School Finance 101: School Finance Prerequisites: On Liberty vs. Equality

A common refrain among school choice advocates is that expansion of choice through vouchers and charter schooling is the “civil rights issue of our time.”[i] That introduction of competition through choice is a tide which raises all boats! These claims infer a connection between expanding the “liberty” associated with choice and improving educational equality, educational adequacy and equal educational opportunity across all children and groups. But, these assertions inappropriately conflate the “liberty” associated with choice, with equality.

A lengthy literature in political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences which most often operate in tension with one another.[ii] While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one-and-the-same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties most often leads to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions.[iii] The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal – conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another? Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, winners and losers.

Applied to the real world context of America’s highly racially and socio-economically segregated system of public schooling, choice advocates assert that the liberty of school choice necessarily disrupts the inequitable relationship between ones’ zip code of residence and the quality of schooling available. Providing choices across jurisdictional boundaries can also disrupt the capitalization relationship which drives growing inequality. That is, if housing isn’t linked to local schools, then housing prices are less likely to respond to differences in local school quality.[iv]

Choice advocates are divided on whether expanded school choice should include vouchers for private schools or merely subsidies for private operators of government sanctioned charter schools, the line between the two being more blurred in legal terms than typically acknowledged.[v] Regardless, however, in most cases, choice-based systems of schooling remain highly limited by geography and often restricted to the same geographic boundaries which define local public school districts and municipalities. For example, in many states, charter school choice is functionally limited to choice between district schools and charter schools within the district boundaries. That is, charter school choice, and voucher systems in cities like Milwaukee merely permit the reshuffling of urban minority children among a limited set of alternatives. Broader geographic expansion faces significant political and operational hurdles (e.g. “perfect mobility”).

Further, as displayed in my own work on charter school expansion in New York City, Texas, [vi] and nationally,[vii] expansion of charter schooling has largely led to expansion of vastly unequal choices. Some charter schools, operated by politically connected and financially well-endowed management companies are able to provide longer school years, longer days, smaller classes and richer curricula than others.[viii]Those same charter schools are the ones most chosen, with the longest waiting lists.  That is, the choices are unequal and unequally accessible.  A system of unequal choices is still an unequal system. As for “adequacy,” a system where the most available choices are the least adequate is not adequate. We must be willing as a society to deal openly with our preferences for liberty versus equality and design systems which best balance these often competing preferences.

[i]A simple google search of the phrases “school choice” and “civil rights” is sufficiently revealing:

[ii] De Tocqueville, A. (1835). Democracy in america (Vol. 2). Saunders and Otley.

[iii] Levin, H. (2001). Privatizing Education: Can The School Marketplace Deliver Freedom Of Choice, Efficiency, Equity, And Social Cohesion?. Westview Press. See also: Matear, A. (2007). Equity in education in Chile: The tensions between policy and practice. International Journal of Educational Development27(1), 101-113.

[iv] Brunner, E., Sonstelie, J., & Thayer, M. (2001). Capitalization and the voucher: an analysis of precinct returns from California’s Proposition 174. Journal of Urban Economics50(3), 517-536.

[v] Green, P. C., Baker, B. D., & Oluwole, J. (2014). Having it both ways: How charter schools try to obtain funding of public schools and the autonomy of private schools.

Green, P. C., Baker, B. D., & Oluwole, J. (2015). The legal status of charter schools in state statutory law.

[vi] Baker, B. D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2015). Charter School Expansion and Within-District Equity: Confluence or Conflict?. Education Finance and Policy.

[vii] Baker, B. (2016). Exploring the consequences of charter school expansion in US cities. Economic Policy Institute, November30.

[viii] Baker, B. D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2015). Charter School Expansion and Within-District Equity: Confluence or Conflict?. Education Finance and Policy.

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular attention to the equity and adequacy of...