School choice takes center stage

Supreme Court: Cleveland case focuses attention on an issue that deserves a closer look.

February 22, 2002

NO CHILD SHOULD be left to languish in a school where teachers are unprepared, books are as scarce as gold and "reforms" crop up and disappear like flavors of the month. But lots of poor kids are.

Take a peek into any one of dozens of public schools in cities like Baltimore, and you'll see them: Children who aren't learning anything, who are being doomed to life in poverty, and whose parents would send them somewhere else -- anywhere else -- if only they had a choice.

And there's the magic word. Choice.

Over the last decade or so, it has become a mantra for those who believe the solution to public school woes is to break their so-called monopoly on education for the poor.

Give poor parents "vouchers" for the money that would go to the public schools, and let them choose how to spend it. Private schools. Parochial schools. Wherever they want.

The kids who would leave the public schools would get a better education, and the kids left behind would be in schools that would improve because choice would force them to compete for enrollment.

It sounds great, even liberating. And several cities are experimenting with choice programs -- mostly involving vouchers -- that have produced at least some success in improving the educational options for impoverished families.

But as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether the Cleveland voucher program violates constitutionally mandated church and state separations by allowing public dollars to pay for religious education, it's worth looking more closely at the promise and pitfalls associated with the whole idea of choice.

If the court OKs the Cleveland program, similar ventures could appear in several more cities across the country, including Baltimore.

And while choice is often sold as the magic bullet that could salvage public education in this country, we should all know by now that no such thing exists.

The upside of educational choice is pretty clear. Its proponents say vouchers empower poor parents with the resources rich parents have had for years. It's about fairness and opportunity, they say -- not measurably different from federal housing programs that allow poor families to select where they live rather than confining them to drab, unsafe housing projects.

The choice movement is often associated with conservatives motivated by the generally sound notion that the competition offered by vouchers would help eliminate waste and inefficiencies in public schools.

But some polls suggest that many of the strongest proponents of choice are, in fact, African-American parents whose children are stuck in the awful public schools that dot the urban landscape.

Indeed, one of the largest groups lobbying for more vouchers and choice programs is the Black Alliance for Educational Options. The group represents hundreds of parents in several areas, including Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and Washington, D.C., who want more for their children than they've gotten from the public schools. More than 700 rallied outside the Supreme Court when it heard arguments in the Cleveland case on Wednesday.

In theory, choice doesn't present much with which to quibble -- but, then, the problems with it aren't so much philosophical as they are practical.

Vouchers, for example, won't necessarily pay the freight at private institutions whose tuitions are frequently three or four times the per-pupil spending of a public school.

And even if tuition can be taken care of, what about transportation, money for books and extracurriculars that are so much a part of school life?

True poverty often means a lack of access to things such as cars and cash for uniforms and books.

Any program that purports to give poor people educational choice can't ignore the things beyond tuition that bar many people from private education.

There's also the question of whether choice cuts both ways in voucher programs. No public school can turn a child away. But does a voucher extend that obligation to private schools, which often build their reputations on selectivity?

Vouchers also threaten to exacerbate poverty in public schools by "skimming off the top" those kids with parents who will take advantage of the programs. The poorest children, who have parents with neither the resources nor the sophistication to pursue private education, will be left behind. And they'll be attending schools that have even fewer resources to meet the needs of their impoverished students. What will happen to them?

The Cleveland case before the Supreme Court will legally settle the church-state issues surrounding choice, but likely won't satisfy all concerns about the constitutional backsliding that has produced more and more public money slipping into religious coffers.

Any choice program ought to very carefully avoid the appearance or reality of a government imprimatur for any particular brand of religious education.

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