The Goal: What Are We Trying to Achieve?

If we cannot agree on the ultimate goals of an education system, there is little hope that we can agree on a reform policy. Conversely, by explicitly laying out our goals up front, we can eliminate a possible source of contention down the road.

The brass ring for most school choice advocates is to ensure that families have access to schools responsive to their actual needs and demands. Even at this early point in the process, however, two fundamental cleavages appear. First, we have to decide which families we are talking about. Some reformers want to transform our education system for all families, while others are expressly concerned with helping the poorest and most disadvantaged. This difference in emphasis usually rests on the tacit assumption that the best way to help the poor educationally is to create a program that targets them alone. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the best way of helping the poor is to allow all families to participate in one grand reform, then these two groups of reformers will in fact see eye to eye. Rather than try to force all readers to agree on this question immediately, it seems best to defer it until a later section of the paper when the validity of that pivotal assumption can be resolved.

The second decision we are faced with is whether parental choice should be completely unfettered, or should be circumscribed to some extent by the state. Advocates of the former view argue that parents are the best judges of what is good for their children, and hence will do the best job of seeing to their children's diverse educational needs. Proponents of the latter view generally have two concerns in mind: first, that parents must be prevented from choosing unwisely (e.g., some might pick academically ineffective schools), and second, that parents must be prevented from Balkanizing society into antagonistic factions (e.g., increased school diversity might cause social tensions). Proponents of this view believe that state intervention must (and can) correct inevitable flaws in the execution of parental choice.

At its core, this desire for state safeguards is not a distillation of ultimate goals but rather an amalgam of goals and means. State intervention is offered not as an end in itself but only as a means of minimizing undesirable academic and social outcomes. Since we are currently concerned strictly with goals, we can register the concerns of this group of reformers by saying that our education system should not just ensure that schools respond to parental demand, but that they should maximize the combination of: responsiveness to parental demand, sound academic practices, and social harmony.

Though that prescription is a good start, it is a bit vague to be truly useful. The more we flesh out our goals now, the easier it will be to weigh alternative policies later on. To that end, we can review the evidence of public opinion polls and focus groups to determine the most common demands parents have for their children's education.