Why Not Small, Self-Governing, Private Schools of Choice?

Now that I have responded to Marcus and Conor, it is time to respond to Deborah. I have long admired Deborah’s writings and efforts on behalf of “small schools” initiatives, and I believe I have read her excellent book In Schools We Trust a few times now. Yet I find there is much to disagree with in Deborah’s response to me, which is why I want to respond to her separately.

First, let’s start with some potential areas of agreement. Deborah and I both, I think, want to see schools that function autonomously. We are both, I think, firmly against the idea of (at least state-controlled) top-down standardization of schools. And, to some degree, Deborah and I both agree that choice can be a good thing, even if it is just “being free to apply to non-zoned schools or zoned schools within the larger neighborhood—if spaces are available.” Nonetheless, I am not quite sure I have a handle on why Deborah is so strongly for “small self-governing schools of choice” but adamantly against small private self-governing schools of choice. Her essay goes some way toward clearing this up, but I still think she is wrong to embrace the one but stop short of the other.

First, I think Deborah is against privatization because she believes in the importance of keeping school governance democratic, which she doesn’t believe could or is likely to happen in a market of private schools. Schools should be places where “all the constituents are part of the governing body, and all—parents, teachers, community members, and perhaps students—have a stake in each other’s opinions and votes.” Markets, and their “vote with your feet” ethic, won’t accomplish this, Deborah thinks.

But as I’ve said already, this is a category mistake. How schools operate internally and how markets operate are two different levels of operation, and there is no reason democratic schools could not operate within a “vote with your feet” market. (An analogy: just because my local government is democratic doesn’t mean that all homes within that area have to make household decisions democratically, because local governance and household governance are two different levels of operation.) Just because markets allow people to shop around for schools that they think work best for them does not mean that schools cannot handle internal operations democratically (if, and maybe this is where Deborah objects, that is what customers of that school prefer).

I believe she makes a similar error when she writes:

In short, democracy is the form of accountability we’ve chosen—invented as a way to hold the scoundrels to account. If we are afraid to use democracy to hold our educational system accountable, why would we imagine it’s more suited to holding any other institutions to account? Democracy thus becomes an empty cliché.

But just because we use democracy to govern our political sphere doesn’t mean we therefore must use it in other domains of life as well. Yes, the United States is a democratic republic, where we vote for our representatives as a way to hold them accountable (well, ostensibly, anyway). But that is no reason why we should, say, hold the makers of our cars, electronics, or… schools… accountable with democratic, rather than market, processes. And the fact that we choose what cars we buy via the market rather than through collective deliberation and voting doesn’t mean that “democracy thus becomes an empty cliché.” It is rather than democracy may be good in one area but bad in others. And that might be true for schools. (And besides: if, as Deborah writes in her response, she wants schools to function autonomously, telling them that they must function democratically seems at odds with that. Could they use their autonomy to function non-democratically if they wanted?)

In short, if schools want to run their affairs democratically, they can certainly do it in a marketplace. Of course, they don’t have to, and whether they will probably depends on whether customers respond positively to it. (Maybe Deborah doesn’t like the possibility that, as Myron Lieberman conjectures, “Most people do not want participation. They want their institutions to work so that participation is not necessary” [Privatization and Educational Choice, 150]). At any rate, there is no reason that (a) markets’ non-democratic nature prohibits schools within markets from governing themselves democratically, or (b) because democracies work for choosing politicians means that they must be put to work for choosing schools and school policies.

Along these lines, I also think that Deborah writes as if the exit rights provided by markets will undermine the use of voice within schools that she believes is essential to democratic participation. In other words, if I am dissatisfied and I know that I can just shop around for a better school, Deborah seems concerned that l will be less likely to voice my concerns within the school. This may have some truth to it, but exit and voice are just not mutually exclusive or even close to it. Sometimes, the fact that I can shop around (and am attending a school that I chose) can enhance my desire to voice concern when I a not getting what I chose into. Recently, I was reminded of this when my cable service stopped working well. I put in a fair amount of time on the phone with customer service and tech support. This was not in spite, but because of, the fact that it was a service I’d purchased when I could have gone elsewhere.

It occurred to me that, were I just assigned a cable service that I could not choose out of, I might have just resorted to accepting my fate (“Can’t change cable services anyway, so just grin and bear it!”). And on the cable company’s end, the fact that they know I can choose exit probably makes it more likely that they will be motivated to fix problems I voice than if they knew I was a captive customer. If Deborah wants people to use their voice in schools, it may just be that – like with the cable company – the best way to motivate customers’ use of voice (and the company responding to them) is to enhance their freedom of choice and give them the same sort of purchasing power (and hence, truly vested interest) that I had with my cable company.

In general, I think Deborah also has an overly expansive view of democracy and what its necessary conditions are. Democracy (or democratic republicanism) is a way for us to hold our leaders accountable by having a vote as to who (some of!) our leaders are. To do this does not require the kind of solidarity that would be undermined if we weren’t educated in common spaces. It might require our learning some common things, like how our government works, how to think about political issues, and how to read, but that can certainly be done in schools of choice as opposed to common schools. Deborah writes that “we can tell the dissidents, ‘go back where you came from,’ or we can figure out how we can live together. We can encourage each separate ‘identity’ group to create their own ghetto, or we can jointly figure out how we can keep our identity and work together.” But these are two very false dichotomies.

Allowing people to attend the schools they’d like is neither telling them to go back to where they came from or create ghettos if they can’t, nor is it undermining our ability to live together and figure out how to work together. It does, admittedly, fall short of forcing “us” to keep whatever identity “we” have, because choice allows people to create and maintain their own preferred social identity. Yet I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Democracy does not demand that we have national (or other unchosen) solidarity, or that we live together in any other way than in broadly geographic terms, or that we have anything more than the ability to come together once in a while to elect (again, some of) those who govern us. And, since Deborah supports the idea that we should be zoned for neighborhood schools “while also being free to apply to non-zoned schools or zoned schools within the larger neighborhood—if spaces are available,” wouldn’t even this choice proposal undermine her desire to use schools to enhance solidarity and democracy? Why is this proposal non-solidarity-threatening, but mine is equivalent to telling dissidents to go back to from where they came or create their own ghetto?

Last, Deborah is concerned that markets will exacerbate inequality. Honestly, my concern is less with inequality than quality of service both for all and particularly the most vulnerable. This reminds me of a conference I attended recently where, after arguing for markets in education, a respondent asked if I could name a market that provided equal goods and services to all. I responded that while I couldn’t, I was also at a loss to name a market that didn’t, over time, provide increased quality of service, reduced price for service, or both to all customers. It is the latter that I think benefits the least well off more than how the service they get compares with those of other income groups. (To put it differently, I’d rather see everyone get decent but unequal service than I would everyone’s service be equal but subpar.)

Those who believe that the American public school system, as unequal as it has always been, has a chance of producing even relatively equal education for all (bearing in mind that if the poor have little economic pull, they probably have little political pull), need to argue, rather than assume, their position. Also, keep in mind that, as Marcus pointed out, I did not argue that the government had no role in education; if inequality is a concern, we could design a voucher system, or something like it, where the government disperses funding for education in a way that ensures that the poor can still purchase a decent education. If anything, though, I think that markets – yes, with their profit motive – offer producers more incentive to deliver the poor (and all of us) the best education possible.

So, Deborah, if you want schools to function autonomously, if you want to form the strongest communities of trust within schools, and if you are willing to allow some level of choice anyway, why not small, self-governing, private schools of choice?           

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Markets provide many of the goods and services we typically need in raising children. Yet education has long been an enormous exception to the rule. Why should that be? Kevin Currie-Knight examines some of the reasons commonly used to justify this exception. He finds them either insufficient or doubtful, and he recommends some principles that might drive a freer market in education.

Response Essays

  • Conor P. Williams argues that some places already have significantly market-based education systems, perhaps to a degree that Kevin Currie-Knight would find difficult to admit. He uses Washington, D.C.’s public schools as an example of what limited, well-managed market pressures can do, and he welcomes some (though not all) of the changes the market has wrought. He finds that the debate should not be characterized as one of markets versus non-markets, but of exactly where and how market pressures should be brought to bear.

  • Marcus A. Winters finds a genuine government role in education, albeit a limited one. He suggests that public funding should continue, but that the provision of services is often best handled in the private sector. The evidence on school choice programs shows no harm to the existing public school system, he finds, and while charter schools do not always or everywhere do better than public schools, some of them have. They should be allowed to develop further so that we can study them in detail and realize their full potential.

  • Deborah Meier supports “small, self-governing schools of choice,” but she is concerned that trusting the market imperils democracy. The marketplace stands ready to divide us by class and race, she argues, and if it does, we will no longer possess any motive for maintaining democratic habits of heart and mind. With them we will lose empowerment and opportunity for the least fortunate in our society. The right answer, then, is to implement school choice within a publicly funded and locally administered school system, one that allows parents, teachers, and even students a significant voice in governing their schools.