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"The "School Choice" Debate
By Andrew J. Coulson (2003)

         Studies of parental satisfaction in the United States show a consistent pattern.   Parents whose children attend an assigned public school are the least satisfied, parents who have chosen their children's public schools are the next most satisfied and parents who have chosen private schools are the most satisfied.  This pattern holds true whether parents are asked about their children's schools in general or specifically about their teachers, academic standards, or ability to maintain order and discipline.
         It has also held true over time.  U.S. Department of Education surveys conducted in 1993 and 1999 show precisely the same trend.  In 1999, for example, 48 percent of parents were "very satisfied" with their assigned public school and  62 percent were "very satisfied" with their chosen public school.   By contrast, 76 percent of parents who had chosen a secular private school were "very satisfied," while the percentage reached 80 for parents choosing religious schools."
         Part of the reason that chosen–especially private, fee-charging–schools do a better job of satisfying parents is that their curricula are more responsive to parental demand.  While the syllabus of a public school is arrived at through a Byzantine bureaucratic process, market schools have a simpler procedure: they teach whatever parents will pay to have their children learn.
           This was true of the Athenian education market 2,500 years ago and it is true of market schools today. It is true of Pennsylvania's Montessori elementary schools, Japan's juku, Senegal's vocational/technical schools, and the private English-medium schools of India.  In a market, schools have to teach the things parents want their children to learn or they can't remain in business.  And given the variety in parental demand, markets provide a variety of curricular offerings.
         The extent to which parents become involved in their children's schooling also varies substantially from one sector to the next, with one exception: parents who choose their children's public schools are not more likely to actively participate in their education that are parents whose children are assigned to a public school.  The differences in parental involvement between public and private sectors, however, are substantial. About 30 percent of public school parents volunteer to serve on committees, compared to 53 percent for secular private school parents and 65 percent for religious school parents.  While only two-thirds of public school parents report attending parent-teacher conferences, 74 percent of secular private school parents and 86 percent of religious private school parents report doing so.
         There are many possible reasons for these differences.  The explanation most popular among defenders of traditional public schools is that parents who are more willing to become involved in their children's education are also either wealthier or more willing to pay for schooling, and so they more often end up in private schools.  Under this explanation, there is no school effect at all: if for some reason these involvement-prone parents were to send their children to public schools, they would be just as involved in that setting.
         Though this is an admittedly speculative question, I would argue that the foregoing interpretation is mistaken.   While there may well be a "parental-involvement coefficient" that makes some parents more likely to be involved no matter what schools their children attend, it also seems likely that schools have a substantial effect  on parental involvement as well.
         The first bit of anecdotal evidence that supports this view is an observation often made by parents in interviews and focus groups that whenever they try to become involved in their children's public schools in order to affect some aspect of school policy, they are rebuffed.
         After several years of trying unsuccessfully to make a difference in their children's public school education, a natural response for parents would simply be to give up.. In other words, if your attempts at getting involved in your child's public school achieve little or nothing why keep trying.

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The preceding is adapted, with permission, from pages  82-84 in Andrew J. Coulson's Reinventing Education  in Pennsylvania, 2003, The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, Harrisburg, Pa 17101.  For a perspective on school choice since the days of ancient Greece, see Coulson's Market Education, the Unknown History, the Social Philosophy and Policy Center and Transaction Publishers, 1999.

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Copyright 2010 David W. Kirkpatrick
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