Choice Words

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Religious schools, parental choices



By SALLY KILGORE & MICHAEL MINTROM

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Winter 2001 / Vol. 1, No. 4

The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies
by Charles L. Glenn

Princeton University Press, 2000, $37.50; 304 pages.

Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public
by Terry M. Moe

Brookings Institution, 2001, $29.95; 350 pages.

Choosing Schools: Consumer Choice and the Quality of American Schools
by Mark Schneider, Paul Teske, and Melissa Marschall
Princeton University Press, 2000, $35; 320 pages.

As reviewed by Sally Kilgore

The economist Milton Friedman was the first to propose vouchers as a different way of distributing public funds for the education of all children, rich and poor-with the assumption that parents, as consumers, would act in ways that improved education for all students, not just their own children. Because they were more interested in promoting equality of opportunity than simply consumer choice, sociologist Christopher Jencks and law professors John Coons and Stephen Sugarman proposed placing some constraints on how vouchers could be used: Disadvantaged students would receive larger vouchers, and regulations would prevent any school that accepted vouchers from imposing tuition and fees beyond the value of the voucher.

As the choice movement has moved from theory to practice in recent years, the translation has been much more limited than the theorists could have imagined. Vouchers have come to include the use of private funding as partial tuition support for low-income students to attend private schools (as in Washington, D.C., San Antonio, and New York); the use of public funds to allow a small number of low-income students to attend private schools (as in Milwaukee and Cleveland); or, as in the case of Florida, the provision of public funds for students to attend a private school or another public school if their current public school has a poor aca-demic record. In each case, eligibility has been so limited and the level of funding set so low that vouchers have yet to be fully tested, much less to have demonstrated the potential that their original conceptualizers saw in them.

Charles Glenn believes that government should fund faith-based organizations to demonstrate respect for our pluralistic society and as a way of providing effective services.

The main reason there hasn’t been a proper test has been the political influence of critics and opponents. Critics of school choice are concerned about the degree to which a choice regimen will cause schools to become more racially segregated and the degree to which choice will result in creaming-the phenomenon in which only savvy, involved parents exercise their ability to choose, thereby leaving disadvantaged children concentrated in schools that few others would consider attending. Critics also doubt that the criteria that some parents might use in selecting schools (proximity to home, sports programs) would lead to the promised outcome-academically superior schools for all students.

In The Ambiguous Embrace, Charles Glenn wrestles with the question of whether school choice will be good not only for students but also for private religious schools. The paradox for religious schools and other faith-based service providers is that public funding may enable them to expand their services at the cost of compromising the very qualities that made their services effective in the first place. Public funds necessarily and appropriately bring public oversight. Some regulation is needed to ensure, for instance, the safety and well-being of children and the responsible use of public funds. But what if the regulations begin to impinge on a faith-based organization’s core principles or essential service-delivery strategies?

Consider treatments for drug addiction. Whereas faith-based organizations view addiction as a matter of morality and values, more medically oriented programs tend to treat it as a disease. According to Glenn, research comparing these divergent treatment models finds the faith-based approach more successful: Addicts are more apt to be drug- free and gainfully employed if they have participated in a faith-based treatment program. But these programs can pose challenges to government regulators. For example, once an organization accepts public funding and thereby becomes subject to local health and safety codes, it may find itself facing a limit on the number of people that can be housed in a building. This could cause trouble for a faith-based organization that has a policy of never turning away anyone seeking help. Likewise, government rules often require staff members to hold certain certifications. If faith-based organizations are required to hire certified staff without regard to their religious beliefs, the organization’s consensus on treatment strategies is lost. In this scenario, public funding can undermine whatever made the faith-based organization unique.

Glenn shows how some faith-based organizations, such as the Salvation Army, have been able to maintain the core principles of their faith while still accepting public funds. They clearly limit the types of services for which they will accept public funds, depending on their judgment of how strongly public funding will affect their ability to maintain their essential philosophy and mission. Even in these instances, however, tensions emerge between the professionals hired to deliver the publicly supported services and the volunteers (or church members) who staff other services.

Glenn believes that government funds should be made available to faith-based organizations as a demonstration of respect for the freedom required in a pluralistic society and as a way of providing effective service. The challenge is to frame the relationship in ways that protect the essential character of those services. Reviewing the practices of other industrialized countries as well as U.S. case law, Glenn concludes that third-party payments (or vouchers) to individuals seeking treatment or services is the best way of using public funds to provide services while preserving the essential character of religiously affiliated service providers. Indirectly funding these organizations through consumer choice protects them from some of the regulatory intrusions that apply when governments directly fund religious organizations. Even so, such a strategy should guarantee that there is public accountability for outcomes, for staff certification, and for eligibility for services. Faith-based service strategies-such as instructional methods-could be largely protected by allowing such organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious affiliation. Yet, as Glenn shows, the definition of whether an organization is “pervasively religious”-the condition an organization must meet under U.S. case law in order to be able to discriminate in hiring practices-is hardly consistent.

Glenn’s concern with the regulation of faith-based organizations is in some ways justified by the survey results on which Terry Moe relies in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. Moe finds that, by a huge majority, Americans think private schools should be regulated in certain key areas, including curriculum, teacher quality, financial audits, student performance, and the fairness of their admissions policies. These findings differ from Glenn’s recommendations most sharply in terms of curriculum and instruction. Glenn endorses public accountability for the content of instruction (academic standards, in other words), but would want, whenever possible, to allow individual schools or organizations to determine their own instructional strategies.

Academic performance is clearly most important to parents, regardless of their education level or ethnicity.

How religious schools are to be regulated, however, is not Terry Moe’s main line of inquiry. He is more interested in Americans’ attitudes toward school choice and how policymakers can respond to those attitudes. Using a 1995 survey of 4,700 adults (with an over-sample of urban adults), Moe finds that Americans like the public school system but think that private schools are better. They are not satisfied with certain features of the public school system, especially inequities, the absence of voluntary prayer, the level of parental involvement (they’d like more), and school size (they’d like smaller). The surveyed adults are pretty clear that they think market incentives would make schools more productive.

Moe uses these data to address the concern that allowing more children to attend private schools would lead to further social separation-by race, religion, and income. First he selects those parents whose responses signal that they would be likely to enroll their children in private schools should tuition no longer be a barrier (with a predicted probability of entry of 70 percent). Then he compares the current racial and economic composition of the public and private sectors with their hypothetical composition after these parents make their move to private schools. He finds that the social and ethnic disparities between public and private schools would actually be moderated. That said, Moe’s analysis does not, and cannot, address the larger question of how social disparity would be distributed within each sector if all students were given vouchers to attend any school-public or private.

Moe finds the American public most comfortable with incremental changes in funding strategies and the gradual or limited use of vouchers. So, for instance, respondents are quite comfortable providing public funds to enable students in low-performing schools to attend private schools. In fact, Moe concludes that incremental change in school governance and practice is the best option both because of the clear preferences of the American public and the low risk attached to staging change over time. Yet incremental change may be worse than no change at all. For incremental changes in funding strategies to qualify as a move toward equal educational opportunity, they must move beyond partial financial support to low-income students who wish to go to private schools to full financial support of such students in any public or private school. Anything less will fail to touch the truly disadvantaged children of this country.

In Choosing Schools, Mark Schneider, Paul Teske, and Melissa Marschall study the processes and effects of public school choice using a quasi-experimental design in four school districts in New York City and New Jersey. When choosing schools, the authors find, parents of all economic and ethnic groups place academic quality first. The quality of teachers, in fact, was a school’s most important attribute for respondents. Safety was second; test scores a very close third. Moe’s findings are similar: academic performance is clearly most important to parents, regardless of their education level or ethnicity. In fact, in a multivariate analysis Schneider et al. find that black parents, as well as less-educated parents, place a higher priority on the test scores in a school than do other groups of parents.

Schneider, Teske, and Marschall do find, however, that parents are not equally informed about schools. They get their information from different sources, with better-educated parents being able to rely more heavily on informal networks. But they contend that not every parent needs to be highly informed in order for a choice system to function effectively.

Choosing Schools‘ most unique contribution is to evaluate systems of school choice in terms of how they could serve various public interests-namely, the degree to which a system of choice can promote equity, student achievement, and social capital (or social connectedness). Comparing districts with and without systems of choice, Schneider, Teske, and Marschall find little evidence of increasing inequities where choice is available; the academic performance of all schools appears to increase with even limited choice in a district; and parents become more engaged when allowed to choose their schools-thus enhancing the community’s social capital.

-Sally Kilgore is president of the Modern Red Schoolhouse Institute, an organization that provides technical assistance to public schools throughout the country.


As reviewed by Michael Mintrom

As an advocate of state funding for religious schools, Charles Glenn supports the use of school vouchers. The complicating detail-or the ambiguity of the embrace, as Glenn terms it-is the danger state funding poses to the schools’ uniquely religious perspective. The danger comes from two sources. First, when government contracts with religious groups for services, those groups become subject to new forms of regulation and accountability. Second, when religious groups build up the service delivery aspects of what they do, the logic of effective management techniques (bureaucratization and professionalization) often serves to diminish the focus on faith that is said to lie at the heart of the organization’s mission. Few observers in the voucher debate recognize the hazards presented to religious schools of mixing church and state. Glenn’s perspective here is thus refreshing. In particular, Glenn’s case study of the Salvation Army-its near loss of religious focus and its religious reinvigoration-makes for compelling reading.

Nevertheless, Glenn too often assumes that the relevant religious organizations are mainstream ones. Since Judeo-Christian principles infuse Western society, Glenn’s assumption may seem innocuous. And it is this assumption that allows him to argue that parents should trump the state in determining how children are to be educated. Thus does Glenn create an escape hatch for himself, one that helps him avoid confronting any tricky questions concerning the kind of socialization that is appropriate for children to receive within the polyglot of contemporary America. Fortunately, the United States has not experienced religious wars. But a major reason why is that the national and state governments have gone to considerable lengths to institutionalize religious tolerance. The system of public schooling has been integral to that project. Would Glenn feel so comfortable if “faith-based” service provision meant Catholic organizations had to battle routinely with religious cults for government money or over what it means to inculcate “American” values in the young?

More also needs to be said about the supposed effectiveness of faith-based service delivery organizations. Glenn’s uncritical discussion of a drug rehabilitation program in Texas, “Teen Challenge,” leaves a serious question lingering: Is Teen Challenge offering an effective rehabilitation program, or are its “successes” predicated on the screening out of people who are not yet willing to accept, among other things, that “sin is the major root problem”? Thankfully, many state and county governments across the country still stand ready to provide drug rehabilitation for sinners. Furthermore, throughout the book Glenn equates government with inefficiency, often in vague ways. Yet by assuming that government is always and everywhere inefficient, Glenn denies the critical fact that the very existence and successful evolution of markets, civil society, and organized religions have been facilitated by effective government.

Parents might not know a lot about the schools their children attend, but maybe the mechanism of school choice produces good results anyway.

Shifting the focus to the public sector, Mark Schneider and his colleagues examine the ways in which parents behave when allowed to choose among public schools in Choosing Schools. The study is rooted in analyses of parental behavior in District 4 in Manhattan and in suburban Montclair, New Jersey, with comparisons with neighboring districts that offer limited or no public school choice. Schneider et al. find that parents of lower socioeconomic status exhibit preferences for their children’s schools that are different from their more highly educated counterparts. But the relationship is actually the opposite of what one might expect: while all parents place a high value on teacher quality, low-income parents are more likely to emphasize the importance of school safety, test scores, and discipline. Higher-income parents place more emphasis on things like school values and the diversity of the student population. Given the critics’ claims that school choice will fuel further racial segregation, another surprising finding is that racial preferences apparently play a minor role in shaping how parents choose schools. The authors acknowledge that this finding might be driven by parents’ providing socially acceptable responses to the interviewers. But it might also reflect the reality that, in a diverse society, parents view other attributes of a school as much more important than its racial composition.

How do parents act on their preferences? Schneider et al. note that choosing schools requires a certain level of skill on the part of parents. Even though low-income parents might care deeply about the schools their children attend, they do not always have access to-or the ability to access-information that would help them determine the best schools in which to place their children. When it comes to making use of information about schools, the authors find that education matters a great deal. As parents’ levels of education increase, they rely more on their highly educated friends to supply them with information about schools. Less-educated parents (who are often non-white) are less able to tap into rich, informal information sources. The authors find that parents who are allowed to choose their schools do not always possess more knowledge about the schools they have chosen than do non-choosing parents.

This focus on the demand side of school choice and information use by “consumers” should be of interest to designers of school choice programs. Schneider and his colleagues believe that consumer choice in schooling can have positive effects on education quality, and they support their belief with test score data from New York City. But they also appear sympathetic to the view that school choice can be a double-edged sword, allowing the children of well-educated parents to move to appropriate schools and leaving others in poorly performing schools. In their study, the authors do not find a great deal of evidence that this is the case. Parents might not know a lot about the schools their children attend, but maybe the mechanism of school choice produces good results anyway. That said, the findings presented here suggest that government agencies must stand ready to ensure high-quality information flows to parents if school choice is to generate dynamics that raise the standards of all schools.

Terry M. Moe also focuses on the demand side in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. Best known for his and John Chubb’s seminal work on school choice, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, Moe here seeks to discover where Americans stand on the voucher issue through public opinion surveys. This is an exceptionally interesting and important contribution to scholarship on school choice, and it is bound to play a key role in shaping future dialogue about vouchers as a reform strategy. The book is built around analyses of data collected in a unique survey conducted in 1995 that yielded 4,700 respondents. As with all of Moe’s work, the writing is clear, the analysis is penetrating, and the arguments are cogently made.

Moe recognizes that public opinion on education represents a powerful resource that savvy advocates of policy reform can potentially tap to give political weight to their arguments. In the tradition of E. E. Schattschneider, who closely studied the dynamics of interest-group politics, Moe emphasizes the importance for reform advocates of widening the scope of conflict, or making winning appeals to the broader citizenry, in ways that help them to achieve their political goals. Of course, to make good use of public opinion, advocates must have a clear sense of what public opinion is. Moe observes that the “reality is that most Americans are uninformed about the voucher issue, more ambivalent than committed in their views, and likely to shift in the presence of new information. Elites are well aware of this and inevitably see it as an opportunity to swing public opinion over to their side.”

The appeal of private schools is especially strong among parents who are minority, low income, and living in low-performing districts.

Moe finds that a large number of parents are satisfied with the public schools to which they send their children. But they also express a fair amount of dissatisfaction, especially when asked about specific aspects of the public schools, such as their ability to promote quality, equity, and racial diversity. This dissatisfaction, notes Moe, gives voucher advocates quite a lot to work with as they seek to move public opinion in their favor. However, one curiosity Moe observes is that the very people who might benefit most from improvements in their schools often appear to be the most satisfied with them. Moe argues that this may be a result of people’s holding low expectations of schools to begin with: “Parents who are poorly educated and have low expectations are more likely to be satisfied with their local schools, whatever their quality, than other parents are.”

Of course, not all parents are satisfied with their public schools, and parents in school districts with the poorest performing schools often display strong desires to escape them. In asking who might switch from public to private schools if money were not an object, Moe finds that the appeal of private schools is especially strong among parents who are minority, low income, and living in low-performing districts. This, argues Moe, presents political opportunities for voucher proponents. Yet nobody should imagine that such opportunities will translate into easy victories. Voucher advocates will need to do much to educate the public, especially those members of the public who are disadvantaged and who could potentially benefit most from voucher-based education. Moe finds that close to 80 percent of the urban poor in his survey have no clue what vouchers are. This, we are told, is “rational ignorance,” the kind you choose. Calling it plain ignorance would undercut the rational-choice foundations of the voucher idea.

Among the strengths of this book is the painstaking effort to which Moe has gone to extrapolate from his public opinion data to develop a number of “what if?” scenarios concerning people’s behavior if given vouchers. Importantly, Moe finds that “the effect of choice … is to reduce the social differences between public and private” in terms of the educational background, income, race, and religiosity of parents who would place their children in private schools. Still, a couple of issues arise. First, this is a study of attitudes, not actions. Second, reducing the social differences across the public and private sectors doesn’t necessarily mean that we would find more diversity in the classrooms of private schools under a voucher system. Careful regulation might be needed to ensure that voucher systems produce favorable social outcomes. Putting himself somewhat at odds with many voucher proponents, Moe suggests that-based on what the public says-voucher proponents would do well to “get away from free markets and accept an integral role for government regulation in the design of voucher programs.”

Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public offers a gold mine of fascinating information and ideas. For me, it represents something of a change in Terry Moe’s thinking about school choice. In the past his writings have often placed interest-group politics at center stage. Moe now acknowledges that “the opinions of the American people will have a great deal to do with how much power each side can successfully wield in democratic politics-and whether, in the end, vouchers will prove a passing fancy, a revolution, or something in-between.” Here is explicit recognition that the education reform battle is not so much a battle of interests as a battle of ideas about interests and who gets to define the public interest. Rather than viewing democratic politics as something to be side-stepped if we are to have better-performing schools (see Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools), in this book Moe calls for reformers to think more deeply and more democratically about the linkages between elite ideas and public opinion. Of course, Moe’s views on the merits of vouchers haven’t changed. But here he shares his thinking on how a voucher system might be achieved.

-Michael Mintrom is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.




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