Choice or chance?

Reform: Poor kids need better public schools, not false promises about choice.

May 12, 2001

WANT TO TALK about school choice?

Fine. Let's start the discussion here: Poverty, almost by definition, is a lack of choices -- about where to live, what kind of health care you have, where you work, what you drive, even what you eat or how you entertain your family.

We can pretend to give poor folks educational "choice" by telling them they can enroll their kids in any public school they desire. We can extend the charade by handing them a few thousand dollars and telling them to pick a private school.

But know this: The poorest families lack the wherewithal to take advantage of those choices -- because they're poor.

They might be allowed to enroll their kids in a school all the way across town -- but how would they get them there every day? In a city such as Baltimore, where public transportation is an even bigger joke than public education, that's a genuine concern.

And how tolerant would a stable, high-achieving school be of a family that hop-scotches addresses every three months, staying just ahead of back rent and eviction notices? What about the family that keeps one child home half the school year to meet a sibling's unmet child care needs? Or the family that can't contribute a dime of its own money to augment the few thousand it gets from the state for private school tuition?

Remember, choice goes both ways in education.

A poor family might choose to enroll its children in a fancy public or private school across town; that school does not have to choose to let them in.

Even in Milwaukee, praised nationally for the success of its school choice program, the poorest children remain trapped in public schools that a voucher won't help them escape. And now, those schools have less money and less support from the middle-class families that abandoned them.

Even under the best circumstances, educational choice is about as useful to truly impoverished families as a new refrigerator would be to people who can't pay their electric bills. It misses the point -- and does so under the guise of solving an important problem.

Maryland, like other states, will venture into the world of school choice in July, when new federal funding rules allow parents in low-achieving public schools to leave for better ones. And the clamor for private-schoolvouchers will likely intensify when Congress takes up President Bush's education reform bill in the coming weeks.

State school officials, however, should stay focused on reforms that aim to improve, rather than de-populate, bad schools. Set standards. Hold schools accountable. And when they don't improve, consider alternative management -- even privatization, which is working in three previously awful Baltimore public schools.

But we can't give up on any school -- in Baltimore, Milwaukee or elsewhere. Doing so means discarding the futures of our neediest children, the ones who most need our support.

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