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School choice: the answer to education.

"After decades of bureaucratic oppression, stagnation, and decline, people took to the ballot box to replace failing bureaucracies with market forces. The results: new creativity, improved performance, and higher achievement."

To most, that describes the startling developments in Eastern Europe in 1990. But in fact, that same revolutionary spirit and rediscovery of market forces has taken hold in America--in Minnesota, New York, California, and 15 other states engaged in public education reform. And the movement is building.

It has been almost nine years since the Reagan Administration pulled the alarm on declining public education with its "A Nation at Risk" report. In the meantime, countless other reports, investigation panels, and social scientists have sifted through the layers and the machinery of American public education for the answers to "Why Johnny can't read," even while holding a high school diploma. At last, the principal defect appears to have been found: public education's layers and machinery.

In short, public school bureaucracies are choking the education out of America's schools. Higher standards, safer schools, better teachers, better pay, longer hours, greater parental involvement, and more homework are all important reforms. But they are only tactics--tactics that may never see the light of day until the strategic problem of moving reforms through education bureaucracies and into the classrooms gets resolved. And the answer is at hand. It is called school choice.

School choice finally allows parents to enter schools through the front door and make fundamental decisions about their children's education at the beginning of the year. In the past, the best a parent could do was to slip in the back door through a parent organization and play catch-up with a school that had no incentive to change.

School choice is an old concept, but until recently was only within reach of the wealthy and those in the process of relocating. Ask any realtor. Regions served by good schools are the first place families start their search for new homes. And of course, the wealthy can always choose private schools for their children.

For most of the '80s, money was the favorite problem and panacea for American education. But the money issue has been diminished by all serious education researchers, and only now remains an object of affection to politicians. The fact remains, America spends far more on education than any country in the world.

Education's chief problem is politics and bureaucracy. Indeed, more money for education merely feeds a bloated education bureaucracy, with precious little making it through to programs for students. In New York City, only 32 cents of every education dollar arrives in the classroom. Bureaucracy and infrastructure consume the rest. Clearly, it is not a lack of resources that retards learning in America. It is the way that existing education resources are applied, or squandered, that determines the quality of public education in America. And that is factored by the people, the incentives, and the systems that manage public education.

According to a landmark study by Brookings Institution researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe, "the more school decision making is constrained by superintendents, district offices, unions, and the rules and regulations they promulgate, the less effective the school organization is likely to be."

The Chubb and Moe solution: Replace the current command and control system of public education with a market system that will reward schools that work.

The parallels of American public education to Eastern Europe of 1990 become even more striking when they are articulated by education advocates from American business. David Kearns, chairman and CEO of Xerox Corporation, says, "American public schools are, by and large, a monopoly provider. If you're smart and well-off you can choose a good monopoly and avoid a bad one. You buy into a good neighborhood or pay tuition at a private school. It is no surprise that the poor do not attend the good schools." any student of Economics 101 knows that monopolies provide poor products at high cost, because there are no incentives to do otherwise. The simple concept of school choice is to dissolve public education monopolies based largely on geography and install competition among public schools. The incentives are clear and universally understood--money and jobs--just as they are in every other enterprise in America.

Under current public school funding systems and under most school choice plans, funds for education are based on the number of students attending a given school. In a school choice system, money follows students to good schools with creative administrators, dedicated teachers, high standards, and high achievement. Schools that lose students to the better schools face the alternative of changing or closing. The beauty of the school choice concept is that it gives the product of education to the professionals but leaves the purchase decision up to the consumer--parents and their children. And that is where the power of change takes root. For American public education, this concept is a revolutionary idea.

The Building Momentum

for School Choice

Intradistrict school choice programs have been in place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and East Harlem in New York City for more than a decade. But the first statewide interdistrict choice program began in Minnesota in 1988, and the close of the 1990-1991 school year will mark its first full year of implementation. Since Minnesota embarked down the road to school choice, other states, including Wisconsin, Washington, Vermont, Utah, Idaho, Arkansas, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Kentucky, and Nebraska, have followed to establish statewide programs of different types. Other states, including California, have school choice on the state legislative agenda.

The results of these early statewide efforts will take time to assess. And naturally, there is hope--hope that the improvement on state education programs will resemble the remarkable achievements in East Harlem, where between 1973 and 1987 the number of students reading at or above grade level rose from 16 to 63 percent, and graduation rates soared to 90 percent, a rise also credited to increased faculty input in practices and policies.

School choice has many friends in high places. President George Bush has called school choice "the cornerstone of education reform." Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, the man named to succeed Lauro Cavazos as Secretary of Education, is likewise a strong supporter of school choice. And Lynn Cheney, chairwoman of The National Endowment for the Humanities, embraced school choice not just for the freedom that it would provide parents, but also for the new freedoms it would provide teachers--who are otherwise tangled by rules of education protocol. In a 1990 report entitled "Tyrannical Machines"--a description of public school bureaucracies that is perhaps the most concise and animated title yet devised for an educational study--Cheney says, "healthy competition is anathema to tyrannical machines." Cheney goes on to say that choice should force bureaucracies to enable teachers to choose alternative paths to certification, install new procedures for choosing textbooks, and provide equal access to tenure to professors who choose teaching over research.

But enthusiastic support for school choice goes well beyond politicians. Migdalia Maldonado, principal of Public School 108 in East Harlem, sees school choice as a tool of empowerment: "Many of the families that we worked with had limited choices in their lives, be it jobs, housing, or their way of living. A system, a school, that offers them a choice in their child's education [is] a ray of hope, a sparkle in their lives. We empowered these parents because we gave them a choice."

Bernadette Toomey, vice president of the National Academy Foundation, a business-education partnership, takes a companion view. "Choices are difficult to refuse," says Toomey. "Our experience in working in school systems as different as New York City and Salt Lake City is that when parents and students are offered alternatives, they'll not only choose them, they'll compete for them. And that competition generates new life and new energy in schools."

In states that do not have school choice programs, businesses are among the key agents of change. In Indiana, James K. Baker, chairman of Arvin Industries and head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has presented a four-point plan to reform Indiana schools that includes freeing teachers from bureaucratic regulations and allowing parents to choose schools. Baker says, "If the business community in this state believes that education has to get a lot better, and believes that it has a vested interest in making sure that happens, then the burden is on us to make it better."

But perhaps the most vocal and best organized group in support of school choice is the U.S. Catholic Conference, which supports nearly 2 million American elementary and high school students in almost 9,000 schools--most of which offer the best alternative to inner city poor, whom public education has largely failed. Time and time again, parochial schools have demonstrated that dedicated teachers and creative independence deliver higher achievement, even though resources are meager.

The Minnesota Model

School choice plans can take the shape of magnet schools, intra- and interdistrict choice, post-secondary options through arrangements with local colleges, voucher systems, cash grants to urban minority students to attend private schools, or even home schooling. But the basic choice program is perhaps best demonstrated in Minnesota, where this year approximately 20,000 students have voted with their feet for a better education. The majority are high school students who are taking classes for undergraduate credit at local colleges.

In Minnesota, parents and students may apply to the school district of their choice at the beginning of the calendar year. Depending on its projected enrollment and admission policy, the district will reply within two months to

accept or decline the application. Although it is clearly in the financial interest of a school district to make space for an applicant, lack of space can be a reason to decline an application. Race or other factors of discrimination cannot be a reason to refuse admission.

According to former Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich, "When we first introduced the idea of public school choice in 1985, the polls showed about two-thirds of the public were against it. There was an uproar. But the polls changed after parents saw how choice could promote accountability, increase options for their children, and help them become responsible consumers of education."

The polls have indeed shifted on school choice. Nationwide, a 1990 Gallup poll found that support for public school choice has grown to 62 percent, with 72 percent of minorities supporting the initiative.

Opponents to School Choice

School choice is revolutionary. And like all revolutions it threatens well-entrenched groups--ostensibly teacher unions and the education bureaucracies that have traditionally opposed competency measures and other performance standards. But school choice means to impose the toughest standard yet--the possibility that parents and students will take their education business elsewhere, and mediocre teachers and school administrators will be put out of work.

Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction for California, has expressed a number of fears as to what might occur if parents were allowed to choose schools for their children. One is the creation of elite academies. Another is the confusion that could result in a period of school "deregulation." He also attacks school choice proponents Chubb and Moe, whom he accuses of seeking to "enshrine the rights of parents over the needs of children and society and encourage tribalism." This opinion echoes the liberal view that public schools are the preferred institutions to teach democratic values.

Other school choice opponents fear recruiting wars at the high school level for top athletes and scholars, funding problems, and what to do with schools that nobody wants to attend. Congressman Gus Hawkins of Illinois simply fears that there are not enough good schools to go around. In this case, the fundamental point of school choice is neglected: Market forces will increase the nunmber of quality schools in America--in the same way that the free market has provided American consumers with the broadest range of quality products and services in the world.

Chubb responds to critics by saying, "The unions are opposed not because they are not concerned about the poor, but obviously because they are in business to protect the livelihood of all union members. A choice system is a potential threat to the incompetent or the marginal teacher. People who are doing a poor job, obviously, will not be chosen. And unions cannot support a program that will jeopardize the jobs of some of their teachers."

Meanwhile, opponents of school choice have been well organized and well funded. In Milwaukee, the local teacher's union successfully sued to prevent 1,000 low-income students from attending private schools in an experimental program to help failing inner-city youth. "You would have thought I'd dropped a bomb near the teacher's unions," said state Rep. Polly Williams, a liberal Democrat who sponsored the measure. She goes on to add, "Well, maybe that wouldn't be so bad."

In Oregon, Measure 11 was introduced and defeated on the 1990 November ballot to allow tax credits to parents for sending children to private schools. The Oregon Education Association, Oregon's largest teacher's union, reportedly spent $2 million to defeat the initiative.

The Future of School Choice

But in both Milwaukee and Oregon supporters of school choice are undaunted. The Wisconsin State Legislature is writing improved legislation to amend the Milwaukee plan that was struck down because of technicalities. In Oregon, supporters are reorganizing an effort for the 1992 ballot and foresee no problem in again collecting the necessary 120,000 signatures.

These initiatives have forced the leaders of many teacher groups to take a more conciliatory stand for school choice initiatives. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, "In principle, choice is a fine thing. And public school choice has worked well ... in some places. But schemes that allow public funds to pay for education in private schools are a different beast altogether."

In the near term, school choice initiatives will continue to build a following. However, initiatives need to be established in carefully articulated programs that will prevent the dangers to students that some educators fear. There also needs to be patience and cooperation to make transitions happen without disruption.

In the longer term, there needs to be more information for parents to make choice work. In any free market system, information is vital, if consumers are to make educated choices about product preferences. Chubb and Moe advocate the establishment of parent education centers that will equip parents to evaluate and choose among education options for their children. The media and schools themselves should likewise be encouraged to provide information about "what works" in education. The net result will be a future generation of students who will then be able to make important choices for themselves--in the job market.
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Title Annotation:includes information source list; benefits of when parents choose the school their child will attend
Author:Gibson, Tom
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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