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Is The Cost Too High?


Tuesday, Sep. 17, 2002

It's September again - and the start of another school year. Parents and children all over the country are involved in the same school preparation rituals families have performed for generations. But, even as many of those traditions remain constant, dramatic changes are taking place in the American education system.

In K-12 education in the United States, parents have become less and less willing to share control of schools with government in order to further civic ends. As a result, we are seeing more and more instances of deregulation - the reduction of government authority and guidance in an effort to increase the autonomy of individual parents to control their children's schooling.

Greater parental choice is a good thing, but it comes at a price. From vouchers, to home schooling, to the end of voluntary desegregation plans, the trend towards deregulation has its costs. We must be careful that the price we pay is not too high.

The Debate Over Deregulation

It is hard to turn on the television these days without hearing the word "deregulation" - accompanied by the assertion that decreasing government oversight of industry creates more competitive markets that provide better services at lower costs to consumers. That idea has long been the toast of conservative circles, and today, it is constantly in the news. Indeed, in the past two decades we have witnessed the deregulation of the airlines, telecommunications, savings and loan, and electric utilities industries - just to name a few.

Of course, not everyone agrees that deregulation has had an overall positive effect. Especially in the wake of the Enron scandal, complaints abound that the practice has resulted in increased corruption, reductions in customer service, fewer consumer rights, and no real change in price. In short, critics charge that deregulation has failed to produce the benefits promised by its proponents and has had unpleasant side effects.

What about the growing trend towards deregulation in education? Will it achieve its promised benefits? And will unpleasant side effects follow?

Private and Parochial School Vouchers: Recently Blessed by the Supreme Court

The most obvious example of deregulation in education are school voucher programs. Voucher programs, which are becoming increasingly popular, distribute public money earmarked for education directly to individual parents to help them send their children to the parochial or secular private school of their choice.

None of the existing school voucher programs can provide increased choice for more than a few hundred parents. But, the benefits to those lucky few individuals - in terms of greater control of their children's education - are clear. What remains to be seen is what the costs of that expanded choice will be.

One predictable side effect is that school voucher programs will hurt public education because they will inevitably divert tax dollars from the public schools. Moreover, by decreasing the number of students in the public schools, voucher programs will reduce the economies of scale that allow large institutions to be run efficiently and thus relatively cheaply.

The Increase in Home Schooling: Encouraged by Changes in State Law

An even starker example of education deregulation is the tremendous upsurge in home schooling that has occurred in the past two decades. The number of home schooled children has grown from about 15,000 in the 1970s to approximately 1 million in the 1997-98 school year.

Legal changes have encouraged some of the growth in this area. As of the late 1980s, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had passed new laws, or interpreted their existing compulsory school attendance statutes, to allow parents to educate their children at home under certain conditions.

As home schooling eliminates virtually all government involvement in education, it naturally increases parental autonomy. The parents of home-schooled children can exercise tremendous control over the influences to which their children are exposed, and they can efficiently pass on their family's religious and political traditions to the next generation.

But, once again, parental autonomy comes at a price. In the absence of government regulation and professional guidance, home schooling is necessarily a haphazard enterprise - it results in instances of great educational success and of dismal educational failure. It also has the potential to cut students off from their peers, and from the community as a whole.

The End of Voluntary Desegregation

A final example of deregulation in education is less frequently cited, but perhaps most significant. In recent years, White parents have brought suit with increasing frequency to attain greater control over the education of their children by curtailing the authority of school officials to control the mix of students assigned to public schools.

Challenges to voluntary desegregation plans have met with mixed success in the courts. In Wessmann v. Gittens and Eisenberg v. Montgomery County Public School, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the First and Fourth Circuits prohibited voluntary race-based desegregation plans in K-12 public schools. But in Hunter ex rel Brandt v. Regents of Univ. of California, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a similar plan.

As a result, in many parts of the country the preferences of individual parents determine the mix of students in their children's schools - much as the invisible hand of the market is supposed to guide deregulated industries. What is lost, as in all instances of deregulation, is centralized, coordinated decisionmaking - in this case, the considered judgment of public school officials.

Given the high degree of residential segregation in the United States, some government intervention - in the form of race-based student assignment, or redrawing school district boundaries - is necessary if we are to achieve any significant racial mixing in public schools. So it is no surprise that the trend towards increased parental choice is matched with a trend towards resegregation.

Indeed, the Harvard Civil Rights Project's most recent report found that "the last 10-15 years have seen a steady unraveling of almost 25 years worth of increased integration" as court-ordered desegregation has ended and voluntary desegregation plans have come under attack.

The Harms of Education Deregulation

Of course, the deregulation of education will increase the autonomy of some parents. The less authority school officials have, the more authority parents must have. Whether a deregulated education system will offer the majority of parents satisfying educational alternatives - so that they experience what feels like real choice - is a more difficult question.

But, even assuming the academic success of a system of deregulated education, other important values may be lost as education becomes more and more removed from our communal control.

The most obvious disadvantage of deregulating education is that it will hurt the public school system. As more parents turn to private, parochial and home schools, and as more public money is spent to pay for those choices, fewer resources will remain to support our educational safety net. While the public school system has yet to live up to the ideal of providing high quality education to all children irrespective of their social, political, or economic backgrounds, that ideal is too important to stop fighting for.

Students who do not have access to private education and are not lucky enough to obtain a voucher must not be abandoned in a gutted public school system. Accordingly, programs that increase parental autonomy without draining funds from public education - such as public school choice and privately funded scholarships - should be emphasized.

For example, some home schooled children are deprived of interactions with ideologically diverse groups of their peers. That is an important omission, because it is through those encounters that adolescents select the values and beliefs that form the core of their adult selves, and those experiences are essential to learning to function in our increasingly heterogeneous society. In the rush to increase parental autonomy through educational deregulation, we must be careful not to inhibit the future choices of children.

Finally, the deregulation of education will greatly diminish public space. Public schools are one of the few institutions in the United States where people from different backgrounds come together to negotiate common values and to determine the course of our shared future. It is public spaces, such as those schools, that give meaning to citizenship - because it is in those spaces that we are all equal. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a democracy in which the citizenry did not meet on equal terms for the purpose of community building, discussion, and debate. It would be terribly ironic if in our efforts to increase the freedoms of parents, we diminish the democracy that makes such freedoms possible.

Denise C. Morgan teaches Educational Policy and the Law, Federal Courts, Civil Procedure, and an anti-discrimination law seminar that focuses on the legal history of race in the United States at New York Law School.

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