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School Choice Tradeoffs

School Choice Tradeoffs
Liberty, Equity, and Diversity

An overview of the issues in school choice.

May 2002
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
335 pages | 6 x 9 | 7 figures, 13 tables |

Educational policy in a democracy goes beyond teaching literacy and numeracy. It also supports teaching moral reasoning, political tolerance, respect for diversity, and citizenship. Education policy should encourage liberty and equality of opportunity, hold educational institutions accountable, and be efficient. School Choice Tradeoffs examines the tradeoffs among these goals when government affords parents the means to select the schools their children attend.

Godwin and Kemerer compare current policy that uses family residence to assign students to schools with alternative policies that range from expanding public choice options to school vouchers. They identify the benefits and costs of each policy approach through a review of past empirical literature, the presentation of new empirical work, and legal and philosophic analysis.

The authors offer a balanced perspective that goes beyond rhetoric and ideology to offer policymakers and the public insight into the complex tradeoffs that are inherent in the design and implementation of school choice policies. While all policies create winners and losers, the key questions concern who these individuals are and how much they gain or lose. By placing school choice within a broader context, this book will stimulate reflective thought in all readers.


Book of the Year in Education FinalistForeWord Magazine

  • Preface
  • 1. School Choice Options and Issues: An Overview
    • Why Change Current Policies?
    • Why Use School Choice to Promote Equity?
    • Types of School Choice
    • Major Issues in the Choice Debate
      • Educational Outcomes
      • Liberal Democratic Theory and Education Policy
      • Parental Rights and Equality of Opportunity
      • The Constitutionality of Vouchers and Tax Credits
      • The Economics of Choice
      • Accountability versus Autonomy
    • Designing a Voucher Program That Promotes Equity
  • 2. The Outcomes of School Choice Policies
    • Why Proponents Expect Choice to Increase Academic Outcomes
      • The Effects of Competition
      • Increased Parental Involvement and Better Matching of Students and Schools
      • Democratic Control and Bureaucratic Inefficiencies
      • The Particular Problems Facing Inner-City Schools
    • Why Opponents Expect Choice to Lower Academic Outcomes
    • Empirical Hypotheses Concerning the Impacts of Choice
    • School Choice and Segregation
      • How Do Parents Choose?
      • Policy Implications
    • Do Private Schools Teach Public Values?
    • The Effects of Choice on Teachers and Principals
    • The Effects of Choice on Parents
    • The Effects of Choice on Academic Outcomes
      • The Effects of Competition
      • Comparing Public and Private Schools
        • High School and Beyond
        • Results from Other National Databases
      • Evaluations of Existing Choice Programs
        • Privately Funded Voucher Experiments
    • The Effects of Choice on Children Who Remain Behind
    • Summary and Conclusions
  • 3. Political Theory and School Choice (coauthor: Richard Ruderman)
    • Liberal Democracy
    • Liberal Arguments That Education Is in the Private Sphere
    • Liberal Arguments for Including Education in the Public Sphere
      • John Dewey and Progressive Liberalism
      • Sharing Educational Responsibility: The Ideas of Amy Gutmann
    • Diversity or Autonomy
      • Comprehensive Liberalism versus Political Liberalism
    • School Choice and Communitarian Thought
    • Discussion
    • Conclusion
  • 4. Parent Rights, School Choice, and Equality of Opportunity (coauthor: Jennifer L. Kemerer)
    • Parent Rights in Education
      • How Fundamental Are Parent Rights?
      • Coupling Parent Rights with Free Exercise of Religion
      • Contemporary Developments
    • Racial and Economic Segregation in Traditional Public Schools
      • Racial Segregation
      • Economic Segregation
      • Continuing Inequalities in Public Schools
    • Racial and Economic Inequalities in Choice Schools
      • Choice Schools and Ethnic Sorting
      • Racial Balance Measures
    • Achieving Diversity without Unconstitutional Discrimination against Parents
      • The Case for Diversity
      • Proxies for Race
    • Summary
  • 5. Vouchers and Tax Benefits: Tradeoffs between Religious Freedom and Separation of Church and State
    • A Tale of Two Judges
      • Judge Higginbotham and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
      • Judge Sadler and the Cleveland Scholarship Program
      • Differing Perspectives
    • Vouchers, Tax Benefits, and the Federal Constitution
      • Channeling Money to Sectarian Private Schools
      • Channeling Money to Parents and Students
    • The Significance of Federalism
    • Vouchers and State Constitutions
      • Restrictive States
        • Prohibition on Vouchers
        • No Direct or Indirect Aid to Sectarian Private Schools
        • What Is "Indirect Aid"?
        • Funding for Public Schools Only
        • Public Purpose Doctrine
        • Judicial Precedent
      • Permissive States
        • No Anti-Establishment Provision
        • Supportive Legal Climate
      • Uncertain States
        • Ambiguous Constitutional Terminology
        • Absence of Authoritative Case Law
        • Pending State Litigation
    • Implications for Voucher Program Design
    • Tax Benefits
    • Summary
  • 6. The Economics of Choice
    • Tiebout Sorting and the Median Voter Theorem
    • Funding Public Schools
      • Present Funding Patterns within States
      • Financing Public Choice Programs
      • Summary
    • Promoting Efficiency in the Production of Education
      • The Apparent Decline in the Efficiency of Public Schools
      • Possible Reasons for the Decline in Productive Efficiency
        • Changes in Student Population
        • Teachers' Unions
        • The Cost of Educating Students with Disabilities
      • Privatization and Vouchers
        • Arguments That Vouchers Will Increase the Cost of Education
        • Arguments That Vouchers Will Decrease Educational Costs by Increasing Efficiency
      • Regulation versus Incentives
        • Regulating Class Size Reductions (CSR)
      • Summary
    • Equity Considerations and Voucher Policies
    • The Impact of Vouchers on Public Schools
    • Conclusions
  • 7. School Choice Regulation: Accountability versus Autonomy
    • Are Markets Preferable to Democratic Control?
      • Classical Economic Theory
      • New Institutional Economics
    • Legal Constraints on Institutional Autonomy
      • State Constitutions, State Regulation, and State Action
        • Unconstitutional Delegation Law
        • State Action
      • State Statutes, Administrative Regulations, Charters, and Contracts
      • School Choice Accountability: Michigan's Public School Academies
    • Lessons from Privatization of Prisons, Public Housing, and Special Education
      • Privatization of Prisons
      • Privatization of Public Housing
      • Contracting-Out Special Education to Private Schools
    • Vouchers and Private School Regulation
    • Implications for Policymaking
  • 8. The Politics of Choice and a Proposed School Choice Policy
    • Political Forces That Oppose Expanding School Choice
      • Producers of Public Education and Their Organizations
      • Liberal and Minority Interest Groups
    • Political Forces Supporting Increased School Choice
    • Attributes of an Equitable and Efficient Policy Proposal
    • A Proposal to Expand School Choice
      • Accountability Provisions
      • Additional Measures to Assist Low-Income Students and New Scholarship Schools
    • Discussion of the Tradeoffs We Made
      • Vouchers for All Income Levels and a Quota for Low-Income Students
      • Allowing Schools to Charge Families Additional Tuition and Fees
      • Transportation
      • Student Admission
      • Home Schooling
      • Additional Benefits and Costs of the Proposed Policy
      • The Political Feasibility of the Proposed Policy
      • Charter Schools and Alternative Choice Proposals
    • Concluding Remarks
  • Notes
  • Selected References
  • Index

R. Kenneth Godwin is Marshall Rausch Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Frank Kemerer is Regents Professor-Emeritus of Education Law and Administration at the University of North Texas and founder of the Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest. He lives in San Diego, California.


An optimal educational policy in a liberal democracy goes beyond teaching literacy and numeracy. It also supports the learning of moral reasoning, political tolerance, respect for diversity, and citizenship. Educational policy should value individual liberty and equality of opportunity for all people, and it should create mechanisms to foster efficiency and to hold educational institutions accountable. School Choice Tradeoffs examines how these goals are in a state of tension with each other when government affords parents the means to select the schools their children attend. It shows how school choice offers a rare opportunity to make significant advances toward equality of opportunity and ethnic integration. While the concept of school choice is simple, seemingly small changes in program design substantially alter policy outcomes. If policy is poorly designed, school choice can threaten the basic values that a liberal democratic society holds dear. Thus, while school choice represents an important policy opportunity, it also presents serious policy risks.

School Choice Tradeoffs grows out of our four-year study of public and private school choice in San Antonio that was funded principally by the U.S. Department of Education and the Spencer Foundation. The study enabled us to investigate firsthand the consequences of allowing parents to choose schools for their children. It also prompted us to begin a broader study of school choice from the philosophical, political, and legal perspectives, for we quickly realized that school choice represents a fundamental change in the way we educate children.

In recent years, a spate of books have been published on school choice. Most emphasize the empirical evidence that supports the author's preferred policy. Proponents argue that school choice will result in educational gains for choosing students, improved economic efficiency, enhanced parental rights, and the introduction of a competitive academic market that will stimulate all schools to improve. Opponents assert that school choice will harm nonchoosing students, increase segregation and social inequality, and ultimately destroy the public school system. Several factors set School Choice Tradeoffs apart from existing books in this field. First, the book places the topic in a broad theoretical framework based on the idea of opportunity cost. Second, the book anchors the discussion in the conflicting educational goals of such liberal democratic theorists as John Locke, John Dewey, and John Rawls to demonstrate how their different priorities have affected thinking in this country about the role of the state versus the parent in schooling. Third, the book encompasses available scholarly research in economics, education, law, and politics. Fourth, the book shows how federal and state constitutional law has great influence over the design and functioning of school choice programs, and how policy design and functioning determine outcomes.

School Choice Tradeoffs is not about a "single best policy." We seek to offer a balanced perspective that goes beyond rhetoric and ideology to provide readers in general and public policymakers in particular insight into the complex tradeoffs that are inherent in the design and implementation of school choice policies. While all policies create winners and losers, the key questions concern who these individuals are and how much they gain or lose. By placing school choice within a broader context, the book stimulates reflective thought by all readers.

School Choice Tradeoffs first considers the many dimensions that school choice takes and what we know about its consequences. Then the book discusses underlying values at stake, with primary emphasis on liberty, equity, and diversity. Included among the questions the book explores are: How much liberty should parents have to control their children's education? Does education for effective democratic citizenship require that the state both provide a uniform system of public schooling and regulate alternatives? Should a liberal democratic society allow students to be educated in ways that eschew such liberal values as gender equality, the priority of rationality, and individual autonomy? Are private schools more or less effective than public schools at teaching political toleration? Would a market-based educational system be more efficient and equitable? How would it affect educational funding? Does federal and state constitutional law permit the state's use of public money to enfranchise parents with the opportunity to select religious private schools? Will school choice programs balkanize the learning environment into mutually exclusive enclaves along racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines, and, if so, would this be harmful to democratic citizenship? How can the state assure that every parent has an equal opportunity to choose without discriminating on the basis of race? Does state constitutional law permit the deregulation and privatization of schooling? Is educational privatization possible without subjecting schools to federal and state constitutional constraints? The book concludes with a specific proposal that we believe makes a reasonable tradeoff among the competing values and reflects our priorities for an educational policy that exhibits strong commitment to pluralism, equality of educational opportunity for all children, parent rights, and institutional autonomy.

We owe a strong debt of gratitude to many organizations and individuals who have assisted us in the research leading up to this book. First, we thank the U.S. Department of Education; the Spencer Foundation; and the Covenant, Ewing Halsell, and USAA foundations in San Antonio for funding the San Antonio School Choice Research Project. Encompassing a multifaceted look at both public and private school choice, the study was conducted under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Education Reform at the University of North Texas from 1992 to 1996. Both the Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) Program in San Antonio, which sponsored the private school choice program there, and the San Antonio Independent School District were willing participants. We are especially grateful to Robert Aguirre, director of the CEO program, and to the San Antonio I.S.D. school board and the two superintendents we worked with, Victor Rodriguez and Diana Lam, for their cooperation and support. We also thank the Spencer Foundation for funding the toleration study, whose findings are reported in Chapter 2, and the National Center for the Study of Education Reform at Teachers College, Columbia University, for underwriting part of the research on the legal aspects of privatization reported in Chapter 7. Our commissioned research paper for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences facilitated our understanding of the likely policy outcomes of different types of choice policies. We thank the John Templeton Foundation for providing funding for us, together with our colleague Richard Ruderman, to teach a unique interdisciplinary course on educating the liberal democratic citizen that enabled us to think through many of the topics discussed in this book. Finally, we are indebted to Chancellor Alfred Hurley and the University of North Texas both for financial support and encouragement throughout this research.

Numerous individuals have helped with facets of this study. First and foremost is Valerie Martinez, who served as co-principal investigator with us in the San Antonio study and was instrumental in orchestrating the survey research. Richard Ruderman, our coauthor in Chapter 3, advanced significantly our understanding of the philosophical dimensions of school choice. Jennifer L. Kemerer became a collaborator with us through her research on school choice and racial segregation, and we acknowledge her contribution by adding her as coauthor of Chapter 4. We owe a strong intellectual debt of gratitude to Henry Levin, Terry Moe, Stephen Sugarman, and John Witte, all of whom assisted us at one point or another in the research and writing of this volume. Kay Thomas, Carrie Ausbrooks, and Alice Miller, doctoral students in educational administration at UNT, served as research assistants during the San Antonio project and based their dissertations on the study. Casi Davis also worked as a research assistant and drew on the study to complete a master's thesis in public administration. University of Texas School of Law students Elizabeth González, Kristine Tidgren, and Patricia Esquivel assisted with legal research, as did Marc Garcia of St. Mary's School of Law in San Antonio. UNT doctoral student Catherine Maloney assisted with charter school research. Eric Juenke read an earlier draft of the book and made valuable contributions. Finally, we are indebted to the students in our graduate courses and seminars who helped us think through many school choice issues with their critical comments and insights. To these individuals and the many others who offered assistance during the researching and writing of this book, we offer our deepest gratitude.

School choice is a disputatious subject. Coming from different academic disciplines, we began with different opinions on the value of both public and private school choice. Many times over the course of our collaboration, we have argued intensely about school choice and its policy implications. These differences helped keep us honest, and as we learned more about school choice, the differences narrowed. We hope that this book will stimulate serious thought about the tradeoffs that are inherent in designing a school choice policy that is compatible with the fundamental goals of a liberal democratic society.

R. Kenneth Godwin
Frank R. Kemerer


“This is a very strong book in an important field—possibly made all the more so by the election of Governor Bush to the Presidency and the empirical grounding of the book in San Antonio, Texas, data. . . . I am confident that the President and his advisors could learn a lot from this book, and it just could be the lever to convince the President’s team to embrace new policy details—details that might pave the way for a more widespread adoption of school choice experiments.”
Stephen D. Sugarman, Agnes Roddy Robb Professor of Law, University of California School of Law, Berkeley

“Godwin and Kemerer’s School Choice Tradeoffs is probably the best overview and appraisal of the school choice issue yet written. It is comprehensive in scope, acquainting readers with every important aspect of the subject, and exploring many of them in great depth. The authors pull together a vast range of scholarly literature and do an admirable job of organizing it, making sense of it, and putting it to use in building their own perspective on the issue. . . . Their treatment comes off as objective and thorough, one that readers can have confidence in and learn from.”
Terry M. Moe, Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

“School Choice Tradeoffs sets the issue of educational choice in a very broad context. The issues and tradeoffs are set within a carefully drawn theory of education. The authors rigorously explore the legal, social science, and policy issues surrounding choice, ending with a fascinating and detailed proposal to expand educational choice options and increase equity. This is a must-read book for any serious student of educational reform in America.”
John Witte, Director of the La Follette School and Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin, Madison


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