Proponents of school choice need to ask themselves what their fantasy marketplace of schools will offer parents and their children. For argument's sake, let's assume that school vouchers actually cover the cost of private schools instead of just subsidizing the affluent people who already send their kids to private school. Let's also assume that the alternative schools aren't Christian madrassas.
Presumably, parents will send their kids to private school because the quality of education provided by the public schools is inadequate. Suppose that 40% of the public school kids end up being moved to the local private school, at which point, the private school is full. What happens to the other 60% of kids attending public school? They're out of luck. One could argue that at least 40% of the students now get a good education instead of 0%, but this hardly seems fair.
Is there a school privatization scheme that would work?
How about this scenario: all the schools are privatized, and we have a market of many small schools with different approaches to education. Government would be ineligible to participate because it might compete unfairly with the corporate schools. In order to facilitate movement of children from failing schools to good schools, there is overcapacity in the market.
What's the business incentive for the private schools? Assuming tuitions are fixed, schools will aim to teach each student for the lowest possible cost, and maximize the number of enrolled students. Presumably, teaching performance can improve enrollment, but the costs will increase (good teachers will be at a premium). Assuming such a marketplace could be constructed, it sounds like it might work, right?
One can try to criticise the idea by comparing education to other national priorities that we would never privatize, like military or intelligence operations. An uncompetitive military freelancer would certainly cost human lives. I don't think that this is a good comparison, though. A failing private school might cost a student a year's education before the student can be moved to a better school, but the student can probably recover from this (though we would be wrong to underestimate the damage). Still, there is some such damage done by public schools today, and this argument doesn't predict more failures than we have already.
The first real criticism is the overcapacity issue. In order to allow students to move from school to school to improve their education, the market must have enough excess capacity to allow, say, an entire school in the market to go out of business. This excess capacity isn't free, and the costs will be passed on to taxpayers.
Another criticism is the need for audits. Corporations almost always cheat when they know they'll get away with it. Parent advocates would need to hire more corporations to audit their corporate school masters. This raises the cost of the scheme, though I don't see how it would reduce the quality of the educational program.
Are corporate ethics compatible with public education? Look at contemporary corporate behavior. Companies use subtle marketing ploys to sell their wares. They are risk averse, and always bend to avoid legal action. Coroprations are not transparent, and they hide facts from customers in ways the government cannot. Corporations diversify and create strategic partnerships. Is there a conflict of interest if corporations are training students who will later work for another division of the same corporation or for the corporation's competition? These problems can be solved with heavy regulation, but it will be expensive. For instance, individual public schools don't usually sue their school districts when they object to a school district policy.
Would a national chain of private schools meet the needs of communities for local control over education programs?
What would happen if a national chain of schools went bankrupt?
How much money will education CEO's make?
Finally, schools are supposed to teach students in the public interest. This cannot happen if they are taught in private interest, as consumers instead of citizens.
All the problems I've enumerated apply to a sort of idealized, competitive marketplace. The actual voucher programs being debated today aren't even fair to begin with. Most voucher programs are designed to either a) get kids into religious schools where they can be indoctrinated, or b) subsidize affluent parents who already send their kids to private school. Typically, the voucher is not enough money to allow working families to send their kids to private school anyway.
It seems to me that school choice provides no simple answers. Privatization strikes me as a way of passing the buck, or washing our hands of the problem.
Fixing public education in this country will require something corporate America can't provide: courage.