The Magazine

The Justice of School Choice

A Brookings publication embraces school vouchers

Dec 13, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 13 • By RICHARD W. GARNETT
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Choosing Equality

School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society

by Joseph P. Viteritti

Brookings, 352 pp., $ 29.95

The politics of education reform are a mystery. Millionaire businessmen and conservative activists invoke civil-rights ideals to demand equality, freedom, and diversity in education -- while liberals join union bosses and anti-religious activists in support of a government monopoly. Strange days indeed, when the NAACP's and ACLU's opponents are black schoolchildren singing "We Shall Overcome" on the courthouse steps.

Enter Joseph Viteritti, whose Choosing Equality is a compelling cry for meaningful school choice. Viteritti is an education expert who knows the data and has studied the studies, but Choosing Equality is not a numbers-crunching book. Indeed, its strength lies in the fact that it builds the case for school choice not so much on an economic-efficiency model but on the Constitution's promise of equality. That promise was affirmed in 1954 when the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that no child "may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity . . . is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms." Choosing Equality shows that making good on Brown's promise requires us to empower parents to choose the best education for their children.

Viteritti begins with the simple observation that some Americans -- those with enough money -- already have school choice. But the education establishment's allegiance to the government's monopoly on public education "has consigned an entire segment of the population to schools that most middle-class parents would not allow their sons and daughters to attend." The self-interest of teachers' unions, the political calculations of their elected allies, faulty constitutional reasoning, and a misplaced suspicion of religious schools have trumped the educational needs and rights of poor children. "The most compelling argument for school choice in America," Viteritti insists, "remains an egalitarian one: Education is such an essential public good for living life in a free and prosperous society that all people deserve equal access to its benefits."

Just one year after Brown, the economist Milton Friedman suggested replacing the government's education monopoly with a universal government-funded voucher system. Friedman was ahead of his time, but in the years that followed, many thinkers took up the idea of vouchers. Free-market economists liked the competition, liberals liked the idea of saving poor children from bad schools, and cultural and religious minorities hoped to protect their values and traditions from state-imposed homogenization.

School choice failed to catch hold in politics, however, in large part because of the vehement opposition of the teachers' unions and the increasing identification of school choice with religious conservatives. As a result, many choice supporters lowered their sights to more modest reforms, such as intra-district public-school choice, "magnet" schools, privately managed public schools, and charter schools. As Choosing Equality shows, these compromises share the problem of "not enough choice, too much control." Even charter schools -- which provide convenient political cover for politicians required by what William Bennett has called the education-establishment "Blob" to oppose real choice -- have fallen short of reformers' hopes. What Viteritti calls "Potemkin bills that pretend to be serious reforms but lack the essential ingredients of strong laws" and disingenuous law-suits have often succeeded in hamstringing charter schools with the same regulations that cripple the public schools.