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According to this year’s PDK poll, many parents would be willing to abandon public schools if a voucher were dangled before them. Is this really a shift in public opinion or just a reflection of what might be best for their own child?

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to participate in an international symposium on Chile’s voucher-based education system. The system began in 1981 under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but it was the brainchild of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and his cadre of Chicago Boys (as they were widely known), who advised Pinochet on a range of issues. If Chile provided its citizens with universal vouchers, Friedman argued, the country would improve both the quality and efficiency of its schools.

Chile is not the only nation experimenting with vouchers. Other nations are also trying to figure out whether such market-driven strategies can positively affect a wide range of students. But Chile’s long history with its voucher program — more than 35 years (albeit with significant modifications to address issues regarding resources, equity, and socioeconomic integration) — makes it a unique object lesson for voucher debates in the U.S.

The topics of this particular symposium touched on both the performance of Chile’s system and on the larger issue of how market-based educational policies, in general, improve or diminish socioeconomic segregation. Among those in attendance, the consensus view was that the “Miracle of Chile” (the term Friedman so modestly coined to describe the market-based reforms he and other University of Chicago economists brought to that nation) was not the slam-dunk success that Friedman envisioned. In fact, much of Chile’s “grand experiment” (another of its common names) reads like a cautionary tale of the risks associated with privatization.

Despite Friedman’s predictions that Chile’s universal voucher system would spur competition and innovation among both public and private schools, enrollment in public schools began to decline fairly quickly. In 1980, only 15% of students in Chile attended private schools.

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Today, it is roughly 60%. Since all students were given vouchers of equal value (regardless of their socioeconomic status) and the voucher could be used at any school (either public or private), many students — especially those from middle-class families — sought out private schools, which in Chile are managed by both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Recognizing a market opportunity, for-profit companies flocked to open schools. The Chilean system further incentivized them by allowing those schools to charge parents additional fees (over and above the value of the government vouchers). Doing so effectively created a barrier to entry for lower middle-class and poor students while attracting the students from middle- and upper middle-class families who had the ability to pay the additional fees. Chilean policy makers are still looking for ways to reduce the socio-economic segregation that has resulted and to provide more support and safeguards for the students most at risk.

2017 PDK poll

To help us understand American views on these issues, this year’s PDK poll asked some provocative questions about vouchers, equity, and school choice. It was fascinating to see that many of the poll’s findings, especially those focused on the commitment of parents to public education (as opposed to private schools) and socioeconomic integration, reflect the same attitudes and challenges we talked about in Chile. For example, while Americans continue to oppose spending public funds to pay for private school, some appear willing to throw that conviction under the bus if the price is right: Only 54% of public school parents would keep their child in public school if they were offered a voucher that covers full tuition at a private or religious school; that number jumps to 72% if the voucher only covers half the tuition. Further, if cost and location were not issues, just one-third of parents say they would choose to send their child to public school over a private school.

Does the reverence many Americans say they feel for public education accurately reflect their actual feelings?

Americans gave similar condition-based answers when asked about the value of diversity in public schools. Seventy percent of parents said they would prefer to have their child in a racially diverse school, but that enthusiasm wanes if the school is far away. If the trip to a diverse school means a longer drive, more than half of parents would pick a less diverse school that was closer. That finding was true for both whites (61%) and nonwhites (52%). (As a parent who lives in a community plagued with awful, soul-crushing traffic, these findings made me wince with guilty recognition. It is a sad truth that the daily rush to juggle work, school, traffic, and family life can quickly obscure any civic or social concerns that don’t represent a clear and present danger.)

Chilean parents with means have demonstrated similar attitudes about what they do and do not value when choosing a school. Since social standing and rank are highly prized in Chile, wealthier parents will do whatever they can to place their kids in schools that are highly ranked and well-regarded — in Chile, that usually means a private school. During the symposium, one participant actually apologized because he was a product of public schools, not private. I was stunned by his guilty admission, quickly thinking about the many meetings I have attended where individuals (myself included!) began their comments with, “As the proud product of the public schools . . . ’’

Changing attitudes?

Situations like that, coupled with the PDK poll findings, stirred something in me that I have been pondering for some time now. Does the reverence many Americans say they feel for public education accurately reflect how they actually feel, especially when it comes to what is best for their children? Or has that reverence, if it ever really did exist, become more like nostalgia?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos certainly seems to think so. She has repeatedly derided public schools as being out of touch with the nation’s educational needs. While certain aspects of that observation may be true (e.g., more than 11 million students still don’t have access to the minimum bandwidth they need to access digital learning tools; teacher training and high-quality teacher evaluation systems are inconsistent and often ineffective), it is still hard to hear, especially from someone who has virtually zero experience attending or participating in the life of public schools. In her view, public education is an anachronism that simply needs to be rebooted with the help of some friendly for-profit companies (you know, the kind that always put students before shareholders).

For example, DeVos has spoken many times about the need for schools to offer more personalized learning environments. While I disagree wholeheartedly with the methods she embraces, I suspect that her comments about the need for schools to do more to meet children’s individual needs resonates with a broad spectrum of parents. The notion of “meeting kids’ needs” is often associated with concerns about equity and civil rights. This year’s PDK poll seems to offer a caveat: Meeting the needs of all children is fine and good, just as long as my child doesn’t suffer as a result of it.

When DeVos first took office, many felt her views on vouchers and for-profit charters would fall flat among most Americans. But this year’s PDK poll makes me wonder if we’re seeing a real shift. Now that the genie is out of the bottle and the secretary of education is talking freely (if not effectively) about federally funded voucher programs, it will be interesting to see just how strong America’s devotion to public education is.

While it may be a fool’s errand to use polling data to understand America’s devotion to anything — just ask Nate Silver or Sam Wang, whose polls showed Hillary Clinton winning last year’s presidential race in a landslide — the results of this year’s PDK poll do seem to indicate a change in attitudes about education. Although the answer to that most tried and true of all the PDK poll questions (whether Americans feel confident in their local public schools) remains consistent (they do), other findings indicate that some Americans may be poised to reevaluate their long-standing commitment to public education, especially if the price is right.

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Originally published in October 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (2), 74-75. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.