Helping parents decide which school is best

Suppose the mythical state of Arkansota adopts a law providing a subsidy sufficient to support school choice for all families. Accordingly, a voucher appears one morning in Loretta’s mailbox. The amount is enough to pay her son Bill’s tuition at any of the schools she might choose. She and Bill’s dad are thrilled. They have long wanted school choice. Though they lack detailed knowledge, they believe schools differ from one another in ways that really matter. And they are eager to become informed consumers.

The pollsters tell us Loretta’s opinion is typical. Virtually all parents worry first of all about two qualities that do in fact vary among schools. Safety is one; the other is the school’s capacity to teach “basics” – the 3 Rs, science, and history.

Beyond these two shared concerns, parental agreement fades; mothers and fathers can worry – or be indifferent – about such things as academic prestige, social mix, neighborhood, facilities, football, faculty qualifications, music programs, and lunch. Parents tend to divide most deeply over a school’s commitment (or lack of it) to their own particular vision of the good life, especially as it is represented in religion – or its absence.

For the first time, the availability of the voucher provides the parent a practical reason to get involved and ask questions about safety, basics, and ideals of particular schools. How, then, can society best help Loretta do her shopping? The voucher itself will help; when a parent comes to the door with money, the school will – to a point – answer questions. But, there will be information that a school might wish to protect from these very same customers. (“Oh, you heard there was a little dust-up, Mrs. Jones? It was really nothing.”) Moreover, systematically providing information can entail economic cost for the school. In short, there can be reasons to stay silent.

The foremost issue, then, is what a school must disclose in order to participate in the system. Some questions will simply be out of bounds, at least as a legal requirement. One can imagine a parent asking whether the faculty of a Catholic school all attend Sunday mass; the school may neither know or care – or it may both know and care, but deem the question inappropriate. Nor would any state require such a disclosure for a school to participate. This hypothetical is extreme but suggestive; if there is to be subsidized choice, there will be rules governing what and how a school must disclose (or suppress) to qualify.

Rules of disclosure are nothing exotic; they are a familiar part of free market systems. Sellers of bourbon must announce its alcohol proof; certain headgears must be labeled “made in China.” Buyers of both bourbon and bonnets are thought to need such insights to exercise prudence and/or prejudice. In addition, what sellers say ought in fact be true, and some practical way is needed to spot and sanction false advertising. Otherwise, school choice becomes merely an exercise in trials and errors – and can be costly to little Bill.

So what information is to be made available, in what form, and with what enforcement to make the market work? Many years ago in Making School Choice Work, Stephen Sugarman and I proposed the following requirement regarding information:

“Participating schools shall make available … average pupil test scores by grade level; teacher qualifications … academic expectations and rules; disciplinary rules and procedures; admission policy; and tuition, fees, and financial aid, where applicable.”

The reader can see the difficulty – at least ours – in drafting the “perfect” law. When I try once again, I will consider changes. Perhaps the most contentious element in any such system is the requirement that schools administer certain tests and disclose results. Consider the problem.

It is common for schools to complain that the imposition of one or two specific tests by the state will actually mislead the parent because – says the school – our particular style is different in some relevant way: “Our faculty do not teach to such tests.” I respect that objection; in truth I could live without tests. Nevertheless, I come down on the side of some test regime, at least for basic skills and history. No doubt there are splendid off-beat schools that do poorly on standardized tests. Still, such schools ought to be able to explain their practice – and their mediocre scores – to the curious parent, just as they argue to the legislator that “tests are simply not our thing,” or even that a focus on tests is damaging. To the extent that the school’s argument succeeds with the parent, test scores (good or indifferent) can be viewed as merely one feature of a market’s charm and diversity.

Biographical disclosures about faculty can also be a tough call. What do we do with criminal records? Does it matter that the crime was illegal immigration, unsuccessful conscientious objection, or criminal trespass during a political “occupation”? Would it be better to exclude such crimes or – starting at the other end – to include only specific violent crimes such as child abuse? And, whatever the crime, is it simply to be made part of the information available to the parents, or is it a professional disqualification that altogether excludes the offender ever from teaching?

What peculiarities of a school’s own practices, if any, should be made public? Consider the various forms of discipline which can be a source of discord; if the school says nothing on the subject, what is to be assumed as the limiting standard? If the school and parent have specifically agreed on some otherwise forbidden school practice (spanking?), does the contract or the general law govern? On the scholastic side, what must the school have said, if anything, to enforce a satisfactory academic performance rule? And what form will the school’s message take in order to have legal effect? Is conversation sufficient or must there be writing? What of language difficulties? All this should be addressed in the basic law.

Note that rules requiring information to parents may need to include rather specific language about what is expected of the student himself. For example, in respect of religious learning and practice, what can a school require from non-believers? Sugarman and I have felt the school should be free to apply its general standard of academic performance to religion classes; to avoid expulsion, the student must pass the course (if the school so requires.) We would, however, forbid requiring a profession of belief or participation in any practice that implies belief. Here is one of our suggested models:

“A religious school may require mastery of a curriculum that includes religious content, but no pupil shall be compelled to profess belief or to participate in ceremony or other acts symbolic of belief.”

Whatever disclosures are required of the school, will these constitute the entirety of the information system? I should think not. For many parents, intelligent choice will also require some system of direct personal assistance. The state, therefore, would not only publish the results of tests, but would locate temporary school information services in areas of low literacy. I say temporary because such neighborhoods, I predict, within a short time will be rich in charitable provision of information to parents by churches and other non-government centers of advice.

One possibility is the state’s provision for a few years of separate small information vouchers to the lowest income parents; what is already a counseling system that serves the suburbs could then expand to all neighborhoods; low-income families could seek housing convenient to their ideal school. They will be informed not only by pedagogues, but by real estate agents providing customers their special take on local schools. Again, the need for such semi-formal assistance may be temporary. The truly permanent advisory system is likely to consist more of community services – including informal scuttlebutt. Gossip is imperfect, but serves many a civic purpose, and parents at least can learn by error. No one thinks choice will be painless, only that it will be human and – at last – responsible.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."