The Pragmatics of Choice


In his 1955 article “The Role of Government in Education,” Milton Friedman, the renowned scion of the Chicago School of Economics, proposed supplanting publicly operated schools with privately run, but publicly funded, public schools. His proposed vehicle for privatizing public education was vouchers. The proposal was not the result of any extant research or experience. It was derivative of his conservative theory about small government and free markets. Fundamentally, vouchers are a funding strategy to provide choices for education services to all families.

Despite various attempts to implement voucher programs, the reform has failed to demonstrate efficacy. Still, there are state legislators who propose voucher initiatives and advocates that want to blow up public schools and replace them with vouchers. And, more recently, the charter school movement has embraced the choice argument that is endemic to vouchers. The pragmatics of both reform initiatives is a stumbling block.

There are at least 5 million school-aged children languishing in low-performing schools. Both voucher initiatives and charter schools propose to use existing resources to implement the choice reform. Effectively, both have been and are unfunded reform initiatives. Even if choice were extended to just the children languishing in low-performing schools, there are no seats, no buildings and no personnel to serve more than 5 million, mostly poor students, who need a reform alternative the most. Then there is the problem of governance.

Here the charter school experience is informative. The use of public money with no oversight is a paradox not yet solved by growing numbers of charter schools. Intended to eliminate the bureaucracy of big government, charter schools are regulated and subjected to the same accountability measures of public schools. And, so far, the achievement of charter school students is about the same as their public school counterparts. More to the point, there are other reforms whose outcomes are more compelling, but are not universally available because there is no funding.

The two best examples are kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classrooms. It is clear that early childhood education is a pre-requisite to ending generational poverty. If resources are limited, what choice should policy makers and regulators be making for the continued growth of the economy and the nation? The choice is clear, but innovative reforms are necessary to continuous improvement. They must, however, be funded just as they are in the private sector.

Siphoning funds from an established institution to fund new reforms is not pragmatic or sustainable for promising innovations be they vouchers or charter schools.

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