Deja Vu: The Case for School Choice

Published May 31, 2016

After 12 years, inner-city schools still fail to educate

“American schools are in trouble, and inner-city students suffer the most. Despite ever-increasing funding for education, test scores have been falling since 1963, and today it is virtually impossible to get a decent education in an inner-city public school. There are, however, a few rays of hope–from research on what makes a good school to structural reforms that would give more students access to good schools.

“Bonita Brodt reports from the front lines. After months observing an inner-city public elementary school in Chicago, she concludes that ‘we are at risk of losing an entire generation of children to the culture of poverty.'”

Although the observations have a familiar, contemporary ring to them, they were in fact written 12 years ago, in November 1989, and subsequently published in the 1990 Cato Institute book, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City, edited by David Boaz. Since then, “an entire generation of children” has progressed through the nation’s inner-city public schools, where it still “is virtually impossible to get a decent education.”

In the introductory chapter to the book, “The Public School Monopoly: America’s Berlin Wall,” Boaz makes what remains one of the best cases for school choice. He explains why a system organized like the old Soviet Union has no competitive incentive to produce high-quality education efficiently or to produce the kind of well-educated graduates that parents, employers, and college professors expect.

But simply giving parents a choice of public schools is not enough, warns Boaz, because that approach lacks the necessary incentives for successful educators to replicate school models that work–as the experience of over-subscribed magnet schools demonstrates. It is the competitive, for-profit market economy that brings high quality and low prices for consumers, not directives from government officials.

Boaz lists the common objections to school choice, which have remained fairly constant throughout the past decade: private schools don’t have sufficient capacity; choice is unconstitutional; parents won’t make good choices; choice would enhance segregation; and–still a favorite–private schools are not “accountable” to the taxpayers. That brought this timeless response from education reformer John E. Chubb of the Brookings Institution:

“That’s a laughable position,” said Chubb. “Milwaukee officials have been holding their public schools ‘accountable’ for years with disastrous results. It’s quite comical to say that private schools whose diplomas are recognized by state universities can’t be held accountable by the parents who send their kids there.”

Boaz makes a strong case for school choice. His argument is all the more compelling and urgent since an estimated 20 million students have passed through inner-city public schools in the 12 years since he first argued his case and yet most of these schools–despite higher funding–still are not delivering an adequate education to the students who are forced to attend them.

For more information . . . Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City, may be ordered from Cato’s Web site at