School Choice Is More Complicated Than Bush Lets On

By , Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D) of Minnesota is a member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and its education, arts, and humanities subcommittee. Legislative assistant Roberta Walburn co-authored this article.

PRESIDENT Bush recently visited Minnesota to tout his proposal for school choice, the idea that parents should have a choice on what type of schools their children attend. Like the president's educational program itself, however, Mr. Bush's visit was more show than substance. Minnesota was a natural stage to focus on education. My state has been a leader in public education and has implemented the nation's first statewide choice program. But Minnesota's choice program differs from the administration's proposal. School choice in Minnesota is but one of many components of the state's commitment to public education. In addition, Minnesota's choice program focuses on choice among public schools.

By contrast, the Bush administration would expand school choice to potentially include private schools. This raises constitutional questions about maintaining the separation of church and state when public dollars are paid to religious schools. This also raises other issues of profound import, including the accountability of private schools that take public monies.

Bush's proposal is virtually silent on the question of accountability. How will we ensure that choice does not lead to further segregation by race and income? How will we ensure that parents are sufficiently well informed to make the right decisions for their children? How will we ensure that choice does not create a few favored schools for the elite - while further draining the majority of our public schools?

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Choice is not a cure-all for our schools. Choice can be just one part of our commitment to education. School choice cannot stand as a substitute for a strong commitment to a sound education for all of our children. School choice, by itself, cannot cure the problem of increasing class sizes. Choice cannot remedy - and indeed may exacerbate - the disparity in revenue among school districts. And choice certainly cannot make up for a lack of adequate funding for our nation's schools.

Indeed, if not carefully defined and controlled, school choice could undermine our system of public education. This threat is heightened by the administration's proposal to fund a large part of the choice program through funds previously devoted to schools serving disadvantaged children. Under the administration's plan, these funds would follow the disadvantaged children wherever they choose to attend school. The very real danger is that this will devastate the school serving large populations of disadv a

ntaged children, dissipating their funding as some of the children select other schools.

At its best, a school-choice program can unleash creative energies to establish innovative schools and can enable parents and students to select the schools best suited for them. At its worst, however, a choice program can lead to even further fragmentation of our schools along socio-economic and racial lines.

At present, a mere 1.8 percent of our federal budget is devoted to education. This cannot continue to stand as our commitment to the education of our children, our most precious national resource. Yet the Bush plan calls for only a minimal increase in funding for education for the coming fiscal year, an increase that fails even to keep pace with the projected rate of inflation.

Our education system as a whole is seriously underfunded - from our youngest children in Head Start to our older students in higher education. A school-choice program cannot alleviate these financial strains. In fact, a properly designed choice program would itself carry significant costs - for administration, for transportation, for dissemination of information to parents.

It is easy for politicians to focus on children and education. It is considered "good politics," like kissing babies. But we must back the rhetoric with resources if we are really serious. Choice can only work as a complement to, not a substitute for, a true national commitment to education. Without this commitment, choice is not a step forward but a step backward.

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