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Unintended Consequences of True School Choice

Jul 7, 2008
I always try to make it a point to see both sides of an education issue, and as Project Runway host Tim Gunn always tells his fashion designer cast, try to make it work.

The concept of true school choice fits that challenge.

The thought behind true school choice is that "dollars follow the child." Parents receive a government-estimated amount of money which represents the cost of educating each of their children, with adjustments for special needs such as special education, English language skills and physical disabilities. Parents may apply those monies it towards any school they choose: public, private, parochial or even home schooling. The state takes charge of informing parents of their options; public school superintendents and local school boards would have little incentive to do it.

True-choice advocates say this puts the decisions on quality schools in the hands of the parents, in effect creating a marketplace for education. It also, in theory, would provide "seed capital" for parents who could home-school their children or join with other parents to form a school of their own. It could also help parents create a more personalized educational experience for their child; for instance, they could elect to send him or her to college a year early. True choice assumes all parents also have equal access to perfect information to make an informed decision.

I understand why school boards and public school teacher's unions would be opposed to true choice; average and poor-performing schools could be the losers in the market place, as their students would be likely to seek alternatives. I do, however, agree with true choice advocates that competition would make these schools adjust and perform to new circumstances or deservedly close their doors.

True choice empowers parents, and therefore takes power away from local school boards. School boards are thrust into the role of marketers to try to identify and fill local needs, as well as teach the state's standard curriculum. That's good and bad; they could, for example, offer high school courses directed at post-graduation jobs with local employers, or college-prep SAT tutoring, but be forced to send their constituents elsewhere for needs that can't be filled. Elsewhere can mean a school further from home, where parents must provide transportation. Three words to those school boards: disgruntled parents remember.

But proponents of true choice also ask for less government intervention in the schools; they prefer that parents and teachers choose the academic program with little to no involvement from state government. I don't believe that's possible; in fact, government may need to be involved where it has not been involved before.

For one thing, public money would be sent to schools where it has never been sent before. The private and parochial institutions would have to be help accountable for that money, as would those who home school. At the very least, state governments would be likely to set standards for teacher-student contact hours or days as well as the submission of attendance records. They could also, and rightly, impose standardized testing by grade level across the board. If public money is distilled down to more schools, those schools must prove to state government that students are ready to advance to the next grade level. Parents might also need to provide proof of proficiency and attendance, especially if they home school children.

Another concern is preference-based admissions in public schools; this is already business practice in the private and parochial schools. While in theory there would be public school options, public school systems are likely to discriminate in favor of their residents. Out-of-towners would receive consideration if there is still room, but taxpayers are likely to be extremely concerned about assuming the costs of educating children who live someplace else. There are other municipal services that support the public schools such as police, fire, water and sewer; so in effect, one town will be subsidizing the costs of students from other towns. Is it possible that public schools might charge a premium to non-residents?

On the other hand, there are superintendents who might become public entrepreneurs who will find out-of-towners to be their economic salvation. They can do identify the educational specialties underserved by neighboring municipalities and target students accordingly.

Public schools are also regulated by health and safety standards, including building codes. I don't believe true-choice advocates mean for private, parochial and home schools to become similarly regulated. The same would be true for teaching practices; they would want government out of the classroom. But there will always be extremes: schools based on controversial political or religious philosophies or corporal punishment being two examples from the past. I don't know how these issues would be resolved in a true-choice environment.

Advocates of true choice have usually been considered conservatives, because true choice offers a market-based alternative to the traditional public school bureaucracy. However, in the 1960's there were liberal activists who felt the same way; they developed their own alternative educational options as a challenge to authority. That's one reason communes started; they were living and learning communities.

There would be plenty of challenges to making a true-choice concept succeed. I'd be curious to see if parents, educators and politicians of all persuasions could actually make it work.
About the Author
Contact Stuart Nachbar at Educated Quest, a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at Sex Ed Chronicles.
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