Equal Opportunities for All? the Politics of School Choice and the Divided Middle Class

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW1.3.02 (Tower One)
Charlotte Haberstroh, European University Institute, Florence, Italy
From the 1960s onwards, different European welfare states abolished their tracked school systems and opted for a less stratified comprehensive education for the compulsory secondary level. As inequality of educational opportunity seemed to persist nevertheless, stratification scholars proposed policy-makers to more drastically reform education systems to increase social mobility for students of disadvantaged social backgrounds. This was consistent with the call to end the ‘waste of talent’ and scarce employability of school-leavers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. One core issue was that compulsory – and thus universal – education systems did not provide quality education for all. Yet, the most important reform of rules that sort students into schools of different quality was the introduction of school choice, a policy that did not point towards an improvement of educational opportunity for the less well off. Why did even left-wing governments in countries as different as Sweden and England support school choice from the mid-1990s onwards? 

In this paper, I argue that reforms of student sorting institutions, such as abolishing tracked schooling, or introducing school choice, are policies that contribute to change inequalities – more specifically inequality of opportunity in education. Such policies are tightly linked to redistributive policies, because they intervene in the process of allocation of students to school places. When such institutions give the better off easier access to quality school places, the redistributive outcomes of education spending are different than when quality school places are equally distributed across the population, or when students from poorer families get access to better schools than their more advantaged peers. Politics of equality of opportunity thus go beyond questions of spending and taxation. In a society where quality of education differs across schools, I argue that the politics of reforming institutions that intervene in the access to quality education behave similarly to the politics of education spending. They are at their core partisan politics centred on cross-class conflicts and coalitions.

The paper innovates on existing explanations of the school choice outcomes in England and Sweden in two ways. First, I show that we can understand school choice as a phenomenon that goes beyond the question of marketisation of public services. On the one hand, this permits us to cast a broader net in the comparison of education systems and their diverse equality of opportunity outcomes, as student sorting is not only a question of markets and school choice. On the other hand, this approach gives a more fine-grained account of how parental choice – and indeed different types thereof – increases opportunities for some parts of the middle class at the expense of other middle class subgroups. This conceptual innovation takes the form of a two-by-two typology of student sorting institutions on the dimensions of parental choice in the allocation process of students to schools, and of the role that student selection according to individual performance plays for access to quality education. The paper then shows how the trajectories of Sweden and England initially differ within this typology after the abolition of tracked schooling, and eventually both adopt the non-selective high choice type of student sorting: inclusive choice.

The papers’ second innovation lies in the explanation of such trajectories. I show that moving away from tracked schooling (low choice, high selection) into the three other policy categories is a matter of trade-offs that take the shape of a trilemma. My approach builds on existing political economic explanations of school choice and educational spending which understand partisan governments as core protagonists for redistributive outcomes. It adds to such research by presenting the trade-offs that right-wing and especially left-wing governments face and that structure the possible cross-class coalitions supporting each of the three outcomes. Further, student sorting institutions work in a way to favour individuals according to their income and educational credentials. I therefore posit that the middle class is divided between higher and lower educated subgroups, and that this division plays a major role for the outcome of the trade-off. Whether or not school choice gets introduced, and which type of school choice, depends on cross-class coalitions that enter partisan competition and are not only built around income, but also around education groups. However, I contend that cross-class coalition preferences do not suffice to explain government behaviour. Rather, governments weigh the benefits against the costs of such reform, leading to a status quo bias.

I use the methodological framework of comparative historical analysis to show the empirical value of this theory in the cases of Sweden and England from the start of the 1980s to the mid 2000s. Process Tracing permits me to show that this cross-class coalition based approach is a sufficient explanation for student sorting institutions. This will allow us to understand why the Swedish bourgeois coalition did not introduce school choice in the early 1980s, but did introduce it a decade later. We also learn why the Swedish Social Democrats made choice inclusive – i.e. less selective – in the late 1990s, while it took the British Labour Party nearly ten years of government to make the equivalent policy move in 2006 when a legislative reform constrained schools to respect the School Admissions Code. Alternative explanations, such as the role of organised interests, ideas, and institutions in the policy making process are taken seriously in this comparative task of process tracing. The empirical account shows that when it comes to access to quality education, egalitarian policymaking is not a matter of teacher unions, the neoliberal paradigm, or historically determined, but a consequence of partisan governments that face difficult trade-offs when catering to their constituents’ preferences or needs while carefully considering the risks of such reform for their general capacity and legitimacy to govern. The implication of this theory is that student sorting institutions are generally not reformed in a way to give the most socially disadvantaged children access to better education.