School Choice: The Education Issue of the 1990's
The following article is excerpted from the forthcoming Simon & Schuster Consumer Group book, The SchoolMatch Guide to Public Schools by William Bainbridge, Ph.D., and Steven Sundre, Ph.D. Scheduled for publication in April 1990, the Guide is available prepaid for $16.95 (paperback) plus $4.50 for shipping and handling. Checks for $21.45 per book can be sent directly to SchoolMatch, 5027 Pine Creek Drive, Westerville, OH 43081.
During the past decade much attention has been devoted to the "problem with public schools." Declining test scores, increased disciplinary problems, the advent of the drug culture, the demands of an increasingly technological and litigious society, and the perception of employers that many graduates do not possess basic skills contribute to this problem with public schools.
Over a decade ago, Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, in their book Free to Choose, devoted a chapter to the subject "What’s Wrong with Our Schools?" Their solution – a voucher plan for elementary and secondary schooling – stirred controversy among school professionals. Many parents and business leaders continued to press at the state and federal level for competition in education stemming from choice.
The concept seems relatively simple. Proponents argue that parents should have the right to select the public school system where their children are enrolled. Subsequently, states, they argue, should develop plans which allow tax dollars to follow the student. Such a "public market" voucher plan would allow money to flow among public school systems. The earlier concept of a free market voucher allowing funds to flow to non-public or public schools has been and continues to be vigorously opposed by educational lobbying groups.
The driving force behind reform is the desire of progressive school administrators to respond to their own observations and the desires of parents, business leaders, and school board members to improve public school systems. In some cases, large city school systems may be leading the way for "bottom-up" approaches. State legislators have introduced cross-district open enrollment and other measures which point to the solution as restructuring. The concept may have great potential for revitalizing the public schools. Choice is viewed by some as a solution to the problem of school financial losses, racial imbalance, low test scores, community apathy, teacher renewal, financial equity, transportation, and meeting consumer demand.
The seed, which the Friedmans planted, will blossom and mature in the 1990’s. Groups and individuals have nurtured the concept that the customer should have the right to choose when it comes to primary and secondary public education. The Heritage Foundation, for example, criticizes the public school system as "autonomous and answerable to virtually no one. Large bureaucracies administer the school districts of most large U.S. cities, and they are too removed from the reality of the schoolroom to address the basic problems of the schools."
Public opinion polls confirm that parents believe that having a choice in the kind of education their child receives is the key to improving standards. In a recent Gallup survey, for example, American parents voiced favor for choice within public schools by a lopsided margin. Sixty-four percent of public school parents and 68 percent of non-public school parents feel they should have the choice "….. to pick schools without regard to boundaries." Forty-two percent of public school parents feel that choice will improve student achievement; 51 percent say it will hurt some schools, while helping others; 54 percent feel it will increase student satisfaction.
Major public policy leaders sense this public interest. The choice concept has emerged as the centerpiece of President Bush’s plan to become the education President. His Education Secretary, Lauro F. Cavazos announced plans shortly after the inauguration to promote choice as the cornerstone of restructuring the nation’s schools. The previous Secretary and current drug czar William Bennett was often quoted saying that "people should not be made to send their children to bad schools with bad teachers when good schools with good teachers are available nearby."
It is fair to say that this choice approach to education may soon be sweeping America. It is an approach based on decentralized management and increased parental choice.
The truth is, as practitioners and parents have long known there are differences among schools.
The advocates of parental choice in public education represent a mixture of philosophies and suggested avenues of action. Some claim that for the first time parents can become powerful consumers of public education, able to choose between products as freely as they do in a retail store. Barbara Zahn, often-quoted Minnesota state PTA president, contends there is no one school or school program that is right for every child. Upon learning of SchoolMatch, Ms. Zahn told USA Today, "I wish it would have been there when we moved." For non-mobile parents, she sees choice as a way to encourage diversity in educational programs.
In the late 1980’s, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to give parents broad discretion in their choice of school systems. Under new laws, parents can move their children from one school system to another, and the state will reimburse the receiving districts. In addition, school systems are required to provide transportation, in the case of such transfers, for low-income students and are prohibited from preventing student transfers except where the transfers would upset desegregation efforts.
Choice has become an important legislative issue in nearly half of the states during the last two years. In addition to Minnesota, the states of Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska have initiated statewide choice. Legislation or policy proposing choice has also been considered in one form or another in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
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