Choice has been an important, though hardly central factor during the last 15 years as America struggled toward meaningful education reform. That's changing. Choice is moving to center stage, and so are some pressing questions about its wisdom.
Will wider educational choice weaken mainstream public schools? Or will it strengthen them through heightened competition?
The jury is still out. But evidence, so far, suggests that broadened educational choice for parents and students can jar public schools out of lethargy and force needed rethinking.
One source of fresh thinking is the charter school movement. Charters, though still drawing on public funds, typically break educational molds, offering fresh curricula and innovative teaching. Most are allowed substantial freedom from bureaucratic rules, including those imposed by teacher unions. Nearby traditional public schools are challenged to keep pace by strengthening their own offerings.
Parents, predictably, steer their kids toward the public classrooms most likely to stimulate learning - whether charters, career academies, or magnet schools.
But charter schools and other innovations in the public realm are only one facet of choice. Encouraged by favorable court rulings, more communities are likely to venture into a quite different realm: the use of public funds, in the form of vouchers, to allow parents to send their children to private or religious schools.
Private foundations that favor choice are paving the way for the wider use of vouchers. In many states, they are funding programs that give parents money to use for private or parochial options. These programs function like vouchers, open to as many applicants as foundation money allows, though they're usually called "scholarships."
Such privately funded programs exist in 31 states. Voucher plans using tax dollars so far exist in only two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland. The US Supreme Court recently gave the Milwaukee plan an implicit boost by declining to review a state court ruling that upheld it.
Voucher programs, like charter schools, give reform in surrounding public classrooms an impulse. San Antonio is a prime example. Its Edgewood School District is the site of one of the largest privately run voucher programs in the country, funded by the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation. Roughly 4 percent of the district's children, around 550, have taken advantage of the scholarships/vouchers. Most of them are now in long-established Roman Catholic schools. Others are attending private academies that have sprung up in response to the program.
The Edgewood district, among Texas's poorest, has taken steps to improve its academic performance. Test scores have started to rise. District officials say they would have upgraded their schools regardless of the voucher program. But there's little doubt that program is an added incentive. The district loses around $5,000 for every student who leaves its schools.
The loss of money for public education is, in fact, a major objection to vouchers. But only a small stream of students are likely to leave anytime soon, taking with them the few thousand a year it costs the taxpayer to educate them. In most cases, that leaves substantial resources still with the old schools, even in the inner-city districts targeted by voucher proponents.
Another major objection is that vouchers will draw away the best students. Doubtless, the parents most anxious to improve their children's education will be quickest to apply for vouchers. But they're not always the parents whose kids are getting A's.
These concerns do, however, contribute to another major question concerning choice. Will it erode the whole concept of public education and the social and civic benefits inherent in it?
Most Americans see a continuing value in a public school system open to all, offering a common curriculum and the opportunity, at least, of social integration with children of different backgrounds. But uneven performance and declining discipline - particularly in urban areas - has soured many on the system. That discontent is the impetus for choice programs. As children leave public systems, however, it's by no means clear that public oversight will leave the children. Concurrent with the push for choice is a strong push at the state level for uniform educational standards. Those standards are likely to apply wherever public money is spent.
The right balance of private choice and public oversight will have to be struck. In that process, care should be taken to preserve choice as an engine of innovation.