The Political Economy of School Choice

100 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2001

See all articles by James E. Ryan

James E. Ryan

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education

Michael Heise

Cornell Law School


This paper examines the political economy of school choice and focuses in particular on the role of suburbanites. This group, which we contend is the most important and powerful stakeholder in choice debates, has yet to receive much attention in the commentary. It turns out that suburbanites, by and large, are not wild about school choice, either public or private. Suburbanites are largely satisfied with the schools in their neighborhoods and want to protect the physical and financial independence of those schools (as well as their property values, which are tied to the perceived quality of local schools). School choice threatens the independence of suburban schools by creating both the possibility that outsiders - particularly urban students - will be able to attend suburban schools and the possibility that some locally-raised revenues will exit local schools as students leave to attend either private schools or public schools outside of their residential districts.

When suburbanites perceive a threat to their schools, they fight back, and they usually win. As the paper documents, school desegregation and school finance litigation, despite some successes, largely left suburban districts undisturbed in their ability to control attendance and the expenditure of local resources. A similar pattern is emerging in school choice plans, almost of all which work to protect the physical and financial autonomy of suburban schools and residents. If this pattern continues, school choice plans will be geographically constrained, will tend to be intradistrict, and will exist primarily in urban districts. So constrained, we argue, school choice will neither be a panacea for public school students (as its proponents claim) nor will it be much of a threat to the continued existence of traditional public schools (as its opponents claim). Instead, as we endeavor to show, such plans hold the promise of limited academic improvement, little to no gain in racial and socioeconomic integration, and limited gains in efficiency among public schools. To achieve the theoretical benefits of school choice, such plans must be expanded, especially in ways that will increase socioeconomic integration. The final part of the paper is devoted to considering ways to do so, which include supporting the drive for increased access to government-funded (though not necessarily government-operated) preschools, the theory being that the more parents experience (a form of) school choice, the more their perceptions and preferences regarding choice might change.

Suggested Citation

Ryan, James E. and Heise, Michael, The Political Economy of School Choice. UVA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 01-17, Available at SSRN: or

James E. Ryan (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education ( email )

6 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Michael Heise

Cornell Law School ( email )

308 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-0069 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

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