Question #21

Wouldn't private school participation in a choice system destroy public education?

In contemplating the effects of private schools on a system of educational choice, it is important to distinguish between public schools and public education. Private school participation in a system of educational choice might indeed cause some public schools to go out of business; some public schools could be destroyed. But this is not the same as saying public education would be destroyed. Far from it. The objective of a system of' educational choice is to strengthen public education, to improve file duality of education that is provided with government funds under general government supervision. If a choice system were to raise the average level of achievement of American students by encouraging competition among and between public and private schools, that reform would be revitalizing public education, not destroying it. Educational reform should ultimately be evaluated in terms of its effects on students, not on schools.

It should be pointed out, moreover, that private schools might be changed as much as public schools by a system of educational choice. Private schools that elected to participate in a choice system would become wholly, or almost wholly,supported by public funds, and fully subject to the (hopefully minimal) regulations imposed on public schools of choice. Participating private schools would therefore be hard to distinguish from public schools. And the distinction would literally disappear if participating private schools were not permitted to charge tuition on top of the payment received from public education authorities. Because most private schools now operate with far less revenue per pupil than public schools, many private schools would probably not object to operating without supplementary tuition. Any system that awarded private schools a sum approaching the current per-pupil expenditure in public schools would make most private schools better off.

Still, some schools, public and private, might want to charge tuition in excess of their per-pupil allotment. Whether this should be permitted is not a question we can answer, for it depends heavily on value judgments that can only be made by the political process. Permitting participating private schools to charge tuition beyond the public expenditure would permit those parents wanting "more" education for their children, and able to pay more, to purchase a more expensive education without having to foot the whole bill themselves. The virtue in this is that more children would be able to avail themselves of a potentially (though not necessarily) superior education than are able to currently, either because they cannot now afford tuition at elite private schools or mortgage payments in the neighborhoods of elite public schools. But there is a possible price to pay for satisfying parents with high educational demand. Permitted to charge additional tuition, schools would have an increased incentive to try to attract affluent students, and the means to create large inequities in the student composition and financial resources of schools. These inequities may not be as large as those that plague public education today,but it remains the responsibility of the politicalprocess to decide whether those inequities are too great to justify the benefits that tuition add-ons might provide for many students.

It is also the job of the political process to settle one other issue of private school participation. The majority of private schools in this country are parochial or religiously-oriented institutions. While there is plenty of reason to believe that these schools provide very good academic educations, better on average than public schools, there is at least some reason to exclude parochial schools from participation in a public system of education choice. [37] Americans may still believe as they once did, that religion can interfere with the social integration that schools are trying to accomplish, and that religious schools should not therefore be aided by the government. The Constitution provides additional support for this view. But there are enough constitutional precedents for public support of students who choose to be educated in religiously-oriented institutions – for example, govern­ment grants for private higher education, and special government programs for poor or handicapped children attending religious schools – to indicate that the courts would permit parochial school participation in a choice system. Ultimately, the question of parochial school participation probably hinges more on the views of the public and less on the views of the courts, since the courts have no clear cut precedents to guide them. Be this as it may, before parochial school participation can be urged, value judgments must be made. We cannot say whether the potential benefits of opening up many good (and currently under-enrolled) religious schools to public school students is worth the potential costs of providing some public encouragement to the dissemination of religious values.