Easy fix for schools?

January 29, 1993

School reform is slow, optimists say. (Pessimists say it's impossible.) So, while we're waiting, how about a low-cost, easy plan to help a few hundred kids whose needs are not being met by the public schools? Sounds great, right?

In his State of the State message, Governor Schaefer endorsed a plan for the state to pay up to $2,900 each for 200 low-income kids to attend private or parochial schools. Since the state now pays about that much on average for each kid attending public school, it costs almost nothing. Since the schools already exist, there's no need to wait for reform. And if the 200 kids do well, maybe it would serve as a model to the public schools, or at least as a public embarrassment that would help spur reform.

It's not that simple, of course.

The first problem with this plan is that it's almost certainly illegal. The Supreme Court has, over the years, handled a number of cases delineating the aid a state can provide to parochial schools. While no plan exactly like this has been tested, the precedents suggest the Maryland plan is unlikely to pass muster. At a minimum, the state would be looking at a lengthy court fight.

The Maryland plan is adapted from one in use in Milwaukee, but there it is limited to non-sectarian schools. It worked because Milwaukee had several non-sectarian, community-run, inner-city schools which were willing to accept students. The non-sectarian private schools in the Baltimore area already make vigorous efforts to recruit minority students and to raise private funds for scholarship assistance. Most charge three or four times as much as the $2,900 the state would put up, and few spaces are available.

Even if Maryland could overcome all these problems, a program for a few hundred students would do little to address the fundamental problem -- the woefully substandard schools provided to tens of thousands of Maryland children.

For those interested in choice in education, there are other models worth looking at. Minnesota has been a pioneer in allowing students to cross school district lines (so that, for example, a Catonsville student might choose to go to school in Ellicott City). Because of logistical problems such as transportation, a relatively small number of students participate, but the option is there for students who want (and are able) to take advantage of it.

A different kind of choice plan works in an East Harlem district in New York, and it has been widely praised. Individual schools, and small groups of teachers within schools, have been given wide latitude to create different programs, and students and parents are given free choice within the district.

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