The Harbinger Home Page
Front Page

October 20, 1998

Who Goes to Private School? Who Goes to Public School?
"Flight" and "Market" Metaphors in the Debate Over Educational Choice

Part Two

by Joseph W. Newman

As I suggested in the last issue of The Harbinger, the debate over educational choice is moving along and picking up speed. Advocates of private school choice are using "flight" and "market" metaphors so effectively the images are dictating the terms of the public policy debate and placing opponents of choice at a distinct disadvantage.

Flight metaphors portray students and parents escaping from public schools they have rejected as unacceptable. Private school choice inspires "visions of a new exodus" and promises "emancipation" from the "education plantation," says Daniel McGroarty in Break these Chains (1996), a study of the Milwaukee voucher experiment. Denis Doyle, formerly of the Hudson Institute, tries to build sympathy for students "trapped" inside substandard public schools. Former U. S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn talks about parents and students "voting with their feet" by leaving public schools and enrolling in private schools.

So compelling are flight metaphors, even opponents of private school choice have picked up the imagery. Ed Richardson, Alabama's state superintendent of public education, says parents and students are poised to "abandon the schools in droves." President Bill Clinton, on record as supporting choice among public but not private schools, tilted surprisingly far toward private choice in the first 1996 presidential debate after challenger Bob Dole made an emotional plea on behalf of students trying to escape from problem-ridden inner-city public schools.

Market metaphors portray families as education consumers shopping for schools within the limits of their budgets. Economist Milton Friedman has been applying market metaphors to elementary and secondary schooling since the mid-1950s, leveling criticism at the public school "monopoly." Since 1990, John Chubb and Terry Moe's bestseller Politics, Markets, and Schools has popularized market imagery with a large audience. Finn says shopping for schools is a natural thing to do in a capitalist nation: "People in the know and with a fair amount of money are doing a fair amount of that already." Many other families are eagerly waiting to exercise their consumer rights, he contends.

These images, deeply embedded in the debate over choice, are also sinking into the public mind. People are getting the message. While Gallup Polls show the public's satisfaction with public schools holding fairly steady during the 1990s, support for private school choice appears to be building fast, from 24 percent in 1993 to 44 percent in 1998.

When it comes to schooling, market behavior is new to most families in the United States. It is a learned behavior, and advocates of choice, public as well as private, are trying to get the lesson across as the new century approaches. Advocates of private school choice, moreover, are trying to create more demand for private schooling by using the media, much as private-sector entrepreneurs advertise their products or services. Because, historically, relatively few families have thought of schooling in market terms, the market metaphor itself must be "sold." Advocates of choice seem to be doing a good sales job.

No family wants to be the last one left, the one whose children are still in the local public school building when the lights are turned out. As a parent, I understand these feelings. And as a teacher educator and historian, I would rather help shed light on the debate over choice than stand by and watch the lights go out on public education.

Flight Metaphors

YearPercentage of Students
Attending Private Schools


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1997 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 12

Whenever I hear advocates of private school choice use flight metaphors to conjure up an exodus from public schools, I want to call attention to actual enrollment figures on public and private schools. Focusing first on the recent past, the years since the late 1970s when choice has emerged as a political issue, I can point to the figures in Table 1, which also appeared in the first installment of this article, to show nothing like an exodus has occurred. Many people seem surprised to learn the percentage of students attending private schools was slightly smaller in 1997 (11.3 percent, incorrectly shown as 11.2 percent in the last Harbinger) than in 1980 (11.5 percent). The share of students in private schools did rise from 11.5 percent in 1980 to 12.4 percent in 1985, to be sure, during the swing toward conservatism that ushered in Ronald Reagan's presidency, but the private school share then fell to 11.3 percent in 1990 and has shown little change throughout the nineties. In fact, the private school share is declining slightly as we move toward the year 2000, even while the debate over choice continues to generate heat. Where's the exodus?

Faced with these figures, advocates of private school choice may want to modify and qualify their flight metaphors. Students from middle and, especially, high income families, those who have the money to exercise choice without government assistance, must be the ones abandoning public schools. These students must be exiting though one door while low income students, in much larger numbers, are pouring in another. So while public schools are maintaining their share of overall enrollment, advocates may speculate, they are losing students who are financially able to escape on their own.

Not so. Enrollment figures broken down by family income into high income (the top 20 percent of all families), low income (the bottom 20 percent), and middle income (the 60 percent in-between) reflect the overall enrollment trends discussed above. Look at Table 2. In all three income groups, and at both the elementary and the secondary levels, students were less likely to attend private schools in 1997 than they were in 1985. The sole exception to this pattern is low-income students at the secondary level, who were more likely to be enrolled in private schools in 1997 than they were in 1985. Where's the exodus?



Family Income Level
YearHigh- Middle-Low- Income



Family Income Level
YearHigh- Middle-Low- Income


SOURCES: Figures for 1979-1991 are from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education, 1994 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995), p. 172. Figures for 1997 were provided to the author by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (September 1998)

Advocates of choice can, of course, point to the small increases in the private school share among most income groups between 1991 and 1997. But detailed enrollment data for the individual years between 1991 and 1997 (data not included in this table) reflect the trends in Table 1: small increases in the private school share from 1991 through 1995 or 1996 followed by small decreases thereafter. I keep using the word "small" because the changes are just that. As I stressed in the first installment of this article, the stability of the situation is the really significant factor, not the minor fluctuations. But for those who want to highlight the latest trends, it is accurate to say that in all three income groups, and at both the elementary and secondary levels, students were less likely to attend private schools in 1997 than they were in 1995. Where's the exodus?

Market Metaphors

When I first examined recent enrollment figures and realized flight from public education has not occurred to any significant degree, not even among families with the money to send their children to whatever schools they wish, I began to wonder about the relationship between money and school choice. Obviously, money plays a role. Families with more money are indeed more likely to choose private schools, as Table 2 suggests. This is an old, familiar pattern, one public school defenders have used for a century and a half to paint private schools as elitist. But a new pattern is emerging. By 1996, according to Gallup Polls, 37 percent of public school parents were saying they would switch their children to a private school if the government gave them a $3,500 voucher. Here is testimony to the effectiveness of the choice campaign. Even if the percentage of families who actually made the move to private schools turned out to be lower, as both advocates and opponents of choice believe it would, there can be no doubt vouchers and other instruments of private school choice would drain large numbers of students away from public schools.

Advocates of private choice use recent swings in opinion polls to paint a very unflattering picture of public education. If more than a third of public school parents would be willing to switch sectors, advocates argue, the parents must really be dissatisfied with the quality of education their children are receiving.

Not necessarily. Let's look at the picture another way. A colleague at another university once stopped me short with this remark: "Almost everyone and everything have a price, and for some price, you can buy almost anyone out of almost any institution." My colleague's point may be crude, but it is telling. From the perspective of those who oppose private school choice, his point may even be constitute the ultimate market analysis of education.

What's your price, public school parent? How much would voucher advocates have to offer you to buy your child out? If $1,000 won't do it, will $3,000? How about $4,000? Would you make the big switch for $5,000? Step right up, fill out a simple application, and watch the mail for your voucher. Move right along now. Next!

Casting voucher advocates as slick hucksters -- as purveyors of bribes -- may strike you as either funny or offensive, depending on your point of view. But my colleague's serious message is that money talks. It is easy to envision even parents who are satisfied with their children's public schools listening to voucher money talk, scratching their heads, and pondering the choice. "OK, let's take the bucks and make the move," many public school parents would eventually say. This market-driven analysis, my colleague concludes, helps explain why the popularity of vouchers is increasing in opinion polls at a time when the ratings of public schools -- especially the ratings of local public schools in the respondents' own community -- are stable.

Private choice advocates say this kind of market analysis misses the point. The point, which they reiterate with metaphors, is many low income students are trapped inside the nation's worst public schools because their families cannot shop for alternatives like middle and upper income families can. Why not give poor kids a way out in the form of means-tested vouchers, limited strictly to poor families, and let them enter the educational marketplace, too?

I must confess I find some appeal in this proposal. The latest twist in the debate over choice, means-tested vouchers are gathering support from people across the political spectrum. But I also share the suspicions of private choice opponents that means-tested vouchers could prove to be the entering wedge for voucher programs available to virtually all families. Two closely watched experiments with private school vouchers for poor children are underway in Milwaukee and Cleveland. If such plans gain widespread political acceptance, how long will it be before Bill Bennett, Chester Finn, and other advocates push to raise the face value of the vouchers a little? Loosen the means test just a bit? At some point, then, our nation will be bribing children out of public schools.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001