Making the Ideal Public School the Enemy of Choice

Published December 1, 2003

Choice With Equity: An Assessment by the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, edited by Paul T. Hill (Hoover Institution Press, 2002; 222 pages; $15; ISBN: 0817938923)

Voltaire famously said, “The best is the enemy of the good,” but an insightful new book from the Hoover Institution’s prolific Koret Task Force illustrates how the ideal also can be turned into an enemy of the good.

Critics of school choice frequently argue that charter schools, vouchers, and other programs that allow parents to choose their child’s school will produce a variety of undesirable social outcomes, such as “skimming” off the best students, drawing the most committed parents away from troubled schools, increasing segregation, and leaving poor and minority students in the worst schools. When compared to the model public school that brings together students from all ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and ability groups to educate them in harmony, voucher schools and charter schools are often found wanting.

That’s an unfair comparison, say University of Washington researchers Paul T. Hill and Kacey Guin in the opening chapter of the Koret Task Force book, Choice With Equity, which is edited by Hill. In “Baselines for Assessment of Choice Programs,” the two researchers contend school choice programs should be compared to the public school system as it exists today, not to its “idealized aspirations.” In a more real-world comparison, it is the public schools that are found wanting.

In fact, conclude Hill and Guin, “it is hard to see how choice could produce worse segregation, resource inequity, denial of access to excellent programs, or assignment to opportunity-limiting programs than the current system.”

They show the existing public education system has the following flaws:

  • It restricts choice by assigning children to schools and limiting the supply of available publicly funded schools;
  • It does not accomplish desegregation or give disadvantaged children equitable access to good schools;
  • Despite decades of effort, public school systems still are segregated, and in fact the separation of white and minority students has increased since 1998.

Even more startling, Hill and Guin cite the following examples to show that the existing public education system actually creates inequities that are unlikely to occur under choice:

  • It allows the best-paid teachers to become concentrated in middle-class schools, creating inequities in per-pupil spending;
  • It allocates better learning opportunities and programs disproportionately to schools serving children of higher-income, well-educated parents;
  • It assigns poor and minority students disproportionately to low-track courses; and,
  • It assigns minority children to forms of special education that virtually guarantee they will drop out before graduating from high school.

“Choice programs must not be ruled out because they can lead to some inequities,” argue Hill and Guin. “Every system of allocating opportunities known to man creates some inequities.”

Whether choice programs do in fact produce worse outcomes than the present system is a question that must await the establishment of a sufficiently large and long-lasting choice experiment, something opponents have worked hard to prevent.

The book’s remaining chapters present evidence of the benefits that school choice brings to children, to families, and to public schools. The concluding chapter by Terry M. Moe will be particularly helpful to school choice advocates since it discusses a variety of issues that need to be considered in actually designing a school choice program.

“Whatever one’s values may be, and even if one puts almost exclusive emphasis on social equity,” Moe writes, “it is difficult to argue that American Education should not move toward a greater reliance on choice and competition.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A related article by Paul T. Hill and Kacey Guin, also called “Baselines for Assessment of Choice Programs,” was published in the October 20, 2003 issue of the Education Policy Analysis Archives and is available online at