Suppose the government owned Jewel. And anyone could shop there “free”–but if you preferred Dominick’s or Treasure Island or Cub Foods, then you’d have to pay for your groceries. Your taxes would stay the same no matter where you shopped, and no matter how much you bought at Jewel. No doubt Jewel could cut corners and let its service slide quite a bit before many people would be willing to go elsewhere and, in effect, pay double.

Sound terrible? Yet this is exactly how we dole out education, kindergarten through 12th grade, in the information age. (Actually, it’s worse, since you’re usually assigned to shop only at the “Jewel” nearest your home.) The analogy is not perfect, but it is seductive: When people talk about “educational choice,” “vouchers,” or “tuition tax credits,” this is often the model in the back of their minds. They see the free market as a long-overdue comeuppance for hidebound administrators and incompetent tenured teachers–and a drastic cure-all for many educational quandaries. What’s the best kind of discipline? Should evolution be taught in science class? Should the budget cover a softball team or field trips to the museums? In a free market, you’d just pick the school that does it your way. Going back to the store analogy: If your neighbor is a vegetarian and you’re not, you don’t have to attend meetings of a “local nutrition council” and argue about “food policy.” You just buy different things at different stores.

If that’s not seductive enough, consider the fairness angle. The U.S. already has what can only be described as a half-assed educational-choice system. Those with time, money, or grit can choose their children’s schools by choosing where to live, by paying extra for private school, or by enduring the magnet-school process. But the children of parents too poor, too busy, or too indifferent to do these things get left behind. As Milton Friedman wrote a generation ago when he proposed a voucher system, “Our present school system, far from equalizing opportunity, very likely does the opposite.”

Pressure for choice has not abated, even though the Chicago Public Schools are in the early stages of reform and have shifted some power back to those at the bottom. Just talking about choice at this point in the reform process is a “terrible distraction,” complains Gwendolyn Laroche, director of the Chicago Urban League’s education department. “We’re hyper! Two years ago it was ‘school-based management and all your problems will be solved.’ Now it’s ‘choice and all your problems will be solved.’ We need to settle down and see what our schools need in the classrooms.”

Nevertheless, both Mayor Daley at his May 6 inauguration and the Tribune on its editorial page have publicly mulled the “V word.” A spate of recent publications–most notably John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, published by the leftish Brookings Institution, and locally the fat compendium Rebuilding America’s Schools: Vouchers, Credits, and Privatization, published by the libertarian-minded Heartland Institute–have kept up the drumbeat for change in the institutions that shape the classrooms. (Coeditor and Heartland executive director Joseph Bast takes no credit for Daley’s utterance, but notes that Rebuilding America’s Schools was in the hands of the mayoral staff a few days before the inauguration.) In his introduction to the Heartland offering, former Delaware governor and still Republican presidential candidate Pete du Pont writes, “The intellectual debate over educational choice is simply over.” But is it?

One problem is that “educational choice” is a chameleon. Mayor Daley found that out when he first spoke favorably of vouchers and then pulled back to a more cautious stance a few days later. “Choice” can mean anything from setting up one tiny elite school within the public system (such as the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora) to ending all tax support of education (a position advocated by educational consultant Myron Lieberman and considered in the Heartland papers). “Choice means many different things to its supporters,” lament Chubb and Moe. “They all claim to favor choice, but when it comes to the specifics of actual choice plans, their superficial consensus breaks down. . . . [The movement] is an extremely fragmented and conceptually shallow one.”

In practice, choice has meant increasing the number of public schools a student can enroll in, so that geography is not always destiny. But in the popular mind, “choice” is often synonymous with some version of the more radical voucher idea propounded by Milton Friedman in 1962 in Capitalism and Freedom. In simplified form: divide up the government’s education budget among all students, and let each one take his or her share to whatever certified school the family chooses. The public interest would be served, the good schools would multiply, the bad ones would adapt or die, and new alternatives of all kinds would spring up.

Given this source and President Bush’s prochoice stance, most people associate educational choice with conservative and libertarian dogma. This actually makes little sense. For one thing, some prominent prochoicers–like Joe Nathan, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for School Change and editor of Public Schools by Choice: Expanding Opportunities for Parents, Students, and Teachers–have their roots in the free schools and street academies of the late 60s and early 70s. For another, Friedman’s vouchers are just a different way for governments to pay for education. If anything, they should increase the education lobbies’ clout, since participating private schools and parents will want more bucks too. And state governments could still impose any necessary regulations on participating schools–for instance, by requiring admission of at least some “difficult” students, or offering incentives for new schools to start up in underserved areas.

The political ironies are abundant: Nathan laments that the left seems poised to “give this issue away to the right wing, just like we did the family”; Joseph Bast has taken heat from fellow libertarians on his board for publishing material promoting vouchers, which they see as a “government schools” power grab. Vouchers would increase parental choice, but they might also increase government regulation of schools. And vouchers by themselves would offer no consolation to those who are morally outraged at having to contribute to the education of their neighbors’ children.

Vouchers might offer consolation to those offended by low academic achievement in the public schools, however. University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman has coauthored two heavily statistical comparisons of student performance in private and public schools, doing his utmost to control for the fact that private-school students are both selected and self- selected. In Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities (1987), he and Thomas Hoffer conclude that Catholic school students average about a grade level higher in verbal and mathematical achievement than their comparable public-school fellows. Why? In part because parochial-school kids take tougher courses and do more homework. But how is it that teachers can demand more of them? Coleman has a theory: the parochial schools are part of a “functional community” that buttresses parents’ knowledge and authority in a way that few public schools do anymore. (Among other things, a functional community has what sociologists call “intergenerational closure,” a scientific way of saying that you are acquainted with the parents of your kids’ friends.)

Coleman himself supports educational choice. But his book leaves open the question of whether schools assembled on the open market would foster the kind of educationally supportive communities that at least some religious schools do.

Coleman’s theories remain just that, because nowhere in the U.S. has a full-scale public and private choice system been put into practice. An Oregon ballot initiative to that effect was rejected two-to-one last November. The Illinois House voted down the Catholic Conference of Illinois’ Illinois Educational Choice Act this spring (four other choice bills died without coming to a vote).

Part of the problem is philosophical: will an educational free market really help the poor? We can be sure that Saint Ignatius and Francis Parker would continue to “cream” the most promising young people from the ghetto. Across-the-board vouchers or tuition tax credits will produce fairness only if educational entrepreneurs flock into the ghetto, anxious to educate the kids with the most serious behavior and learning problems. There is little in the record of market initiatives (remember telephone deregulation?) or of voucher systems (Medicaid?) to suggest that entrepreneurs would do any such thing–though Tom Hetland, director of educational relations for TEACHAmerica, speculates that they would if the hard-to-educate kids were given larger than average vouchers, increasing the incentive to start a school in Garfield Park instead of Winnetka.

Joe Nathan, who supports choice but not in its pure free-market form, makes the same point by turning the food-market metaphor around: “In Chicago, you don’t usually want to buy meat or fruit in Uptown or on the west side if you have a choice. The quality is likely to be better–and it may well be cheaper–in Highland Park or Lincoln Park. The market doesn’t necessarily work for low- and moderate-income families. [Under an unregulated choice system] the neighborhood schools will be left with the families with the most problems, and that would be a disaster. Having said that, I would add that public education as it is now is a disaster.”

A more practical obstacle to full-scale school choice is the church-state question, since most of the existing private schools are religious. The First Amendment provides for free exercise of religion and forbids the government to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” but contrary to popular belief it does not contain the words “separation of church and state.” Together with recent Supreme Court decisions, it can be read as allowing tax dollars to flow into private-school coffers. It can also be read the other way. Whatever jurisdiction steps forward first will have an epoch-making lawsuit on its hands. Understandably, no state or locality has chosen to suffer the political ordeal of changing to a public-private voucher system–the years of legal limbo waiting to find out whether its initiative was constitutional.

The alternative–choice within the public-school system–is too narrow to satisfy the libertarians. But it won’t stir up the Supreme Court and it has been tried often enough that we can examine facts as well as theories.

“Choice,” says Joe Nathan, “is a great deal like electricity. It’s a powerful force, and it should be used carefully. It can be quite destructive if misused.” He was sad but not surprised to find that Chicago’s magnet-school program is “one of the worst public-school choice programs in the country.” It gives the magnets extra money and the power to select students and staff, but leaves the neighborhood schools with a more difficult job–and fewer resources and less autonomy to do it with.

Donald Moore and Suzanne Davenport of Chicago’s Designs for Change carefully examined Chicago’s program, along with comparable efforts in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. (Their paper, “School Choice: The New Improved Sorting Machine,” was published in the anthology Choice in Education: Issues and Politics and is available separately from DFC.) They found that the worst nightmares of choice critics have been realized in these systems. In every city they studied, the low-income, black, Hispanic, handicapped, limited-English, truant, troublesome, overage, and low-achieving students were concentrated in the nonselective neighborhood schools. Even when there were no official selection criteria, the magnet schools (and the lower-level counselors who referred students to them) made sure they did not risk their records with hard-to-teach kids. The educational results for the majority of students left behind have been predictably dismal. For instance, dropout and failure rates in nonselective Chicago schools are roughly two to three times those in the selective schools.

Would a better-designed choice program work for all kids? Nathan thinks it would if several changes were made: if there were a lot of magnet programs rather than a handful; if admissions standards were fair, widely understood, and nondiscriminatory; if transportation and ample parent information were provided; if resources were fairly equal among the schools.

Most commonly mentioned as models by choice advocates are programs in Minnesota; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and East Harlem District Four in New York City.

But Moore and Davenport doubt that these “repeatedly cited” examples prove that choice by itself can improve big-city education across the board. They found five forces that have “systematically undermined equity” in the four cities they looked at, and that would do so in any choice program, no matter how carefully set up:

“The preferences of most teachers for working with high-achieving and well-behaved students and avoiding students at risk.

“The widespread belief among educators that many students in low-income neighborhood schools are uneducable and that the best that can be done is to “save a few.’

“The myriad subtle ways in which the admissions processes for options schools can screen out students at risk, even when the process appears fair on paper.

“The rewards systems operating within school districts, which recognize schools that recruit and focus disproportionate resources on high-achieving students, rather than schools that bring their entire student bodies, including low-achieving students, to higher achievement levels.

“The persistent political pressure that middle-income parents of all races exert to shape the policies, practices, and individual admissions decisions of options schools to benefit their children.”

These forces, they argue, will subvert even the most equitably designed choice program “unless the interests of students at risk are represented in the policy-making and in the monitoring and implementation of policy.” In other words, poor and minority parents must get a political voice in the schools. With that empowerment, choice might be part of the answer; without it, choice will become another part of the problem.

Chubb and Moe, who advocate a form of public-school choice in their book, say exactly the opposite. In their opinion, democratic control is itself the problem, because it leads to bureaucratic paralysis, which is the opposite of an effective school. If a school board decides, for instance, that science and PE are required, then it must have a way to check and make sure those things are in fact being taught. So democracy leads to bureaucracy, which clashes with the freewheeling autonomy that is life and breath to a successful school. Chubb and Moe are nothing if not forthright: “Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. This is our way of saying that choice is not like the other reforms and should not be combined with them as part of a reformist strategy for improving America’s public schools. Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways. Indeed, if choice is to work to greatest advantage, it must be adopted without these other reforms, since the latter are predicated on democratic control and are implemented by bureaucratic means. The whole point of a thoroughgoing system of choice is to free the schools from these disabling constraints by sweeping away the old institutions and replacing them with new ones. . . . Reformers are right about where they want to go, but their institutions cannot get them there.”

Dilemmas don’t come much sharper than this: should we control schools by discussion and voting, or by shopping around? An answer is being worked out in Chicago.

On the one hand, the major public face of school reform, the Local School Councils, are elected bodies with parent majorities. They hire and fire principals, make plans, and decide on the spending of between 10 and 50 percent of their schools’ budgets. Although limited in power and uneven in performance, they are close to what Moore and Davenport recommend. Since the public-school establishment will never reform itself, their solution is to empower the parents, to try to turn the power pyramid upside down. Shopping around is not real control, they say, because all you can do is accept or reject what others choose to put on the market.

On the other hand, choice has also been (rather vaguely) written into the city’s school-reform law, even though when or how it will be implemented is unclear. Chubb and Moe agree that the public-school establishment will never reform itself, but their solution is for the political powers to cut themselves out of school oversight, because only in a marketlike system can schools be free to organize themselves effectively. Local School Councils are not real control, they say, because those on the losing end of a vote can’t go elsewhere, and in any case the councils too need a stultifying bureaucracy to enforce their will–which re-creates the original problem.

Is there such a thing as compromise here? Don’t count on it, but don’t count it out either. “If you’re going to create a competitive climate, we have to start off at the same level,” says school-reform activist and choice critic James Deanes, who chairs the Parent/Community Council. “Don’t make a 6-year-old run a track race with an 18-year-old,” he pleads, arguing that at least another four years will be needed before a choice program could even be sensibly considered. “Each school needs to provide quality education. We’ve tried all kinds of experiments. Now we need to try ‘Let’s work at it.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Heather McAdams.