Question #20

Should private schools be permitted to participate in a choice system?

Private schools would not have to be included in a system of educational choice for such a system to work, but including private schools would raise the probability of success. The greatest obstacle to a successful system of educational choice is a restricted supply of schools. If students who are unable to attend the schools that they choose are compelled to attend schools that they would never choose, a choice system is not fully working. The system is mostly benefiting those students fortunate enough to attend their chosen schools. Those students forced to attend the schools that every student and educator who really cares about education is trying to flee may be made worse off. The solution to this problem, as we explained in our answer to question 14, is to decontrol the supply of schools – to allow unwanted schools to close and to encourage new, more responsive schools to open. Decontrol will be exceedingly difficult to accomplish within established systems of public education, however. Decontrol would be much easier to implement if the private schools were made part of the educational supply.

If a system of educational choice is implemented without private school participation, a provision would need to be made to permit new schools to organize in response to parental demand. If schools can only be organized by central educational authorities, the chances are great that the supply of new schools will not be adequate to meet parent and student demand. Central authorities will be pressured by teacher unions and constrained by the rules of personnel systems not to close old schools or create new schools by transferring, dismissing, or even "counseling out" unwanted teachers. While competitive pressures will make it more difficult for central authorities to protect and maintain ineffective schools, central authorities will certainly not permit the supply of schools to respond to demand in the way a market of autonomous schools would respond. Unfortunately, to the extent that a system of competition and choice fails to shift school organization and control from top-down regulation to bottom-up self-determination, the new system will fail to improve school performance. Thus it is essential for even a fully public system of educational choice to permit principals, teachers, or entrepreneurs, free from central administrative control, to organize schools when they see the demand for particular kinds of schools going unfilled.

If any group of parents or any educational entrepreneur is free to organize a school to be funded by the public system of educational choice, however, it is but a small step further to include private schools. To illustrate, what would be the difference between a public school of choice organized autonomously by a group of educators and parents, and a private school'? The autonomous public school would need to satisfy eligibility criteria – for example, requiring particular courses, and meeting safety standards – but private schools must already satisfy many state regulations, too. Indeed, a public choice system might well adopt the minimal kinds of regulations now imposed on private schools to specify what autonomous public schools of choice would have to do. But however autonomous public schools of choice came to be regulated, they would actually look a lot like private schools – provided the new public schools were genuinely autonomous. In an effective system of public educational choice, then, there would be little difference, besides funding, between public and private schools, and less reason for prohibiting private school participation.

There is, moreover, a very good reason for including private schools in a choice system. Private schools would immediately expand the educational supply, the range of educational options. Private schools would ensure that the educational supply would not be dependent entirely on the entrepreneurship of educators willing to bear the risks of starting new schools or on the responsiveness of central educational authorities. Private schools would immediately inject competition into the educational system, for in most states private schools are in abundance. Nationwide, one out of every five schools is private. [36] If tapped, the ready supply of educational options in the private sector would ensure that more parents provided with school choice would actually have their demands fulfilled. Without private school participation, a choice system could easily prove less responsive.