School Choice and Zero Tolerance

Tyack and Cuban state that the only constant in education is reform. They make this simple argument a little more sophisticated by noting that not all reforms are the same. Some are adopted quickly and others are adopted more slowly. Some last a short while and others last longer. Some reforms are themselves reformed and others are kept or discarded entirely. In this paper I will analyze three particular reforms from modern times and asses how those reforms will be maintained, be changed, or not be maintained as time goes on. In particular I will argue that modern policy instruments in education are here to stay, school choice is here to stay, and Zero Tolerance will change or fail.

There are some common characteristics between the flaws and strengths of these different education reform topics, but there are also some major differences. Education policy instruments impact different groups in the education system in different ways when compared to school choice for example. I am making a different argument for Zero Tolerance compared to the other two topics as well. For this reason we will not be comparing or contrasting the topics. The form of this paper will simply be to analyze each topic on its own merits one by one. In order to address the question of reform efficacy in context we need a working definition. Tyack and Cuban wrote a book called Tinkering Toward Utopia in which they analyze the history of reform in the United States. They offer the following definition: “When we speak of educational reforms, we mean planned efforts to change schools in order to correct perceived social and educational problems.” (Tyack and Cuban, 3)

With this definition in mind we will first look at a couple modern policy instruments. Jane Hannaway and Nicola Woodroffe published an article entitled “Policy Instruments in Education” where they talk about trends in policy reform for education. According to the article two major classes of policy instruments are now being used which were not being used before. (Hannaway and Woodroffe) This transition from older instruments to newer ones meets Tyack and Cuban’s definition of reform because the transition was planned in order to solve problems. According to the article, the first class of instruments, “are those that attempt to harness the advantages of market mechanisms, particularly the incentives stemming from competitive pressure, to direct school behavior.” The second class is those policy instruments designed to compensate for what is deemed to be a market failure in education. The market-based policy tools include vouchers, tuition tax credits, and the introduction of alternative style public schools such as charter schools, including many which are run by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs). According to various economic theories each of these should produce positive results. One proposed example would be that for-profit entity controlled charter schools would increase the supply of schools which would create competition which in turn would, so they say, improve the product. The data concludes that vouchers work in some conditions, but not all. The data is insufficient to draw conclusions about tax credits and the data on charter schools points to a lack of improvement. There seems to be some potential as far as these scholars are concerned, but that potential is a long way off. I am not surprised. As a student of economics I can readily say that the hyper-regulated and manipulated “markets” of American public schooling and taxation in America are not suited toward creation of competition to say the least. The potential is there, however, and I believe that due to the self-optimizing nature of nature, and people included, policy makers will soon learn that “less is more” when seeking to regulate toward competition. The tools for dealing with market failure are much more practical at the present time. They include increased accountability measures and Teacher Pay for Performance amongst other measures. In short the research shows that accountability is beneficial and Teacher Pay for Performance will also boost scores and such, as long as the money keeps flowing in. I believe both the “correct the market” and the “let the market work” mentalities will be maintained. They will work in concert to create a market which can work. Examples of the market working in education can already be seen in the recent take offs of the tutoring industry and home schools, especially with the unprecedented benefits of internet technology which educators seem dead set on underutilizing.

Other arguments for educational reform which are popular these days include the arguments for school choice. James Cox and Christopher Witko, for example, write on the interaction of educational reform and creation of social capital. These two scholars conclude that choosing school does not increase participation rates and is unlikely to increase social capital. (Cox and Witko) Smith and Meier note that not only does choice not seem to increase social capital, but it doesn’t seem to have any measurable benefit to education at all. (Smith and Meier) They note that choice encourages “cream skimming” which may give an illusion of improvement, but it really is only a form of self-segregation on behalf of the school choosers. We finally get into some better analysis with Smith’s later article, properly titled, “Data Don’t Matter? Academic Research and School Choice.” As the name of the article implies, Smith affectively uncovers the great lack of respect for real data in the debate on choice. He uncovers an ideological divide which says is the real source of contention in the choice debate. He notes that, “Scholarly studies cannot decide what is the “best” or “right” ideology of education, no matter how hard partisans on both sides of the debate attempt to extract favorable ‘oughts’ from the ‘is’ of empirical studies.” (Smith) Because of the political nature of educational policy, and the fact that no clear moral right or wrong exists in this area, the policy will tend to be split just as the population those policies represent are split. Especially because the data indicates that there is very little difference in outcomes. This concept is further discussed by Amy Gutman. The introduction to her book Back to Basics opens with the statement, “When citizens rule in a democracy they determine, among other things, how future citizens will be educated.” (Gutman) This is the real crux of the matter. As long as the scholars have no definitive solution, the policies will continue to represent the diverse ideologies and political views of the democratic population. In the introduction Gutman discourages the avoidance of political topics in the name of scholarly work. She says that in the context of a democratically determined education system, education policy scholars should discuss the political issues involved as well as the practical social and educational ones. Furthermore the introduction notes the problems inherent in introducing top-down “liberal” approaches to education within a democratic system. One such problem would be a fracturing of the system, much like we see today. What the introduction does not note is that such fracturing, while it may create inefficiency, can also lead to long-term benefits by allowing us to see which ideas are best in experimental fashion. To summarize the results, school choice is here to stay. Not because it is beneficial, but because we live in a democratic system with public school policy being determined at the whim of a split voting group. This is neither good nor bad because of the fact that the produced results don’t change much either anyway. I prefer school choice because I prefer the ability to make my own decisions. This sort of moral argument is the only argument I feel carries water in light of the fact that neither method produces clearly better results.

Last let’s look at Zero Tolerance policies. Two interesting articles take opposing views on the subject. Shanker takes the position that Zero Tolerance is necessary in order to send a clear message that students are responsible for their own behavior. (Shanker) He relates his argument to other common reform ideas such as vouchers by claiming that the reason vouchers are even necessary has more to do with safety than quality of education. Shanker says, “We are going to create a system of choice and vouchers so that 98 percent of the kids who behave can go some place and be safe…isn’t it ridiculous to move 98 percent of the kids when all you have to do is move two or three…?” His point is essentially that it is better to take a hard-line approach to dealing with the misbehaving students. He does distinguish between deadly violence and simple disruption, but he claims that they are both undesirable and Zero Tolerance is a suitable cure. Alfie Kohn disagrees with Shanker’s position. Kohn agrees that both deadly violence and simple disruption are not preferable but disagrees that Zero Tolerance is a suitable cure. (Kohn) It is worth noting that Kohn’s article came out in 2004 which is later than Shanker’s 1995 article. Kohn accesses a very different point of view in his article. It may be due to personal preference, or it may be due to the ability to observe the results of Zero Tolerance over time. Kohn states that ‘technical’ fixes, as he calls them, will not solve behavioral problems, despite the theories and intents behind it. He notes that ‘coercive means’ may stamp out the violence in schools, but it will not correct the underlying problem. I believe the ‘technical fixes’ and ‘coercive means’ would include Zero Tolerance. Kohn advocates that educators should not react to a disease by treating the symptoms, but rather, the underlying causes. He states, “…an educator’s first response should not be ‘Have we used sufficient force to stamp out this threat?’ but ‘What have we done to address the underlying issues here?…’” Kohn therefore prefers to advocate a change in school culture as a solution to the problems of school violence and disruption. Kohn says that creating the proper environment requires that students not be rated or ranked. Supposedly this will reduce tension and relax the students. While I disagree with Kohn’s recipe for a good school, I acknowledge his indication that Zero Tolerance doesn’t work to correct the underlying issue. Another article indicates that Zero Tolerance has been an extreme overreaction. A booklet from the think tank Texas Appleseed and primarily authored by Deborah Fowler accuses Zero Tolerance of being a pipeline for prison in Texas. (Fowler) The booklet describes the relatively recent trend of criminalization of student misbehavior. Personally I do not find the use of force necessarily bad in countering student misbehavior – the problem is the degree of force. As the article notes, proper punishment used to be, “…extra laps under the supervision of a middle school or high school coach…” The booklet says that now in some cases tasers and pepper spray are being used. I understand the need for force because, for example, the student may refuse to run the extra lap. The school might call a parent or suspend the student, but the parent might not care and the suspension might function more as a vacation than a punishment. The use of tasers and pepper spray on children, however, I find over the top. In addition the overrepresentation of special education students is outrageous. The overrepresentation is in terms of ticketed children. The problem of ticketing is what results in a prison pipeline. If the tickets are not paid they will stay on the child’s record through adulthood and later may result in imprisonment. The fact that school related tickets are not expunged like any other ticket is one major flaw in Zero Tolerance. Another is the fact that ticketing does not directly punish the student because child labor laws prevent most students from earning the money necessary to pay such tickets and therefore it is generally the parents or no one who pays the ticket. All these things point to systemic problems within Zero Tolerence and help to explain why it does not produce its desired result of dealing with the underlying causes of school violence and disruption. The problem is that there is no clear alternative to Zero Tolerance. While it may not be clear what the best policy to implement is, I feel comfortable concluding that Zero Tolerance as it stands must be either changed or done away with.

In conclusion we have looked at three particular reforms from modern times. I believe that modern policy instruments in education are here to stay. I believe the market can work with education once proper conditions are set and some of these instruments are paving the way toward such conditions. School choice is here to stay, but not because it works. Rather, school choice is a necessary and proper outgrowth of the liberty and preference of the democratic American system of education policymaking. Finally, Zero Tolerance will change or fail. It is good that misbehaving students should be properly punished, and even with some force in extreme cases, but the way Zero Tolerance currently exists is hardly an image of proper punishment or use of force.



Tyack, David, and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Towards Utopia. 1995. 1-25. Print.

Hannaway, Jane, and Nicola Woodroffe. “Policy Intstruments in Education.” American Educational Research Institute. 27. (2003): 1-24. Print.

Cox, James, and Christopher Witko. “School Choice and the Creation of Social Capital Reexamined.” American Journal of Political Science. 52. (2008): 153-154. Print.

Smith, Kevin, and Kenneth Meier. “Public Choice in Education: Markets and the Demand for Quality Education.” Political Research Quarterly. 48.3 (1995): 461-478. Print.

Smith, Kevin. “Data Don’t Matter? Academic Research and School Choice.” Perspectives on Politics. 3.2 (2005): 285-299. Print.

Gutman, Amy. “Introduction: Back to Basics.” Democratic Education. (1987): 3-17. Print.

Shanker, Albert. “Restoring the Connection Between Behavior and Consequences.” Vital Speeches of the Day. (1995): n. page.

Kohn, Alfie. “Safety from the Inside Out: Rethinking Traditional Approaches.” Educational Horizons. (2004): n. page. Print.

Fowler, Deborah. “Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Texas Appleseed. (2010): n. page. Web. 2 May. 2012.


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