While there are a variety of arguments advanced in favor of school choice of the sort that transfers public money to private schools, many of them focus on the benefits to those able to chose to leave public schools. Those left behind seem to be largely ignored. This, I contend, is a problem.
One stock argument in favor of school choice is based on the claim that it allows students to escape from dangerous public schools. It is true that public schools can be violent places and protecting children from violence is laudable. This approach is analogous to moving away from high-crime areas, ideally to well-policed gated communities. While this is obviously beneficial to those who can chose to escape, it does nothing to address the underlying problems of school violence—it merely allows some to escape, while leaving the rest behind.
It could be argued that school choice can still solve the problem. However, the easy and obvious reply is that even if all children are (for example) given vouchers, this will merely recreate the problematic public schools—thus undercutting the safety argument for school choice. To use an analogy, it would be like trying to solve the problem of high crime neighborhoods by creating gated communities—and then moving everyone within the gates. This shows the basic problem with trying to create safety by moving some people away from unsafe areas: it does nothing for those left behind.
One could counter that the solution would be dilution: if the problem children could be identified and distributed among various schools, they would be more manageable. This does have some merit, but this could obviously be done without school choice programs.
It could be argued that what matters is securing the safety of some, be it in private schools funded by public money or in gated communities. As such, school choice is good—for those who matter. Those left behind do not matter. While this might be appealing to those on the right side of the gates, the obvious problem is that they do not (yet) exist in total isolation from those left behind—so failing to address the underlying safety issues still leaves people unsafe. To use an analogy, this argument is like arguing that public roads are unsafe because of poor maintenance, so the solution is to provide some drivers with publicly funded road vouchers so they can drive on the safer private roads. While this can be great for those who get the vouchers, it does nothing for those stuck with the supposedly dangerous public roads. It would make more sense to use the public money to make the public roads safer.
A second stock argument, the quality argument, in favor of school choice is that private schools perform better than public schools, so parents who want their children to get a good education should favor programs that permit their children to avoid or leave public schools in favor of private schools. This assumes that, in general, public schools will be inferior schools. Let us suppose that is true—the higher quality of private schools is a reason to provide public funds to allow some parents to remove their children from the inferior public schools.
Looked at from the perspective of those leaving, this seems like a good argument. Who would not want to be able to choose a better education for their children? However, there arises the question of what happens to those left behind, such as those who do not get vouchers. They, obviously enough, remain in what are claimed to be inferior schools. What about them?
It could be claimed that the choice programs can be expanded to allow more children to escape the bad public schools. But diverting more money to school choice programs will result in less funding for public schools, thus resulting in a spiraling decline in quality.
It could also be argued that the choice program can be funded without taking money from public schools, so public schools would also be well-funded. However, this creates something of a problem for the quality argument. If public schools are bad, then it would make more sense to use public money to make them better rather than diverting funds to private schools. If public schools are properly funded and become good schools, then the quality argument would be undercut—using public money so children can “flee” a good school to attend another good school has little appeal. So, the quality argument is essentially self-defeating if one considers it.
While school choice is clearly appealing to those who wish to have their children escape public schools, it does nothing to address those left behind. This is a serious failing of school choice and makes one suspect that its proponents do not really care about the good for all children, just what is good for certain people.