Who Chooses?

Published April 1, 2000

One of the favorite arguments raised by voucher opponents in an attempt to show the supposed unfairness of school choice is the question, “Who chooses?”

Voucher opponents assert that private schools can pick and choose their students, taking only the ones they prefer, while public schools must accept all children, including those who aren’t top performers.

But, as Chicagoan James Ylisela Jr. discovered last fall, it is public schools, not private schools, that do most of the choosing.

Ylisela’s son had attended Chicago’s public schools in grades K-8. But with 42 of Chicago’s 50 public high schools ranked among the worst in Illinois, Ylisela and his wife decided to apply to the city’s best public, parochial, and private schools: Whitney Young Magnet, St. Ignatius College Prep, and Francis W. Parker. All had entrance exams, but the public school exam is by invitation only, based on seventh-grade Iowa test results.

“We weren’t invited,” wrote Ylisela in an October 1999 article in Illinois Issues. “The best private and parochial schools in town will give anyone a shot, but at the public school, we couldn’t even get in the front door.”

When their son finally was accepted at Francis W. Parker, the Yliselas celebrated and tried not to think about the high tuition payments. But their experience prompted them to send up a warning signal about the limits of the current effort to reform Chicago’s public education system: “If you can’t afford the private or parochial school tuition, you’ll probably move to the suburbs, no matter what Mayor Daley does.”

Ylisela, the consulting editor of The Chicago Reporter, admitted that not every child can get into the best school. Still, he pointed out, “If the public schools offer parents so few real choices, it’s like having no choice at all.”

Ed and Becky Kohlhoff of Bridgeport Township, Michigan, had discovered a year earlier than the Yliselas that it is the public schools that do the choosing–even when there is a public school choice program. With one son already attending a public school of choice in a neighboring district, the Kohlhoffs were assured their younger son Justin would be allowed to attend the same school–as long as his home district released him and the money the district received to educate him.

However, nearly a month into the 1998-99 school year, four-year-old Justin had to leave the public school his parents had chosen for him. The school board of Justin’s home school district in Bridgeport Township had refused to release him. The school board president explained that if the board accommodated one family, it might be expected to accommodate others.

“Parents were put on notice that in practice, it is government and not the family that ultimately directs the education of their young,” commented Daniel Cassidy of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational organization headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Cassidy also noted that school boards frequently exercise the choice they deny to parents when they send “difficult to educate” students to private, for-profit institutions.