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Public schools: chance or choice?

African-American children are falling further behind in U.S. public schools. The year 2000 is only seven years away, and in the absence of quick action to turn our schools around, 26% of black children entering first grade this year will not perform at the third-grade level when they are 8 years old. And, nearly 50% of the boys and 40% of the girls will not join their eighth-grade peers when they turn 13 (see chart). The chance that these students will ever catch up in math, reading and science or eventually graduate from high school is slim.

In the area of education, there is agreement between President Clinton and George Bush. In his campaign volume, Putting People First. How We Can All Change America, President Clinton endorsed the goals that appeared in President Bush's 1991 report, America 2000: An Education Strategy. The report sets forth goals to be reached by 2000: (1) each child will enter school ready to learn; (2) the high on rate will increase to 90%; (3) students will achieve demonstrated competence at grades 4, 8 and 12; (4) the United States will be first in the world in mathematics and science; and (5) drugs and violence will be eliminated from our schools. While virtually everyone shares these goals, questions center on how much responsibility the government should have, and what the alternatives mean for black children.

The federal role in education has declined in the last 13 years. In 1979-80, the federal contribution to elementary and secondary education equaled 9.1% of total expenditures. Ten years later, it dropped to 5.6%. During the same period, in 1991/92 dollars, expenditure per pupil also shifted. In 1979-80, it was equal to $3,718 per student; in 1989-90, it was $5,031. Although overall education investment grew about 35%, the percentage of federal contribution fell nearly 38% during the same period. States and municipalities were forced to fill the gap as they coped with deteriorating public school systems.

Conservative education critics say that without competition, the system fails to effectively serve children with differing needs. Their answer: school choice. When parents have the right to choose the school their children attend and can withdraw them from ineffective or inappropriate venues, the schools are forced to change, or face a major loss of students. Pro-choice fans support a federal or state voucher system that allows parents to enroll their children in any school, public or private, that meets their specific needs.

But pure choice programs can be problematic. Parents have only as much choice as they have money. Private schools would be free to set their own prices and to reject (within some civil-rights restrictions) children whose education needs are deemed too costly or disruptive.

Moreover, as in any other market, a buyer's decision is only as good as what he or she knows. It is unlikely that education entrepreneurs are more honest than sellers of other services. Without school accreditation systems, buyers must either accept the information they are given or do more research, meaning that consumer fraud is a possibility.

During his campaign, President Clinton supported public choice programs, which allow parents to choose the public school their children will attend. The programs originated in the school desegregation era, when magnet schools, with differing curricula, were used to promote racial integration. Variations on public choice are in operation nationwide, but what goes on in one district is unknown in others. A federal clearinghouse would provide school leaders with options if they want to pursue this approach.

While better education is a goal everyone can embrace, the best way to improve educational opportunity is not clear. --Margaret C. Simms is director of research programs at the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies, Washington, D.C.
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Author:Simms, Margaret
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:May 1, 1993
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