One of the greatest challenges for US cities is the perceived failure of public schools. Both as a means for attracting and retaining the middle class and for providing upward mobility public schools are crucial. Consequently, any effort to build livable cities must include successful public schools so as to provide a ladder for the poor and to attract and retain the middle class. Although education typically falls out of the purview of planning, planners can ill afford to ignore such a key component of what makes a place livable in the minds of many. Arguments about improving public schools should therefore be of interest to planners, even if in their day-to-day activities they have little time to consider public schools.
To remedy the perceived failure of urban public education myriad solutions have been offered. Among the most pervasive of solutions are those that seek to use the discipline of the market to improve the quality of education that schools offer. The notion is that if schools have to compete for students, rather than having a captive clientele of neighborhood students, schools will step up their game, so to speak. Vouchers, which provide public dollars to students to use at the school of their choosing, and the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows students to transfer out of failing schools are two embodiments of the call to introduce competition into the public school system.
At first glance, the notion of using competition to spur improvement in public education seems wise. Think of the quality of food served at most restaurants that have to compete for customers compared to that served at institutions with captive clienteles (e.g. hospitals). Competition could surely work its magic on public schools as well?
I'm less than sanguine that competition would be a panacea for public education, even in places where these schools are clearly failing. Schools would probably compete, but it is not necessarily the case that educational quality would always be the primary factor they compete on. Educational quality is not an easily measurable trait. If one looks at higher education for example, while it is clear many colleges compete for students on notions of educational quality, many others use other enticements to attract students. Semi-professional football and basketball teams, financial aid, guarantee of career success post-graduation, are but a few of the non-educational items colleges use to compete for students.
In sum, while vouchers would likely spur competition and innovation among some schools, and students and families might benefit from greater choice, it seems unlikely that by itself, privatization could remedy all that ills public education. Rather than looking for a magic bullet in privatization and competition, we will need to make the commitment to invest the resources to improve our public schools. Other countries have managed to achieve educational excellence relying on public schools; certainly we can achieve the same.