Who Chooses?

Published August 1, 2000

Public school advocates demand that voucher schools take all students who apply so they cannot “skim the cream.” Yet those advocates of equal opportunity do not make the same demands on public magnet schools, which have highly selective enrollment processes.

Although there’s no evidence that voucher schools have skimmed the best students from public schools, a teacher retiring from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School contends that magnet schools have taken the best students, even though the schools have been a success for all involved.

Everyone can take pride in what magnet schools like Whitney Young have accomplished with good teachers, highly motivated students, and extra resources, wrote Chuck Wemstrom in the November 1999 issue of Substance. But, he continued, “The magnet schools have drained the best students and a disproportionate share of resources from the rest of the system, leaving neighborhood schools worse off than they were before these programs were initiated.”

Chicago Public Schools Pick Their Students

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 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 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.”

Schools Do the Choosing in Michigan

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.

Milwaukee Public Schools Pick Students, But Voucher Schools Can’t

A recent study of the admission practices of public and private schools in Milwaukee revealed the application of a double standard towards students whose education costs are paid for by public tax dollars. Surprisingly, it is the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) that use a wide range of selective criteria to screen out unwanted students from many desirable schools, while private schools are not permitted to use any screening criteria for accepting students from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

“Milwaukee’s experience with the nation’s longest-running program of school vouchers directly contradicts the claims of voucher opponents regarding public and private school admission practices,” conclude Marquette University professor Howard L. Fuller and education consultant George A. Mitchell. “A targeted, tax-supported school voucher program for low-income parents can be designed to provide essentially an open admission policy.”

Their finding is significant because of persistent claims by voucher critics that school choice is unfair in practice. Those critics argue that public schools must accept all students, while private schools can be selective and pick only the students they want to accept. The private schools, not the parents, choose the students, claim these critics.

The Fuller-Mitchell study shows not only that this argument is false, but that it is the exact reverse of reality, where the public school system denies choice to parents and individual public schools choose their students rather than parents choosing the schools.

“In fact, the Milwaukee Public Schools often use selection criteria typically associated with private schools,” write Fuller and Mitchell in their January 2000 report from Marquette University’s Office Of Research, “Selective Admission Practices?” For example, more than one-third (37 percent) of MPS high school students attend schools with a range of highly selective admission criteria–criteria that private schools are prohibited from using in reviewing applications from voucher students.

Ironically, the criteria used to screen admissions to Milwaukee’s public schools are the same ones the American Federation of Teachers deems unacceptable and claims are used by private schools to admit or reject students–criteria such as prior academic achievement, standardized test scores, prior disciplinary record, written application, and interviews with applicants and their parents.

And these are not the only criteria used by the Milwaukee Public Schools to select students for its schools. Wisconsin state law allows schools in Milwaukee and suburban districts to refuse to accept a student transferring between the public school systems because of being expelled, poor attendance, or incomplete evaluation. None of these criteria may be used by private schools in reviewing the applications of Milwaukee public school students who are eligible for vouchers.

Voucher critics also use special education as a club to beat voucher proponents with the claim that private schools don’t have to take disabled students, leaving the public schools to shoulder the burden of these hard-to-educate students. But as a practical matter, critics can point to no example of a voucher-eligible student being denied admission to a private school based on special education needs. As a legal matter, private schools are not permitted to reject such students.

By contrast, public schools can and often do reject such students. The Fuller-Mitchell analysis shows that no MPS elementary, middle, or high school accepts all students with special education needs. For example, only 22 of Milwaukee’s 117 public elementary schools accept students with orthopaedic impairment; only two of the city’s 21 middle schools accept students with autism; and only four of its high schools accept students with hearing impairment.

“MPS has the final say, not the parent, in determining where a special needs student attends school, including whether the student may attend a school that does not have a program for them,” note the authors. Private schools that accept voucher students, by contrast, must permit parents to decide what is the best school for their child.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.