Advocate for choice in schools

January 05, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

MILWAUKEE -- What if America moves toward full parental choice -- vouchers that let parents select any available school for their children? But initially, and maybe only, make the offer in the big cities?

The idea comes from this city's Democratic mayor, John Norquist, one of the more creative thinkers among U.S. public officials. And it opens intriguing possibilities.

The Norquist argument is that cities have immense assets -- the excitement of people in close proximity, varieties of restaurants, banking, insurance, music, arts. Generally they're far better designed than today's suburban ''blob.'' They're home to long lists of fine universities.

Decreasing crime

With advances such as computerized targeting of crimes and community policing, he notes, Milwaukee and many cities are starting to reduce the crime rates that drove out middle-class people and paralyzed their growth.

But with K-12 education, Mr. Norquist notes, the cities' excellence suddenly disappears -- ''smothered by the government education monopoly that has destroyed the connection between the customers [the parents] and the schools.''

Mr. Norquist's beguilingly simple answer: ''Remove that wet blanket, allow competition and you unlock the value of cities.''

The argument comes at an opportune moment, as large public education bureaucracies, in city after city, fail to produce adequately trained students for the competitive information-age economy. Isolated flashes of reform are reported, but few lasting improvements. School boards seem clueless: Milwaukee's, for example, had no explanation when its high school dropout rate soared 44 percent last year.

Charter schools, one response to the problem, are spreading like wildfire -- up from one in the entire nation in 1992 to 800 at latest estimate, accommodating 100,000 students.

Wisconsin is one of 27 states granting some form of charters. A new bill -- the first of its kind in the nation -- allows Milwaukee city government itself to charter schools. At Mr. Norquist's direction, a process to entertain charter proposals has been launched.

But Mr. Norquist is not satisfied with charters. They could have positive results, he notes, but ''you could also have a bad charter, controlled by bureaucracy, run by nonperforming teachers.''

So in a recent interview, and with his book, ''The Wealth of Cities,'' to be published this spring, Mr. Norquist is pushing full parental choice as the only sure route to consumer choice, competition and brightened city futures. Arm parents with vouchers at least equaling current state per-pupil aid, he argues, and new quality schools and opportunities will blossom.

To anyone who argues that would harm the poor, Mr. Norquist replies American metropolitan regions already have a fully functioning school choice system -- but it's only for the rich. Parents with money in their pockets simply leave town, picking a superior suburban school district. Many are affluent enough to pay tuition at any private or parochial school they like.

Since 1989, Milwaukee's had a limited alternative -- vouchers of $3,000, about half state per-pupil school aid, available to some 1,600 low-income parents. But a 1995 state law to expand the program to 15,000 students, and to let the vouchers be used in religious schools, is tied up in court, awaiting decision this spring.

Mr. Norquist thinks the religious extension is vital. ''Even though I'm Presbyterian, I firmly believe there are greater threats to inner-city children than Catholicism or Lutheranism. What's wrong with parents choosing to send their children to an accredited religious school if that's what they really want?''

America already has government-backed school choice in higher education, notes Mr. Norquist: From the GI Bill to federal student loans, millions of Americans have been educated with federal aid at private and religious colleges. Many European countries finance parental choice in sending children to nongovernment accredited schools, religious ones included. So why not in the United States?

Demanding vouchers

Clearly, there is movement on the voucher front. Cleveland, like Milwaukee, is testing vouchers. In Denver, deep dissatisfaction with the public schools has led thousands of black and Hispanic vTC parents to sign on to a class-action lawsuit demanding publicly financed vouchers valid in private or parochial schools. Recent polls show support for vouchers soaring among African Americans and Hispanics, reaching as high as 86 percent among blacks aged 26 to 35, years in which they're likely to have children in school.

Mr. Norquist adds two critical factors to the debate. First, a big city Democrat, defying the teacher unions, is championing vouchers as the road to total school choice.

Second, Mr. Norquist sees vouchers as a strong cities-specific strategy. He believes the suburbs -- more conservative, more satisfied with their schools -- will show less interest in vouchers.

But grant vouchers in our cities and look what happens, Mr. Norquist argues: The poor get better schools. Middle-class families are attracted back. The cities become more competitive. It's a win-win strategy.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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