Dole's school plan: bad choice

September 13, 1996|By John Judis

BOB DOLE'S PLAN for improving education is ''school choice.'' ''There is no reason why those who live on any street in America should not have the same right as the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- the right to send your child to the school of your choice,'' Senator Dole declared in his acceptance speech.

Sounds good, but his program won't grant that right, and the issue of school choice is much more complicated.

There are at least four different kinds of plans. They range from Minnesota's public-school choice program to the universal voucher system favored by conservatives at the Heritage and Bradley Foundations. In their effect on education, they vary from the creative to the innocuous to the pernicious. The results of Mr. Dole's plan would be somewhere between the second and third.

Public School Choice: The idea dates from the late 1960s, when districts set up magnet schools to attract white students to black areas. In the last decade, several states, beginning with Minnesota, as well as numerous cities and towns, have established comprehensive programs that allow students to choose schools within and even outside their districts.

By fostering competition among schools, choice ideally encourages each school to improve and adapt to the needs of local students. It also helps weed out incompetent principals. But if it fails, it may promote greater segregation by race and class. Most school systems that have adopted this kind of school choice have set limits on segregation and have actively informed low-income parents about their options.

Miracles have not occurred. Minneapolis' school system is still a mess, but Cambridge, Massachusetts, and East Harlem, New York, have both benefited.

Charter Schools: Since the late '60s, many states and school districts have also funded alternative schools set up by parents, teachers and non-profit corporations. The latest version of these are charter schools, which have been established in 25 states. They function like public-school choice, encouraging schools to adapt to communities' special needs. Their drawback is similar to that of magnet schools. They can siphon off the strongest teachers and students without improving the overall system.

Moreover, they could fall prey to educational entrepreneurs who want to privatize education for profit. The few efforts by these pedagogical profiteers have not been impressive. A report this year by the General Accounting Office found no evidence of academic improvement among students served by four of these new for-profit educational-management institutions.

Low-income Vouchers: In Milwaukee and Cleveland, black Democrats and white Republicans have banded together to provide vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. These pilot programs assume that local school administrators are incapable of improving the inner-city public schools. In the short run, they reason, students need to go outside the public system entirely. And in the long run, the public schools need the shock of competition from the outside.

As experimental, emergency measures, these voucher programs are worth attempting -- as long as funds for vouchers are not simply moved out of public schools into private schools. So far the results of the Milwaukee experiment have been at best mixed. The private schools are under- subscribed, the dropout rate from those schools is high, and test scores have not $H exceeded those of comparable public-school students.

Universal Vouchers: Economist Milton Friedman first proposed a universal system of vouchers in 1955. It would allocate funds to schools -- public, private or religious -- based entirely on their enrollment.

Some voucher proponents have constructed highly regulated schemes that require private schools to act like ''public'' schools -- they would have to accept, for instance, vouchers as full tuition payment -- but Mr. Friedman and most conservative proponents see vouchers as a way to escape regulation of education entirely. And they envision low-income vouchers as a step toward such a system. If a voucher system ''is good public policy for the poor,'' Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation told the Toledo Blade, ''why isn't it good public policy for middle- or higher-income wage earners?''

Why not? Because it could lead to unmitigated disaster. If public spending on education remained constant, then it would mean taking funds from public schools to subsidize the most exclusive private schools, sectarian religious schools and even parental home-schoolers. The school system would abandon entirely its communal, integrative role. It could come to resemble Americans' health-care system at its worst: at the top, the equivalent of fancy fee-for-service surgeons catering only to investment bankers and oil sheiks, in the middle mediocre HMOs -- or EMOs -- more concerned about profit than service, and at FTC the bottom the educational equivalent of store-front Medicaid mills and decrepit public hospitals.

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