Delivering on the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity: an interview with Joseph P. Viteritti

Published May 1, 2000

“School choice is fundamentally an ethical moral issue, an issue of social justice. It is a sense of moral outrage that will eventually change public policy. It’s not research; it’s not regression analysis. It’s a recognition on the part of the American people that the current situation is just unfair . . .”

The results of public opinion polls are frequently used by politicians to mold raw public policy proposals into legislative initiatives that would be supported–or at least not opposed–by a majority of Americans. But simply aiming to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” can result in the rights and interests of minorities being ignored. The dangers inherent in this process are neatly captured in P.J. O’Rourke’s wry definition of pure majority rule: “Democracy is when two wolves and a lamb vote on what to eat for dinner.”

The history of the common school described in Joseph P. Viteritti’s new book, Choosing Equality, provides an all-too-real illustration of the perils of majoritarianism. For example, when the common schools were first established in the mid-1800s, the Protestant establishment–including state Supreme Court judges–dismissed Catholic and Jewish objections to the daily reading of the St. James Bible in the common schools. And it took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1925 to overturn a Ku Klux Klan-backed Oregon law that made public schools the sole providers of education and barred children from attending private or religious schools.

Viteritti is professor of public administration at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, where he also ds Director of the Program on Education in Civil Society. Before joining NYU, he taught at Harvard University, served as an advisor to school superintendents in San Francisco and Boston, and was a special assistant to Frank Macchiarola when he was head of the New York City school system. Viteritti has published six books and more than a hundred articles on education. He spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become interested in school choice?

Viteritti: I’ve always been concerned with the issue of equity, not only in education, but in public policy generally. I’ve done a lot of research and writing on it, and I have come to the realization that public schools are just not serving some children very well. We have an obligation as a society to provide every child with an opportunity for a decent education, and we have not abided by that obligation. That led me to start thinking about choice in a more serious way.

There are two basic models for school choice: the market model and the equity model. The market model comes out of economics, from the idea that competition will serve to improve schools. It’s an empirical model that’s verifiable through research that will prove it to be right or not right.

I believe that the market will eventually improve education when it’s allowed to in an unencumbered way. Unfortunately, we don’t really have a market model in place. We have a variety of experiments that will encourage different levels of competition, but we don’t have a market that is allowed to exert the kind of pressure we want to see exerted.

Clowes: Is that because of limitations on what is able to be achieved legislatively?

Viteritti: Yes. I think there’s a certain political opposition to having a really serious market force in place. When you look at charter schools today, most of the laws put a cap on the number of students who can participate or a cap on the number of schools that can be created. The laws don’t provide for the same per-capita funding that students get in a regular public school. You see the same thing in the voucher programs, which are limited in the number of students who can participate, and they are often underfunded. So when we try to assess the success of these charter schools or the schools that accept vouchers, we have to do it with the understanding that these schools are at a competitive disadvantage.

The equity model is not based on economics but on an understanding of what is just and what is fair in a society that claims to have a commitment to the education of all children. Now, I believe that competition and other kinds of reforms will eventually serve to upgrade the quality of public schools so that they serve all children, but I’ve come to realize that change is going to happen very slowly. If parents have children in schools that are not working, we can’t ask them to be patient and to wait for our reforms to work.

I’ve been in this business for over 20 years. We’ve tried a variety of things to deliver on the promise of an equal educational opportunity for all children, but we haven’t done it. I believe that we as a society have an obligation to provide parents with alternatives to failing schools. That way, their children can attend schools in a safe environment where there’s a higher probability that they’re going to come out having learned the basic skills that we all want for our children.

Clowes: If choice is provided and then doesn’t result in improved outcomes, would that be a problem?

Viteritti: You have to allow parents to make their judgements for themselves. We can’t have a blanket public policy that says to certain parents, “We’re going to tell you where you can send your child to school, and we’re going to determine what’s best for your child.” In most of those cases, we know that the schools those children are attending are not good schools.

People don’t opt out of schools they’re happy with. People opt out of schools when they conclude that the school is not serving their child in one way or another. We’ve seen it in Florida, in Milwaukee, and in Cleveland, where parents don’t want their children attending the schools they’ve been assigned to. We owe it to those parents to give them the option to choose another school.

Those parents now have to go out and shop around and try to identify the school that is most appropriate for their child. But that’s what any middle-class parent does whenever they’re going to place their child in school. Sometimes it might be shopping for a private or a parochial school, and sometimes it might be shopping for a neighborhood where they think the public schools are good. But to deny parents that opportunity is really an issue of equity.

I think the most compelling argument for choice is the realization that most parents do exercise choice in one way or another. But some parents–the ones whose children are stuck in failing schools–don’t have choices.

Clowes: You’ve raised concerns about what you call “the perils of majoritarianism” in the public school system. Didn’t the framers of the Constitution guard against the oppression of minorities by the majority?

Viteritti: One of the enduring principles of American constitutionalism is the protection of minorities’ rights and interests. Madison and many of the Founders–but Madison in particular, because he was the great architect of our government–were concerned that majorities would ignore the interests of minorities. Our system was constructed in a way to protect those minority interests. There’s a little bit of a risk involved in going back to the Founders to resolve the choice debate, because they were dealing with very different circumstances. There was no common school then. Education was all private. If a child wasn’t educated in the home, he usually was educated by the local pastor and the pastor’s expenses were paid for by local taxes. That practice continued well into the early part of the nineteenth century.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the common school movement started to take off and we developed public schools, but they were schools that, for the most part, reflected the religious and political leanings of the majority, which at that point was white Protestant.

Clowes: What surprised me in your book was how several state supreme court decisions in the late nineteenth century regarded the reading of the Protestant Bible in public schools as the accepted norm.

Viteritti: Yes, it was the norm. One of the things Madison was concerned about was a majoritarian consensus that would translate into a political consensus. His worst nightmare came true in the nineteenth century, when the majoritarian consensus around Protestantism found its way into the public schools and every child who attended public school was expected to read the Protestant Bible, recite prayers, and sing hymns on a daily basis. This created great protests among other groups. The ones that made the most noise were the Catholics, because they had the largest numbers, but the practice also offended Jews and Baptists and Quakers and people who didn’t follow the mainline Protestant way of thinking.

There was a very serious political reaction against Catholics at that point. While the common school did serve to socialize many immigrants, it was also a way to discipline them, and Americanization very often meant they were expected to give up their religious and ethnic identity. That’s why we saw those great school wars taking place in the nineteenth century, when laws were enacted to discipline people who did not accept the established way of thinking.

Compulsory education was one way to discipline them, and another was the Blaine amendments that restricted tax support of education to the common schools. These were steps that were taken out of a sense of religious bigotry towards Catholics who, at that point, were saying “Let us run our own schools and let us educate our children the way we see fit.”

Clowes: So compulsory attendance laws and school funding laws were passed in an attempt to get all children to attend the common schools, where they then would be indoctrinated in the Protestant religion. What then happened to eliminate all aspects of religion from our present-day public schools?

Viteritti: Over the past century, a new majoritarian consensus developed around the concept of secularism, which most people accept. But, as with all majoritarian viewpoints that get translated into a political will, there’s a certain risk involved. The risk is that very often people who don’t agree with that consensus are faced with situations that burden the way they would prefer to practice their faith or lead their lives.

One of the points I make in Choosing Equality is that there are many people who want to raise their children according to a religious tradition. There are many poor people who are attracted to religious schools because they like the religious content of the curriculum. But under the current circumstances, the only people who can make those choices are people who can afford to pay the cost of tuition on their own.

Clowes: So if your religious convictions don’t allow you to send your children to a public school, you face a financial penalty for that belief?

Viteritti: Yes, you’re burdened financially by that kind of policy. You shouldn’t be. Whenever we mention religious schools, people either think of the Catholic schools or Pentecostal or fundamentalist Christian schools. What we’ve failed to recognize in this country is the important role that religion plays in poor and minority communities. Opponents argue that school choice is divisive and will undermine civil society, but what they don’t understand is that one of the most important institutions–probably the most important institution–of civil society in poor communities is very often the local church.

What we’re seeing in a lot of poor and minority communities is that many of these churches are starting their own schools. Local ministers and pastors have come to understand that the children of their congregations are not being well-served by the public schools in their communities, and so they’re looking for alternatives. We’re seeing a lot of black churches starting their own schools, and we’re also seeing the development of black independent schools around the country. It’s an important phenomenon. It’s an important way in which poor people and people who are not served well in public schools can get a decent education and an education that reinforces their own values and traditions.

Unfortunately, because many of these communities are poor, the people who live in them don’t have the means to support those schools. So we have this perverse situation where public money gets poured into failing schools in those communities, while the schools in those communities that people really want to go to remain unsupported.

Clowes: What do you think will provide the biggest boost to school choice in the next few years?

Viteritti: Because of the various experiments–the publicly supported voucher programs and the private initiatives like CEO America and the Children’s Scholarship Fund–people are becoming more accustomed to the idea of school choice. They have come to understand that they want choices and alternatives and that parents should not have to accept a school they don’t want their children to attend.

That realization is beginning to change the political landscape, and the landscape will continue to change as parents communicate these ideas to their political representatives. These representatives, who are very often responsive to organized interests that may be opposed to choice, will come around on this issue and realize that their constituents are no longer willing to sit by and let their children attend schools that are failing.

I think this is going to be the major force that will change the way education is provided in this country, because parents are no longer going to accept the status quo.

School choice is fundamentally an ethical moral issue, an issue of social justice. It is a sense of moral outrage that will eventually change public policy. It’s not research; it’s not regression analysis. It’s a recognition on the part of the American people that the current situation is just unfair and doesn’t meet the needs of a large portion of our population. While much of the population is served well by public education, there’s a very large minority that isn’t. We need to come to terms with that.