Commentary

Fly-by-Night Public Schools

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
May 24, 2002

If you want to know about the problems facing public schools, here’s a hint: Just listen to what public school defenders warn could happen as a result of school choice. It turns out that their criticisms reflect problems inherent in public schools.

Among the many charges made against school choice are (1) that school choice, and vouchers in particular, lead to “segregation” of schools; (2) that self-interested parties will run fly-by-night “voucher schools” that don’t educate children; and (3) that school choice programs are not accountable to taxpayers.

First, does school choice lead to segregation? Leon Russell of the Florida branch of the NAACP says so: “Vouchers encourage segregation.” Former North Carolina governor James Hunt has claimed that vouchers create a “separate and unequal system.” NAACP president Kweisi Mfume warns that vouchers could “allow our nation’s schools to be divided once again by skin color.” David Berliner of Arizona State University has dramatically claimed, “Voucher programs would allow for splintering along racial and ethnic lines. Voucher programs could end up resembling the ethnic cleansing occurring in Kosovo.”

Segregation? Schools divided by skin color? A separate but unequal system? That certainly sounds like the public school system. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has found that 70 percent of the nation’s black students now attend predominately minority public schools, with 36 percent of the nation’s black students attending schools with a minority enrollment of 90-100 percent. Researcher Jay Greene found in a national study that 55 percent of children in public schools attended classes where 90 percent of students came from a single ethnic group. In comparison, 41 percent of private school students attended schools with similar conditions. The alleged “resegregation” caused by school choice is occurring in places where vouchers are still just a rumor.

A second common allegation is that school choice programs would allow “anyone” to open “instant” or “fly-by-night” schools. Most recently, in a union-paid advertisement in national newspapers, Bob Chase of the nation’s largest union for teachers wrote that the prospect of such schools opening makes him “shudder.” Yet, he won’t shudder for the next two months as numerous public schools across the country hand out fraudulent diplomas.

The difference between fly-by-night public schools and fly-by-night private schools is that fly-by-night private schools are accurately described—they truly “fly away” when they lose their customers. But fly-by-night public schools stubbornly continue trying to fly, even when it turns out they are ostriches.

Education in America needs more competition, and that means inviting in as many competitors as possible. Like any human endeavor, some schools will fail. Many public schools have been failing for decades, if not longer, but that became relevant to unions only when it appeared they would lose power over them.

For school choice opponents, alternatives to public schools lead to a third charge: school choice programs supposedly are not accountable to taxpayers. Skeptics often make this point about what could happen with school choice, but they don’t address the lack of accountability of public schools today. Public schools, by their very name, sound like they are accountable to taxpayers. But in practice accountability in public schools often means telling parents to sit tight while educators get their excuses organized.

One way to make schools accountable is to treat them like any enterprise providing a service: allow customers the option to leave, without having to get permission from parties with a vested interest. Schools would be much more accountable to parents armed with a voucher or a tuition tax credit they could use at any school, public, private, or even a homeschool taught by parents or freelance teachers.

Regardless of what school choice critics say in their union paid ads, there cannot be true accountability without competition. All private schools won’t be perfect, but then, are school choice critics ready to hold the public schools to the same standard?

Casey Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.