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A lot of people are talking about school "choice" these days. But what kind? Private versus public? Religious versus secular? How about what courses students should take? Or how communities should run their schools? It quickly becomes clear the choices are many.

When politicians today speak of school "choice," they have in mind choice of schools by individual parents. But history teaches us that choice may take a variety of forms. Communities make collective choices by electing school boards that set educational policy and by voting school budgets and bonds up or down. Religious congregations may choose to create sectarian schools for their children. Students make individual choices by choosing among the electives offered at their high school.

As the politicians have framed the debate, the question has been, "Are you for or against choice?" But the question ought to be, "What kind of choice are you for?"

The history of public education provides a valuable lesson. Why did Americans, frugal and tardy in providing public services, choose public education for their children? At the beginning of the 19th century, Americans tended to regard schools and churches in a similar light: Religion and education are both important, so attend the church and school of your choice and pay for them yourself, if you can. There was a great variety of both.

By the end of the 19th century, however, Americans had decided schooling was special. About nine in 10 children attended public, nonsectarian schools. Public control and democratic purposes came to be essential features of republican schooling, embedded in the constitutions of states new and old. The animating ideology of the common school proclaimed that the public good could best be served by public, not private, education, because the moral and civic training of the young was the concern of all citizens, not just parents. For that reason, choices about education should be collective.

Elected local school boards kept decisionmaking close to hand, mitigating distrust of the state. Communities thereby retained the power to make collective choices about who would teach, how much schools would cost, and what kind of instruction to offer. If people disagreed with school trustees, they could _ and often did _ elect others.

So radically decentralized was the American system that school trustees were the most numerous class of public officials. The term school trustee is revealing. School committees, wrote Horace Mann in 1846, held in trust the duties "of improving the young, of advancing the welfare of the state and of the race." They "are more worthy than any other class of men, to be considered as the pilots, who are directing the course of the bark that contains all the precious interests of mankind, and steering it either for its rescue or its ruin."

In the 20th century, however, various reforms have eroded the numbers and powers of local school trustees. At the turn of this century, civic elites joined educational leaders to "take city schools out of politics" through state charters that eliminated ward boards, cut the size of central boards and shifted to at-large election of school committees. These changes greatly reduced the number of city school trustees and substituted a "corporate" model of running the schools. State legislatures consolidated about 90 percent of rural school districts, thereby eliminating their local trustees. Architects of Great Society programs in the 1960s often regarded local school boards as part of the problem in education, and no school board members were invited to the White House for the signing of President Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Similarly, recent educational reformers have wanted to "empower" just about everybody but school trustees, even though trustees are the chosen representatives of local citizens in school affairs. Innovators tout national standards, state legislation on curriculum and devolution of management to individual schools, but they either ignore or criticize local control in school districts.

To be sure, local school boards have been flawed instruments of democracy. Majority rule has at times squashed minority rights, narrow interest groups have sought to control policy, and voter turnout for school elections has generally been miserable. Local control, however, has not disappeared. It remains a distinctive feature of American education. School boards continue to set policies regarding curriculum, budget and other key issues. They also hire and fire school administrators and negotiate with unions representing teachers and other employees. Through these decisions they still enable communities to make collective choices about public schools.

After a century of efforts that have minimized the layman's control of the schools, the institutions of local school democracy need strengthening.

If local citizens lose the sense that they can shape institutions, it is no wonder that they may participate less in school affairs. Often it seems that local districts are just compliance machines, required to generate reports in response to decades of state and federal legislation and regulation. The dozens of categorical programs, for instance, have created their own paperwork empires.

But just gaining more autonomy is not enough. School boards and other public officials also need to frame policy discussions in ways that engage citizens in deliberation on issues that matter to them. In Colorado, for example, local officials encouraged collective choices in the curriculum by working together with local newspapers and other media to promote public discussion of academic standards in various public forums such as school board meetings, the PTA, corporations and unions, and the League of Women Voters.

Conscience and character

While public education has predominated since the mid-19th century, about 10 percent of families always have sent their children to private schools. In the model now favored by conservatives, private schools represent a marketplace driven by the individual tastes of consumers. Some parents have indeed shopped around in a marketplace of schools for the best academic product at a price they could pay. Some prosperous families have sought to educate their children with elite social peers. But these were hardly the majority.

Eighty-five to 90 percent of students in private schools have attended denominational and parochial schools, where they receive religious instruction. Most religious schools have been organized around differences of conscience and character. Indeed, if attendance is dictated by religious duty, it may not be accurate to say that parents have felt free to choose their children's schools. Religious schools have been the collective work of religious leaders and congregations, who have developed schools not to sell educational services but to inculcate their children in specific religious doctrines, in many cases in direct opposition to public schools that seemed to denigrate their "obedience to holy things."

The promoters of the common school in the 19th century clearly wanted to attract children of all religious persuasions. They thought it possible to find a common religious basis for moral instruction, even when there were many competing denominations, by reading the Bible in school without making sectarian commentary. How could any Christian object? The answer came quickly and loudly. To Catholics, mostly Irish and German immigrants, the religious and moral teachings of the common school were an alien imposition. Reading the Protestant King James Bible without comment violated conscience and subverted priestly authority. The native-born, Protestant public school boards and Catholic leaders were often at loggerheads, unable to understand each other, much less to negotiate their differences.

Catholics, of course, were not the only religious group to create their own educational system as an alternative to the public school. Leaders and congregations in some Protestant denominations _ Lutherans, for example _ believed they could preserve the distinctiveness of their faith and the cohesion of the faithful only by a "guarded" education. In justifying their denominational schools they, too, used the language of duty and collective action more than individual choice. The same is true today of many Christian day schools, recently the fastest-growing sector in American private education.

One reason we know so little about what a new educational marketplace would be like is that most private schooling in America has not, as the market place model supposes, originated in a private search for the best academic value, but in collective moral actions of congregations. The commercial vision of education is a radical break, not just with public schooling, but even with the American tradition of private schooling.

The collective origins of private schools also hold a lesson for advocates of public education. If they wish to attract or retain families in public schools, public school advocates need to understand those collective aspirations. Is it constitutionally possible and desirable as policy to welcome within public education schools of choice based on conservative ideals of character? Public school districts have sponsored a wide range of alternative, magnet and charter schools representing a host of pedagogies and social aims. They may need to attend carefully to the values of conservative groups as well as liberal ones if they wish to regain and retain public support for the common school.

The curriculum as marketplace

Choice can trivialize and adulterate learning. The public high school curriculum has provided students with broad choices _ indeed, the official listings of subjects are called "offerings." One might think that advocates of school choice would applaud this marketplace within the school, but generally they do not. Liberals and conservatives alike lament that the high school has become a "shopping mall," and they disparage what they consider junk food electives.

This proliferation of choices began in the early 20th century, when high schools grew rapidly in size and complexity as the student body grew more diverse. Many groups lobbied for additions to the curriculum: business for vocational education; military groups for physical education; patriotic groups for "Americanization"; public health officials for sex education; the Women's Christian Temperance Union for instruction about the evils of alcohol; insurance agents and car dealers for driver education; and so it went.

The range of curricular choices in high schools in recent decades has been astonishing. In a survey in 1973, school principals listed more than 2,100 different course titles, almost double those reported in 1961 and almost triple those of 1949.

Choice of courses turned out not to be a neutral device but a highly effective social screen. Students' class background, gender, ethnicity and race have profoundly shaped their enrollment in elective courses and programs. Girls, for example, have had far fewer choices than boys if they wanted vocational training, and whites have had more options than African-Americans. The choice of curricular tracks of notably different quality _ academic versus general, for example _ has reflected the class backgrounds of students. Wise choices of courses depended heavily on the quality of advice, and that varied widely.

A Nation at Risk, the influential education report of the Reagan administration, declared in 1983 that the disarray of secondary education stemmed from "a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses." It advised states to constrain individual choices by prescribing a diet of academic solids. This is exactly what 41 states did by 1985, reversing a long trend toward enhancing freedom of choice among an ever-expanding number of courses.

Ironically, while the marketplace approach to education has gained influence, the new conventional wisdom has proclaimed choice through electives a mistake and called for national standards.

But if choice of courses often led to low academic standards and to inequities between social groups, why should choice of schools lead to high academic achievement and greater equity? If it is difficult to get useful and accurate information in choosing high school courses, it is even harder to select a school wisely. A free-for-all competition for a scarce resource _ fine schools _ between families that start out highly unequal in information, influence and resources hardly seems likely to benefit the have-nots, though it might be attractive to the haves.

Markets and school politics

It used to be axiomatic in policy talk about education that public schools had faults but were getting better. Today in some circles it is equally axiomatic that they are so bad they are irreparable _ or almost so. An article on "Chicago's Last Hope" in Newsweek announces: "For urban public schools, this is it; if Mayor Daley's reforms fail, get ready for vouchers."

Whether lurking in the background as a boogey-reform to scare public educators or showcased as panacea, choice and vouchers have become a common answer to the supposed meltdown in public education. This is not surprising in a society in which leaders and the media repeatedly assert the superiority of the market over "government" and in which the public sector is so often assumed to be inferior to the private.

Meltdown or no, the case for choice and vouchers has a classic simplicity: If parents have vouchers and can choose the schools their children attend, there will be competition in the educational marketplace, and that will produce a quality product (effective learning, measured as high test scores). Providers will create what consumers want.

That sounds rational and hard to rebut if one accepts the assumptions about the marketplace that underlie the propositions. But will choices about schools be made chiefly on criteria that reflect effective learning? If the choices about high school courses are any indication, many students and their parents may have other bases for their preferences.

Metaphors of the market can mask abiding inequalities and obscure the civic purposes of schooling. Americans participate in a marketplace economy, but they are also members of a democratic polity. Public education allows Americans to make choices about schools that reflect not just what works for the individual or family but for the community or even the whole society.

Collectively, Americans chose to educate their children in common schools chiefly because they had a vision of a cohesive republic and a fear of disunion. In the Progressive Era, reformers continued to demand that all should be prepared for republican citizenship. Schooling in common should provide a place for everyone, with no leftover children. In recent decades, as social movements swept over the schools, once dispossessed groups gained new rights and voice in decisions. If education had been as private as, say, health care in America, these groups would have had far less leverage on the schools.

Will public education survive the current press for market solutions and the call to "get ready for vouchers"? If one looks not simply at the worst-case examples of public schools but at the range and variety of public schools, it is apparent that they continue to be deeply embedded in society and that they have proved resilient even in the hardest of times, as in the Great Depression.

Still, it is clear that the older visions of education in democracy and democracy in education _ expressed by Jefferson, Mann and Dewey _ have faded. Some key values these men advocated, however, have persisted _ as the Public Agenda Foundation discovered when it found near consensus among a cross-section of citizens on the need for public schools to promote equity, tolerance of differences and peaceful resolution of conflict. It will take much hard work and careful thought to reconnect the public schools with the public whose aspirations they are meant to fulfill, but it can be done.

David Tyack is Vida Jacks Professor of Education and professor of history at Stanford University. This commentary is excerpted from The American Prospect.