The Yale Law Journal

June 2002

The Political Economy of School Choice

James E. Ryan and Michael Heise
111 Yale L.J. 2043 (2002)

This Article examines the political economy of school choice and focuses on the role of suburbanites. This group has re- ceived little attention in the commentary but is probably the most important and powerful stakeholder in choice debates. Suburbanites generally do not support school choice pol- icies either public or private. They are largely satisfied with the schools in their neighborhoods and want to protect the physical and financial independence of those schools, as well as suburban property values, which are tied to the perceived quality of local schools. School choice threatens the independence of suburban schools by creating the pos- sibility that outsiders, especially urban students, will enter suburban schools and that local funds will exit local schools.

When suburbanites face threats to their schools, they fight back, and they usually win. As this Article documents, sub- urbanites succeeded in insulating their schools from prior education reforms, including efforts to integrate schools and alter school funding regimes. A similar pattern is emerging in school choice plans, almost all of which work to protect the physical and financial autonomy of suburban schools and res- idents. If this pattern continues, school choice plans will be geographically constrained, will tend to be intradistrict, and will exist primarily in urban districts. These constraints will limit the ability of school choice to stimulate student academic improvement, racial and socioeconomic integration, and pro- ductive competition among public schools. Simply put, limited school choice plans will have limited impact, so that school choice will be neither a panacea, as its proponents argue, nor a serious threat to traditional public schools, as its opponents contend. To achieve the full theoretical benefits of school choice, we suggest that the choices offered to students must be broadened, especially in ways that will pro- vide greater opportunities for socioeconomic integration. In the final Part of the Article we consider ways to do so, including through increased access to government-funded, though not necessarily government-operated, preschools.