Lack of School Choice Compromises Student Safety

Published September 1, 1999

A Wall Street Journal correspondent noted the irony that Ted Forstmann’s announcement of the unprecedented demand for school choice–and his comments about “dangerous, dead-end schools”–came just a day after two misfits murdered 13 fellow students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Guns and movies are not to blame for the tragedy, argued Martin L. Cowen III in an April 28 letter to the Journal‘s editor. Government schools are to blame, because they force children to associate with people who are dangerous.

“Generally, people are free to choose where they will live, shop, worship, recreate, and work,” wrote Cowen, and one criterion we use to make those choices is personal safety. There are places we try to stay away from and people we try to avoid because they strike us as unsafe. But, in a government school that must admit virtually everyone, it is not possible to avoid people who provide subtle–and sometimes not-so-subtle–indications that they might be dangerous.

“In the absence of government schools, people would be free to go to school with people who do not choose to dress like assassins or who express hatred for others,” wrote Cowen. “It is not a coincidence that all of the recent school shootings have occurred in government schools.”

Alexander Volokh, also writing in the Wall Street Journal, agreed. Since having a reputation for violence would cause them to lose students, private schools have an incentive to institute appropriate disciplinary policies and school rules. On the other hand, public schools–particularly those in the inner cities–often have captive clienteles with no alternative but to attend their assigned public school, whether it is dangerous or not.

Making schools safer isn’t about finding a panacea for all schools, argued Volokh, but encouraging schools to discover what works for them. That means decentralizing public school management and providing more money to schools that succeed, rather than to those that fail. Child-centered funding and school choice among public, public charter, private secular, and private religious schools would achieve that goal.

“Freedom and accountability . . . aren’t glamorous, nor will they satisfy the crusading reformer looking for the One Best Way to prevent recurrences of Columbine,” admits Volokh, an adjunct scholar with the Reason Public Policy Institute. “But compared with everything else, they seem like the best strategy around,” he concludes.

School violence brings the overwhelming logic of school choice into clear focus.

“Let me see,” mused Cato Institute President Edward H. Crane. “I think I’ll pick a school where kids who openly admire Adolf Hitler and dress like criminals are not allowed in.”