Restoring the Urban Advantage with School Choice

Published March 1, 1998

Now in the middle of his third term of office, John Norquist was elected the 37th Mayor of Milwaukee in 1988 after serving in Democratic leadership positions in both the state assembly and senate. His impressive record of streamlining city government, improving public safety, reducing taxes, and spurring job growth in Milwaukee has won the praise of Wall Street Journal editors, who called him “a genuine new Democrat.” He also struck the editors of the British Economist as “part of a strong wind of change that is beginning to blow through American cities.”

A prominent participant in national discussions of urban design and education issues, Norquist serves as a board member of the Alliance for Redesigning Government. Recently, he spoke with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes about cities and public education.

Clowes: Why are big city mayors becoming more involved with your school systems when other elected officials already have responsibility for them?

Norquist: People with kids and money don’t want to live in the city, and it’s the school monopoly that’s making that happen. In almost every American metropolitan area, the wealthier people tend to live in the suburbs and the poorer people tend to live in the city for a variety of reasons, but one of them is to avoid city schools.

If the only people with children who are living in the city are either those who don’t have the resources to leave or those who can pay for private education, that’s a problem. I want people to want to live in Milwaukee, not to be repelled by it.

Also, when you’re the mayor, people expect you to solve problems. They don’t want to hear you say, “It’s not my job,” or “You’ll have to call up the school board.” I have a lot of respect for the school board, but I don’t think the board is so much the problem as the basic structure of public education as it’s financed in the United States, with government having the monopoly over the money.

Clowes: Do large cities in other countries have similar problems with K-12 education?

Norquist: No. If you go to Europe, or Canada, or Australia, you’ll find that the best place to educate your children is in the large cities. If you live in Australia and you have kids, you’re better off in Melbourne or Sidney. In Canada, you’re better off in Toronto or Montreal. That’s because, like most goods and services, you’ll find the highest quality and the most choice in areas with large populations. It’s true for restaurants, it’s true for banking services, and it’s true for higher education. Most great universities are in or near large cities.

Large metropolitan areas generate high-quality choices. But not in K-12 education. Nobody in the world is saying “I want to move to Chicago so I can put my kids in the Chicago public schools.” Everybody wants to go to the University of Chicago, but nobody wants to go the Chicago public schools.

Clowes: So other countries have their best schools in the cities?

Norquist: Right. But in the United States, we’ve undone the urban advantage. We’ve smothered it with monopoly. There are a lot of areas where this has happened. It’s not just schools.

I have a book coming out in April called Wealth of Cities, where I point out that the federal government over the last fifty years has spent almost all of its transportation money on highways. In Canada, where they have no federal highway or transit program, every city has a wide variety of choices for transportation. Toronto has rail, bus, not too many freeways, and is a very prosperous city with a rich variety of choices. But in Detroit, just 350 miles away, the only way you can travel is by car. That’s because the federal government has basically dominated transportation, just like the schools. They’ve homogenized everything and eliminated choice.

Clowes: Do public schools perform poorly because of their monopoly status?

Norquist: Yes. America rates at the bottom of developed countries–I think we’re ranked just ahead of Portugal–in terms of K-12 education, and the reason for that is this monopoly. The innovations, the reform, the productivity improvements that you find in other human endeavors just aren’t happening in K-12 education.

It’s different from our choice-oriented higher education system, which is the best in the world. What you have in higher education is that the money that pays for Notre Dame, Michigan, or Stanford is money from the GI bill, Pell grants, and state tuition grants as well as from parents. That allows competition, with more choices for more people. The net result is the customer has more power, and therefore quality goes up.

Clowes: What reforms do you think would address these problems?

Norquist: I don’t have a real complicated agenda. I’m for vouchers; I’m for choice. I think that the easiest way to do it is to take a portion of the state aid amount per student–which in Milwaukee is about $4,700 out of a total cost of about $5,900–and have it go to parents. Parents would then be able to direct that money to the school of their choice.

If their kid goes to a private school, the private school would get about $4,000, which, for most private schools, is more than their tuition. If somebody wants to go to a school that’s more expensive than that, parents would have to make up the difference. That’s what we have in higher education. If you go to Stanford, the GI bill isn’t going to pay the whole thing, but at least it gives you a chance to think about going there.

There are many roads to school choice, but ultimately it amounts to one thing: you put more power in the hands of the customer, which is the parent or the kids.

Clowes: What about the fear that school choice would allow cities to export their problem children to suburban schools?

Norquist: I’m not interested in doing that. I want people to live in Milwaukee, and so I want school options to be available to them. That means private and parochial school options, and public schools would get better so that people actually would want to be in them. Some of Milwaukee’s public schools are good; some are excellent, award-winning schools. It’s just that there are not enough of them.

Clowes: Some people say school choice divides communities and will lead to more segregation and polarization along racial lines.

Norquist: The evidence in Milwaukee shows just the opposite. Overwhelmingly, the choice students are minority. Vouchers are not a way for white people to flee the system. Private schools are just as integrated or more integrated than the public schools.

Communities already are divided by suburb/city, with all-white suburban districts. But that kind of segregation seems to be OK. The only segregation that worries people is if it’s in a private or religious school. It’s an argument for maintaining the monopoly, with the employees of the system being the number one priority. They’re important, but their interests aren’t as important as the outcomes for the kids.

Clowes: It’s like protecting industries.

Norquist: That’s a good analogy. It’s just like the sugar industry in the United States. They’re afraid of competing, so the price of raw sugar in the United States is over twice the world price. They don’t think they can compete in the market without being propped up on training wheels by the federal government. It’s the same with the teachers’ unions, the sugar industry, and the textile industry–they all have no confidence in themselves. They want to force everybody to buy their service or product because they don’t think they can make it in the market.

The public schools are always saying, “If you have choice, they won’t choose us.” They have a profound lack of confidence in their own ability to satisfy customers. I think the public schools would rise to the occasion under a choice system, just as the public universities have done. They have advantages, such as a stable source of capital, and so a choice system would not ruin them or diminish them to nothing.

Clowes: How have the teachers’ unions and school employees in Milwaukee reacted to the idea of school choice?

Norquist: I think there’s a growing minority of teachers who are starting to see school choice as a catalyst to improve their situation. The ones that are really skilled are tired of working with people who can’t produce and not being held accountable. There are sort of secret covens of choice supporters among public school employees. They keep very quiet, but they’re there. I’ve had them come up to me and tap me on the shoulder and tell me, “Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re helping.”

Clowes: What about the reaction of the elected officials who currently run the Milwaukee public schools?

Norquist: We have three members out of nine who are open supporters of school choice, including religious school choice. Even some of the board members who are outwardly against choice have been cooperative in some reform efforts within the system. Everybody’s always talking about abolishing school boards and replacing them with the governor, or the state, or something like that, but I really think those are false solutions.

Clowes: Is the reform effort in Chicago a good model?

Norquist: It’s a good model in terms of procurement: supply, delivery, fixing windows, cleaning up basic operations. A mayor has more public visibility and more power, but ultimately, no matter how shiny the windows are and no matter how smooth the procurement process is, the miracle that happens between teachers and pupils really requires a system that focuses on the direct needs of the students. You don’t get that without choice. You can make some progress, but ultimately it’s not going to solve the problem.

No one cares more about children than the parents. No bureaucrat, no mayor, no school board can care as much about an individual kid as that kid’s parent. Even parents that are defective, somewhere deep down inside, will tend to try to find the right situation for their kid, and they’ll be more motivated than a bureaucrat.

Clowes: What about charter schools?

Norquist: Charter schools help lead to choice. If you break down the regulations that entrench the monopoly over public finance, charters can erode the monopoly. But it depends on who’s running the charter. If you have a school system that’s dominated by the bureaucracy, and you allow the bureaucracy to dominate the charters, the charter may not be any different than anything else.

Clowes: If there’s one message you’d like to communicate to state policy-makers and other mayors about education issues, what would that be?

Norquist: They need to make the system responsive to the needs of the kids, primarily as defined by the parents. If they understand that, then eventually they’ll choose choice as a mechanism.

For mayors, school choice is a way to make their city attractive for people to live in. If people knew that they could have a voucher of four or five thousand dollars to send their kid to any public, private, or parochial school in the city, that would give them a reason to live there. Then, all of a sudden, the urban advantage of the city would start to emerge again–the market advantage that cities have always had throughout the history of civilization, where, for most commodities and most services, cities provide the widest choice and the highest quality.

If mayors understand the basic purpose of cities, it’s this concentration of people and markets and culture that creates high-quality choices for people, and K-12 education has been hermetically sealed and separated from the marketplace for so long in the United States that the urban advantage has been completely muffled. It’s been masked. We have to unlock that.