Lies, Distortions and School Choice

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Lies, Distortions and School Choice

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By: Neal McCluskey

Date: October 13, 2003

Source: McCluskey, Neil. "Lies, Distortions and School Choice." CATO Institute, October 13, 2003. <http://–13-03.html> (accessed May 26, 2006).

About the Author: Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute. He has served in the U.S. Army, taught high school English, and worked as a freelance reporter. He holds a master's degree in political science from Rutger's University and writes on topics related to education.


Public education is a fundamental part of American society. Since the earliest days of the one-room schoolhouse, Americans have believed in the value of education. As communities grew, schools grew as well, and as the nation wrestled with cultural shifts, schools adapted and changed. Primary education today is a massive undertaking, serving more than fifty million children nationwide.

Even before public education became widespread, some observers proposed coupling government funding with parental choice. In the 1700s, Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790) suggested that the state should provide funds with which parents could hire private teachers of their choice. Two centuries later, economist Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom expanded on Smith's ideas, proposing the modern voucher system in which local governments provide school funds to be used at any school of the parents' choosing.

Friedman's case for vouchers was simple. Competition, which is so effective in improving business efficiency, would have the same effect on public schools. By giving parents' school choice, Friedman believed that the marketplace would automatically reward better schools with higher enrollment, forcing inferior schools to either improve or close. By allowing parents' to vote with education dollars, Friedman suggested that top schools would be rewarded, while inferior schools would also improve.

The first modern voucher system was tested in California's Alum Rock school district in 1970. While not a pure voucher arrangement, this system created several mini-schools on each existing campus, and parents chose which mini-school their children would attend. This first formal experiment in school vouchers produced mixed educational results and was disbanded several years later. Shortly thereafter, the state of New York offered vouchers for private and religious schools, but a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down the plan, arguing that public funding for religious schools violated the First Amendment.

In the years since that ruling, states have experimented with a variety of school choice systems. In some cases, ballot initiatives have failed, stalling these efforts. In other cases, school choice plans have won at the ballot box but have been struck down or restricted in the court system. Critics of school choice claim that rather than improving public education, school choice will actually erode the quality of public education for many students. In particular, they argue that school choice plans will drain funds from already under-funded public schools.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, school choice battle lines were clearly drawn. Supporting school choice were a variety of groups unhappy with public education, including supporters of Christian education and many Republicans. Opposing choice were the National Education Association, labeling the program elitist, and other stakeholders in the public school system, along with the Democratic Party. While both sides agreed on the objective of improving education for all American children, they sharply disagreed on the best methods to achieve this goal. And while both sides believed school choice would change American education, they vehemently disagreed on whether school choice would ultimately help or hurt.


A proposed school voucher program for Washington, D.C., offering an escape for children in the worst district schools, is on the brink of suffocation in the U.S. Senate, smothered by opponents happier to bring Senate business to a halt than offer choice. Sadly, opponents have justified their actions with misleading arguments and distortions. For the sake of truth in education—and because there's still a glimmer of hope left for D.C.'s kids—it's time to challenge the three most dubious anti-choice arguments.

Let's start with the contention that vouchers drain public school funds. This lie is obvious in the case of the proposed D.C. program, which doesn't draw a single dollar from the public school system. The recently passed House version of the program underwrites "opportunity scholarships" with a $10 million allocation that is separate from the D.C. public schools' budget. The Senate version is even more generous: It provides $13 million for choice and adds a bonus $26 million for charter and traditional public schools.

But what if the D.C. plan didn't offer choice with new, separate funds, and required full per-pupil funding to follow the kids? In real terms, public schools still would-n't lose a dime because spending is measured per-child. That means the only money a school district is supposedly "losing" when a family exercises choice is the amount that would have covered that individual child. The same thing occurs anytime a child's family moves out of a district. In most places this "loss" is called "breaking even." Not so in public education.

Next distortion: Choice programs lack accountability. It is true that nothing is perfect—choice programs have their share of bad schools. But is the overall effect worse than the alternative? Consider one comparison: Arguably the biggest choice accountability flap has occurred in Florida. There, the state's Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program has come under scrutiny following the disappearance of over $400,000, and revelations that roughly $350,000 had been spent on a school run by a man with possible terrorist ties. Not good.

Worse, though, is recent news from D.C. In March, the city's school system discovered that it had hired 640 employees for which it had no money budgeted, resulting in a loss of $31 million—an amount that dwarfs the missing and misspent cash in Florida. But the scarier part is that the D.C. revelation is only a symptom of a more pervasive problem. As The Washington Post reported: "In an interview…Superintendent Paul L. Vance blamed financial systems that have failed for years. 'It's an accumulation of past ills,' Vance said."

Ultimately, for choice programs to create accountable schools depends on parents making wise choices. Even if only some parents make smart decisions, good schools will thrive because parents will choose them. Likewise, bad schools will disappear as they lose students. Unfortunately, choice opponents don't trust parents, preferring instead to rely on the politicians and bureaucrats whose own accountability is so often suspect.

One last lie: There's no evidence choice works. Actually, this is partly true—there is no proof thatlarge-scale choice works. But that's because choice opponents won't let such an experiment take place. To prove that choice works, strong programs must exist, which is exactly what choice opponents don't want. Instead, they have allowed only tightly constricted programs to operate, imposing severe enrollment caps, paltry funding, and constant legal threats.

Even in this hostile environment, though, choice programs have helped both scholarship students and entire school systems. Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, for instance, found that miniscule $1,400 vouchers in New York City helped African American recipients out-pace their peers in math. Peterson's colleague, economist Caroline Hoxby, has shown that states offering a minimum of competition realize systemic improvements, with greater competition yielding greater improvements. Most recently, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute determined that the greater the choice threat to public schools in Florida, the greater their gains on state tests.

Choice, it seems, lifts all schools.

There are other red herrings that choice opponents raise ad nauseum. But these three—that choice programs lack accountability, suck public schools dry, and just don't work—are the most dishonest, and shouldn't be allowed to come between kids and a good education. With a little life left in the D.C. choice proposal, it's not too late to make sure they don't in the nation's capital.


By the early twenty-first century, school choice initiatives had compiled a mixed record of wins and losses. In 2000, school choice referenda were rejected by wide margins in both California and Michigan. At the same time, philanthropic organizations around the country began funding school choice alternatives for low income students. By 2001, more than 100 privately funded voucher programs were providing school choice to more than 75,000 low-income students. Several of these programs were begun by education reformers who, after years of trying to reform existing school systems, finally concluded that the legislative approach to change was futile.

The education landscape today is more diverse than at any other time in history. Public schools now exist alongside numerous private and parochial institutions, and home schooling is a growing phenomenon. By 2003, more than one million students were being taught in their own homes. Charter schools, which provide alternative educational experiences and are frequently funded by foundations or for-profit firms, have created school choice in many large school systems. And online education, both in the form of resources for home school educators and in the form of entire primary curricula, appears poised to attract a growing share of the market.

The earliest arguments for school choice were based on economic models, in which customer wants and needs lead to the creation of new products and services. Even as voucher advocates and critics have battled to a virtual stalemate in the courts and at the ballot box, other options have emerged, as if guided by Adam Smith's invisible hand. Parental choice now appears to be the future of education. All that remains is to decide what form it will take.



Mondale, Sarah. School: The Story of American Public Education. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.

Salisbury, David, and James Tooley, eds. What America Can Learn From School Choice in Other Countries. Washington, D.C.: CATO Institute, 2005.

Weil, Danny. School Vouchers and Privatization: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2003.


Paulson, Amanda. "Milwaukee's Lessons on School Vouchers." Christian Science Monitor 98 (2006): 1–11.

Rome, Gregory. "Schoolhouse Socialism." Journal of Instructional Psychology 33 (2006): 83–88.

Rubelen, Erik W. "Florida Lawmakers Float New Voucher Plans." Education Week 25 (2006): 27–31.

Web sites

Amis, Kelly. "Philanthropy Pushes School Choice Forward." Heartland Institute, December 1, 2001. <> (accessed May 26, 2006).

National Center for Education Statistics. "Digest of Education Statistics." <> (accessed May 26, 2006).

PBS. "Choosing or Losing: The School Choice Controversy." < in_history/choice.html> (accessed May 26, 2006).

People for the American Way. "A Brief History of Vouchers." <> (accessed May 26, 2006).

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Lies, Distortions and School Choice

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