Illusory Plan for School Choice

January 24, 1993

In his State of the State message, Governor Schaefer endorsed an experimental plan in which the state would pay to send 200 low-income students to private or parochial schools. The governor's frustration with public schools, particularly Baltimore City schools, is understandable. A parade of superintendents has come into office, assessed needs, reorganized, started programs and moved on. Meanwhile, a generation of kids entered kindergarten and reached high school -- where half dropped out.

The choice plan looks like a quick and low-cost answer, at least for a few kids. No wait to develop new programs. No retraining teachers. No reassigning bureaucrats. But it is an illusion.

First of all, the choice plan -- actually, more a concept than a plan; most of the important details remain to be decided -- almost certainly would funnel unconstitutional aid to parochial schools. Rather than a quick fix, the state would be looking at years of litigation -- from which it would likely emerge the loser.

Even if the choice system were made legal by restricting state money to non-sectarian schools, it would hardly solve the fundamental problem. Non-sectarian private schools in Maryland have few spaces available. Getting an adequate education for a couple of hundred kids isn't a bad thing, but getting an adequate education for tens of thousands of kids is what is imperative.

Many opponents of private school choice plans -- including President Clinton -- favor choice within public schools as a way of encouraging educational improvement. This is possible at relatively low cost -- the highly touted East Harlem choice plan provides a model which could be adapted. But that requires allowing creative efforts to build different programs among public schools and, as in East Harlem, among groups of teachers who develop programs within schools. So far, for all the talk of "school-based management" in Maryland, administrators have shown little interest in turning principals and teachers loose to innovate.

School improvement can be accomplished apart from choice, and Maryland has a promising plan to do that. Standards have been set. New tests are in the final stages of development. Schools that perform badly are receiving help. It seems cruel to counsel patience while another generation of kids receives substandard schooling, and that's why it's hard to argue against an interim program, even one that helps only a few students. But true reform requires hard work and takes time. The state needs to remain focused on the big picture, follow through on its reform plans and not allow resources and energy to be diverted to illusory fixes.


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