Tricky choice

November 03, 1992

George Bush wants parents to be able to choose what schools their children attend, and to allow public funds to follow students who choose private or parochial school. Bill Clinton says he's for choice as well, but choice limited to public schools.

Supporters of choice have portrayed it as a reform which would make other reforms happen. If schools have to compete for students, the argument goes, schools that are performing poorly will be forced to clean up their acts. School choice, they say, would extend to lower-income families a privilege higher-income families already enjoy.

Into this debate comes a new study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the most thorough review yet done of choice plans operating in some cities and states. The report does not conclude that choice is bad, but shows clearly that it cannot live up to the expectations raised by its most vociferous supporters.

While some plans force all students to decide where they will attend, in voluntary choice plans, particularly statewide programs, participation has been small -- 2 percent or less. Even though participants like having a choice, there is no evidence of dramatic gains in achievement or, in most cases, even a burst of creative innovation. Most students who do choose to transfer, surveys show, do so for non-academic reasons, such as the convenience of attending school near a parent's workplace.

And problems have surfaced:

* Students seem more likely to participate in choice programs if their parents are well-to-do or highly educated.

* If a school has inadequate resources to begin with, threatening it with a loss of students (and a corresponding loss of funds) will hardly be sufficient to make the school a good one.

* Choice itself costs money -- for information so families can choose knowledgeably and for transportation (it does no good to tell a Baltimore student he has the right to go to school in Howard County if he can't get to Howard County).

The Bush program, in particular, promises more than it can ever deliver. It proposes $1,000 vouchers for low-income students. While it offers nothing to the middle class, it offers little to the poor -- $1,000 isn't going to buy a year at Gilman.

Some choice is a good thing, if care is taken to make the plan fair. But no one should be deluded into thinking choice is an easy replacement for the hard work of education reform: setting standards, testing achievement, stimulating (rather than stifling) professional creativity, doing research into curriculum and teaching methods, training and supervising teachers, involving parents and distributing money in a way that increases equity.

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