Choosing the golden wings of academic excellence

AMERICA is abundant with choices. In many areas of our economic and private lives we have a smorgasbord of choice: 100 breakfast cereals, 200 makes of automobiles. There are more than 300 religious denominations. Thus, it is ironic that in this land there is so little choice in the public school system. The National Governors' Association Task Force on Parental Involvement and Choice believes that public education cannot, as now structured, deal effectively with the nation's diversity and its demand for compulsory education.

Despite national attempts to reform education, we are worried that the nation is creating solutions to the wrong problems. We're afraid that states are working for more of the same without taking a good hard look at the system itself. On the surface we seem to have responded with energy, enthusiasm, and money to a crisis in education. But we hope that in 10 years the country doesn't look back and recognize that we kicked up a lot of dust and then settled for ``business as usual.''

We propose something in the great American tradition: that you increase excellence by increasing choice.

There is nothing more basic to education and its ability to bring our children into the 21st century than choice. We believe parents given a choice in public education will play a stronger role in our schools. Innovative new programs will spring to life. Teachers will be more challenged than ever. And our students will see immediate results.

In 1991, we will look back on any number of significant educational reforms -- some put in effect before this report and many generated as a result of these task force findings. In an effort to increase productivity and competition and make the system more responsive, states will adopt a range of ideas.

We may develop testing criteria, increase the length and number of days our students spend in school, and offer a variety of incentives and salary alternatives to recruit and keep good teachers. The catch for policymakers, however, is to adapt those ideas best suited for a particular state or school district.

Reform should include a vehicle to help make policy decisions. If we provide true choice among public schools, then we unlock the values of competition in the educational marketplace.

Schools that compete for students, teachers, and dollars will by virtue of their environment make those changes that allow them to succeed. Schools will, in fact, set the pace, spurring policymakers to keep up. Choice, along with the ensuing competition it triggers, is the force we need to ensure meaningful reforms in education into the 1990s. If our youth are to be competitive in the international marketplace, then we must be competitive here at home.

While there are many questions to answer, choice in public schools is the deregulatory move that we need to make our schools more responsive.

Our recommendations do not call for unrestrained choice. We suggest a state role in monitoring and limiting the use of choice, preventing these programs from unintended consequences.

Increased choice cannot and should not affect quality, access, or equity. Choice can be a tool for integration, not segregation. It can be a model for equity, not disparity, and a means for opening the access to the minds of all our children.

Governors are deeply committed to public education. We believe, however, that we can remain dedicated to a system of public schools and still increase consumer sovereignty.

It is clear that many American families want more choices. In fact, we learned that teachers often experience educational choice: In many American cities, a higher percentage of public school teachers' children attend private and parochial schools than the overall population.

That's akin to an IBM engineer buying an Apple computer for his home.

During the task force hearings, authorities pointed out that public school choice and other parent involvement strategies complement each other. It should be noted, however, that permitting choice is not the only way to increase parental involvement.

California provides state grants for schools that develop locally designed school improvement plans. Florida encourages districts to experiment with school-based management. Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh has initiated a campaign through public-service announcements asking parents to be ``a part of it.''

Increased parental involvement and choice of schools will not, alone, solve all of youth's problems. But the evidence suggests that permitting choice among public schools and encouraging other forms of parental involvement will help in real, immediate ways.

Our recommendations include:

Expanding opportunities for students by adopting legislation that permits families to select from among kindergarten to 12th-grade public schools in their state, and permitting juniors and seniors to attend accredited public postsecondary institutions, with tax funds following the students.

Encouraging and assisting school districts to develop more effective parent-involvement techniques.

Reminding parents they can improve their children's achievement by working closely with schools.

In the long run, if we dare to take risks we will find we've achieved excellence. Instead of being defeated by the massive size and the overwhelming ethnic diversity of our public school systems, we'll have turned those systems into generators of economic productivity and social creativity.

The question is, do we dare try?

Richard D. Lamm, governor of Colorado, chaired the National Governors' Association Task Force on Parental Involvement and Choice in Public Education.

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