The constituency for public schooling seemed by the early nineties to be dwindling to education bureaucrats and teachers'-union lifers. The idea of defending public schools as a cornerstone of democracy just didn't smell like a winner. Moreover, education reform was not a priority in this Administration—not like remaking the health-care system or ending welfare as we knew it or eliminating the deficit. And New Democrat rhetoric helped to create a political atmosphere in which one of the basic conservative arguments for vouchers—that they would introduce competition into a monopoly—sounded naturally right.
And it may be right. It may be that lousy public schools will get better only if they lose their best students and most committed parents to voucher-funded private schools, and have to hustle not to lose the rest. Even if that doesn't happen in the long run, and even if there will never be enough private schools to serve all the students—at every conceivable level of ability and lack of it—that public schools do, vouchers may in the short run at least secure safe and decent educations for some determined kids in some cities. Many Catholic schools—the private schools that most parents with vouchers can afford—seem to do a better job of turning disadvantaged kids into college-bound students than public schools have done in recent years. In one 1990 survey, for example, 66 percent of high school sophomores in Catholic schools, but just 39 percent of their public school counterparts, were on the pre-college track. The voucher movement may yet give rise to a more democratic variant, such as the one proposed by the education reformer Diane Ravitch: a comprehensive program of means-tested scholarships for needy elementary, middle, and high school students. The expansion of school choice—that elastic term that embraces home schooling, public charter and magnet schools, parochial and secular private schools, and old-style neighborhood schools, together constituting a patchwork, not a system—may ultimately hold the brightest promise for meeting the needs of most families in a more or less equitable way.
But none of this will be accomplished without a loss—one we haven't yet begun to reckon with. If the public school ideal continues to weaken, marketplace values will establish more of a grasp on education than ever before. Already some private schools are besieged by parents who see themselves as consumers of an expensive product and who are determined to get their money's worth. Moreover, private schools tend to serve people of similar social class and—because their curricula are often more focused and their identities more specialized than those of comprehensive public schools—similar outlook. The public school ideal was not only about guaranteeing a minimally decent education for all. It was also about the mixing of social classes, which it fostered not by artificial attempts at diversity—the punctilious handpicking of students—but organically. Who in our new gilded age even cares about such a thing?
Margaret Talbot is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation.