New York City Hosts Important School Choice Conference

Published February 1, 2001

On December 13, noted proponents of school choice–and a few opponents–met at the Millennium Hotel on 44th Street in Manhattan to discuss and debate the merits of school choice. The day-long event was cosponsored by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

The conference’s 150 participants heard panels of experts discuss parental demands for alternatives in education, recent research findings on how choice affects the quality of learning, the constitutionality of school voucher programs, and the prospects for the school choice movement in light of the decisive defeats of initiatives in California and Michigan last November.

Among the political leaders speaking were Giuliani, Governors Frank Keating of Oklahoma and Gary Johnson of New Mexico, and Mayors John Norquist of Milwaukee and Bret Schundler of Jersey City, all of whom support school choice. Also speaking was former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who argued for a “progressive” form of school choice in which government aid would be structured so as to be inversely related to a family’s income. Thus, the poorest families would receive the largest vouchers, while wealthier families would receive the smallest.


Poor Parents Want Choice

The conference opened with a video showing poor minority parents making enormous sacrifices to put their children in schools of choice–largely religious schools–because they wanted their children to learn the basics and also to “learn respect and morality,” as one parent put it. Another parent wanted to “see behavior change after putting my child in a religious school.”

Following the video, Giuliani spoke forcefully for school choice, saying the strongest concerns about educational quality can be found among the poorest families, and the “most telling poll” occurred when Wall Street philanthropist Ted Forstmann offered several thousand scholarships to New York City public school pupils and over 160,000 applied.


New Mexico Governor Pushing Vouchers

Governor Johnson spoke in favor of charter school expansion and universal school choice. He explained how the country has been pouring more and more money into public education, and yet the quality has deteriorated. He advocates vouchers of $4,000 for every student, noting that public schools in his state spend an average of $6,000 per student. Most private schools in New Mexico will accept a $4,000 voucher as full payment of tuition, he said, leaving even more money for each pupil remaining in a public school.

“The claim that vouchers leave the poorest students stuck in public schools is ridiculous,” he said, “because they are stuck there now, and the claim that this only helps the rich is equally absurd, since the rich already have choice–they simply move to better neighborhoods, while the poor cannot.”


Voucher Options

Professor Jack Coons of Berkeley Law School argued it is essential for private school autonomy to be preserved in any school choice program. He also urged that voucher amounts be set sufficiently high so as to make them meaningful; he suggested 80 percent of the average public school student cost.

According to former Labor Secretary Reich, there are two reasons poor children get stuck in poor schools and get a poor education. First, there is too little money for the schools because of a low property tax base; and second, most of the students in poor schools are poor themselves, so the school faces related problems of discipline, crime, and low self-esteem.

Reich therefore called for a “progressive” school voucher plan that would give more money–perhaps $10,000 or even $12,000 per child–to the poorest families. Middle-income parents would receive a $6,000 or $7,000 voucher, while wealthier parents would receive a $3,000 or $4,000 voucher. In Reich’s view, such a means-tested voucher program would provide the incentive for suburban schools to recruit students from low-income families.


Opposition to Choice Is Fierce

“What is the biggest obstacle to school choice other than money?” asked former New York Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto during an audience participation period at the conference. The panelists’ answer: the intensity of lies repeated over and over by opponents of choice. Opponents include those with a vested interest in the existing system, anti-religious white bigots, and–surprisingly–successful African-Americans who fear competition from the children of their less-fortunate brothers and sisters.

Norquist agreed that job security for teachers was “a legitimate concern”; it’s only common sense for someone to be concerned over a possible loss of employment. But, he continued, while that concern is understandable, it is not as important as concern for the declining quality of education.

Norquist admitted he initially was opposed to choice, but soon “had to admit to myself that I was mouthing arguments against school choice that were clearly ridiculous.”

Giuliani also focused on job protection as driving the opposition to school choice. “The key objective of the New York City Public School System, in the view of those who run it, is not education but rather job protection,” he declared.

“Salaries and raises are the same for great teachers, good teachers, and lousy ones, and our laws and our contracts are geared not to improve education, but to protect jobs.”


Choice Flourishing in Milwaukee

John Gardner, an at-large board member for the Milwaukee Public Schools, reported that school choice is flourishing in Milwaukee after 10 years . . . and so are the public schools, as a result of the impetus that competition provided. Mayor Norquist agreed.

“After 10 years of school choice, our schools are now an attraction for people selecting Milwaukee as a better place to educate their children,” said Norquist, who then posed the question: “Who benefits with school choice?”

“The answer is children, parents, and cities,” said the mayor. “The key question is who should decide: the system or the parents?”

He pointed out that, in a sense, school choice already exists all over the nation–but only the wealthy have it. It already exists in other countries, too. For example, the Netherlands has a superior educational program and, with the exception of the period 1940 to 1945, the country has had school choice since 1924.

Norquist’s points were echoed by Mayor Schundler of Jersey City, who noted the first applicants for enrollment in Jersey City’s charter schools were among the poorest families in the city–80 percent single parents, 85 percent black, and 90 percent eligible for the reduced-price school lunch program. Schundler–the first Republican elected mayor of Jersey City since WWI–achieved that landmark with substantial support from the minority community, largely because of his position on school choice.

“Politicians too often are afraid to do what is right,” said Schundler.


School Choice Politics

Although Mayor Schundler received minority voter support for his school choice position, the national picture is much more confused, with many pro-school choice African-Americans voting for anti-choice candidates, and many leaders of the African-American community opposing school choice. When that point was raised at the conference, panelists offered three explanations:

Voucher amounts are set too low to provide meaningful choice;

  • The idea of vouchers simply comes from the wrong place: “the right;” and
  • Teacher unions are allied to minority groups on issues like welfare and affirmative action.

T. Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miami felt Jesse Jackson had “prostituted himself” by accepting teacher union money and then opposing school choice desired by most poor African-American parents.


Choice Lifts All Students

A number of academics participated on various panels. Paul Peterson of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance described a large and growing body of literature showing that choice benefits African-American students in clearly measurable ways, while white student gains are minimal.

Private, largely religious, choice schools offer an environment more conducive to learning than the public schools, he said, with reductions in tardiness, cheating, property destruction, fighting, skipping class, and racial conflict. Non-public school parents, said Peterson, are twice as likely to be happy with their children’s schools as are public school parents.

Professor Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute summarized research showing that choice benefitted all students, including those remaining in public schools. He described the Educational Freedom Index, a tool for measuring the educational freedom enjoyed by parents, students, and teachers in a given state. Greene noted that states with high Educational Freedom Index scores tended to report higher overall quality of education, too.

Finally, Greene stressed that research disproves the claim that school choice harms democratic values. In fact, he said, choice enhances those values, as shown by the superior levels of racial integration and tolerance achieved among non-public school students as compared to their peers in public schools.

Both Peterson and Greene said they would like to see a large-scale citywide test of school choice. Both agreed the Washington DC schools could not get any worse, making the nation’s capital an excellent candidate for such a test.

Frank J. Russo Jr. is state director of the American Family Association of New York, and serves on the Boards of Directors of Citizens for Educational Freedom and Morality in Media. Russo, who has appeared on the Donahue, Geraldo, and Larry King TV programs, produces a weekly public access cable TV program believed to be the most widely syndicated public access program in New York State, with access to 6 million viewers (see,