Choice in Schools

Neal R. Peirce

October 29, 1990|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON — Washington.

IF A BAND of angry reformers in Oregon has its way, Election Day could be a very bad day for traditional school systems, school boards administrators and school unions. The great monopoly would be shattered. Parents would have the right to send their children to any school in the state -- even to a private school, taking an annual government tax credit of $2,500 with them. (The average annual cost per pupil in Oregon is nearly $4,000.)

The Educational Choice Initiative is the most radical, far-sweeping challenge to the public-school establishment in the widening debate over increased school choice for parents and students.

The education lobby is sputtering with outrage over the initiative, which was cooked up last spring by a group of Libertarians. Led by the Oregon Education Association, opponents are reportedly pouring $2 million into defeating the measure.

The under-funded proponents have, on their side, a rising wave of public distaste about public-school mediocrity -- that exists, not just in big urban states but, in the pristine Northwest as well. National polls show support for the principle of school choice has risen from 10 percent to more than 60 percent in the past decade. The Oregon Libertarians found it easy to garner 120,000 signatures for their initiative.

But the Oregon measure has begun to flounder in the polls, and possibly for good reason. While it would give parents a lot more freedom in placing their kids, it's re-evoked the old argument about support of religious schools.

What's more, in their rush to write an initiative, the sponsors left many untied strings. They made no provision to pay for busing. Their proposal would allow schools to ''cream,'' taking gifted kids but rejecting average, poor or minority students.

As the measure is written, there's no provision for a careful information system on various schools' strengths, weaknesses and specialties -- so that parents would have more than rumor to go on in selecting a school for their child. Many loose ends on financing have been left for a legislature already embroiled in a controversy over equalization of funding between rich and poor school districts.

The Bush administration thinks the Oregon initiative is a neat idea and even sent a curious education mogul, Vice President Dan Quayle, out to campaign for it.

But the nation's pre-eminent school-choice expert, Joe Nathan of University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, says Oregonians would do themselves a favor by voting ''no.'' The measure will do precious little to help poor and working-class families -- the groups that need school choice the most.

Whatever the Oregon outcome, school choice has arrived as a new, salient issue in education-reform movements coast-to-coast. No less an establishment voice than the Brookings Institution recently seemed to endorse it by publishing John Chubb's and Terry Moe's ''Politics, Markets, and America's Schools'' -- a plea for a radical free market in schools.

On top of Minnesota's quite successful statewide school-choice experiment, Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Washington and Iowa have enacted some form of statewide school choice. The debate's alive in at least a dozen more states.

And then there's the fascinating Milwaukee experiment -- a pilot effort to let several hundred inner-city kids attend private nonsectarian schools with $2,500 annual state grants. It was pushed through the Wisconsin Legislature, with strong conservative Republican support. And who thought it up? Democratic State Rep. Polly Williams, a black ex-welfare mother and Jesse Jackson supporter desperate about the education quality delivered by the Milwaukee public schools.

The Milwaukee plan, although under court challenge, has a solid chance of surviving. If it does, minority communities in many cities may push for their own school-empowerment models.

Representative Williams had originally sought state approval for an independent school district for inner-city kids. That's precisely the approach -- breaking up the monopoly hold of existing school districts -- that a group of Minnesotans, including Mr. Nathan and ex-Twin Cities Citizen League director Ted Kolderie, are now debating.

Existing school districts have all the dynamism of a U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Kolderie suggests. Nothing internal forces them out of their self-contented ways. It's one thing, he says, to tell parents they have choice; it's another to encourage creation of new schools that are truly innovative and effective. The idea is to empower ''organizing groups'' -- administrators, teachers, parents, perhaps a social-service agency -- to start a school and get into ''the learning business.'' Providing they meet civil-rights and quality standards, school districts would be obliged to contract with them.

The emerging Minnesota model, true to the state's culture, stays close to public schools. Other models veer to competing private schools. The moral of Oregon's blunt-instrument initiative is that workable alternatives are going to take a lot more careful crafting.

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