the fact that general choice tends to increase racial and social-class stratification. Now how do we differ on that? Well I agree with Jay that if you give options to people in segregated communities, you increase the possibility that they are going to be going to schools that are less segregated, no question about that. But a lot of the discussion on school choice is that of universal plans. And as soon as you talk about universal plans, we have many, many studies that show that race and social class of the student body is the key indicator of how people make choices as far as schools are concerned. And so what we are going to find is a way of streamlining this stratification and separation of social-class groupings and races and I would argue that based on what we know on social cohesion, that would be injurious because peer effects are extremely important.

With respect to that, I should also point out the choosers are better informed and of higher social class than non-choosers. And many, many studies have shown that. Now that changes if you restrict the choice just to inner-city people. And that's one way of addressing that issue. But when you open it up, you get differential effects. Not everyone chooses, and we know who is likely to choose and what they are likely to choose on average.

Okay, so I would argue that, yes, restricted choices can tailor equity. If you say, people below a certain income, that can do it. If you say, people in inner-city environments that are segregated, yes, that can, and the evidence supports that that can be very effective in giving some meaningful choices.

Now on social cohesion, let me just tell you why I come out differently than Jay does. Jay is very optimistic that based on the studies he refers to—that private schools tend to be more civic oriented, they are more likely to have community-service obligations, and so on. See, we merely read each other's work.

In the past, by the way, seventy-five percent of children in private schools were in Catholic schools. Today the percentage is probably a bit below fifty percent. What has filled in that thirty-percent gap? Basically, religious fundamentalism. And studies, one that Jay didn't cite, Ken G . . . study, and I found another one that showed that when you are comparing fundamentalists . . . I'm not picking on Christian fundamentalist schools. There are Jewish fundamentalist schools, there are Moslem fundamentalist schools, each . . . you know when they say [Hebrew saying], "don't separate yourself from the community," they are not talking about the larger community. They are talking about their own small communities. And so they don't represent all of Christianity and all of Islam or all of Judaism. But they represent very fundamentalist tenets. And by the way, I think you know that radicalism is increasing both in this country and in other nations, religious radicalism. And the fact of the matter is that's the growth sector. So when we talk about tolerance, I'm not sure you want to talk about the leading edge of growth in terms of the independent-school movement.

So let me finish up and just show you just a couple of what we call advantage maps. What we are looking at, this is to say, okay so you have four different criteria. Let's take a plan, a specific plan. And this is important because, as Jay will agree, I'm sure, there is no one voucher plan. There is no one—even the charter-school plan. There are many different ones, and they all have different consequences depending upon how they are constructed. You remember I talked about design.

And if you look at the Milton Friedman plan, there is loads of freedom because he would set very minimum standards for schools to get into the marketplace, eligibility. At the micro level we think that, based on our findings, even though the results are very small, the differences are small, that there would be an educational advantage through competition. On the macro level we have other questions, because macro means that you have to have a system. In California, instead of dealing with 1000 school districts, Sacramento has to deal with over six million individual students, of which twenty to twenty-five percent are moving each year and changing schools, and you have to make sure that they have a voucher and that they are in an eligible school. I don't want to go into that in any greater detail. But it's like a Social Security system, only a much more dynamic one because there is much more movement in it.

As far as equity is concerned, Friedman would provide a modest voucher and let parents add to it. So you are going to get greater equity out of arguing the traditional school with its school finance equalization and so on, and under the Friedman plan, almost any belief system out there, even belief systems that are in great conflict with our democratic social institutions, would be tolerated as long as they were within the law. And so you are going to get greater social cohesion in the traditional schools.

Now you can change that. And this is my last one because I know I'm over my allotted time. This is also a voucher system. This is what is known as the Gents system, it was proposed for a national experiment by the old Office of Economic Opportunity. Gents was a member of the left and believed in very egalitarian principles and thus set out a system where there was transportation, the vouchers would be graduated but in reverse according to income. That is, low-income people would get larger vouchers than high-income people. Admissions would be regulated. Schools, for example, that had an excess of applicants relative to places. Those schools would have to choose their students by lottery. There would be a required curriculum. And by the way, that's not just a leftie thing, I want to mention that. I don't consider William Bennett to be a leftie. I don't consider E. D. Hirsch, who argues for a cultural canon that all students should accomplish, to be a leftie. These are cultural conservatives. They are not libertarians, they are cultural conservatives. Both of them come out very strongly on a national curriculum that has certain content.

In any event, this tends to be much more egalitarian, much more oriented toward a social-cohesion approach. Here what happens with the vouchers, they start to change, they start to see the Xs moving over [on the chart of the PowerPoint presentation]. You see, the vouchers still give you more freedom, they still give you an edge in terms of micro efficiency. But where we have two Xs here for equity, now we only have one. Where we have two Xs here for social cohesion, we have only one, and that could change, that could disappear completely if you have a very, very strong common experience.

So let me just stop there. I'd be happy to respond to questions. But the most important thing is to understand that your values are the dominant concern. The evidence that both of us have talked about tends to be at the margin—that is what you don't find, and I think Jay will agree with me. At this point we have no evidence that suggests that choice will lead to revolutionary improvements in the education of young people. The evidence we have now suggests that it will lead to small improvements.

One-tenth of a standard deviation that I talked about—it was four percentiles, that one-tenth of a standard deviation is about one-tenth of the difference between African Americans and Anglos in this society. So that even if we take the most favorable assumptions, we are talking about closing one-tenth. The question is what we have to give up to do that. The question is what are the other alternatives. The question is what forms of both choice and the common educational experience make the most sense. Thank you very much.

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