TEN years from now, people will be surprised that there ever was a vigorous debate about public school choice. It will be an accepted right, like voting, equal pay for equal work, and nondiscriminatory housing. Seventy-one percent of the public (and 71 percent of minorities) recently told Gallup pollsters that families should have the right to choose among public schools. The best public school choice programs recognize that there is no one best school for all students or all teachers. They help produce widespread improvements in student achievement and graduation rates, along with greater parent involvement and higher educator morale. However, poorly designed programs increase, rather than reduce, inequities.
The debate is not whether families should have choices among schools: Wealthy families already have options. The issue is whether state and local governments will increase opportunities for low- and moderate-income families.
The best public school choice plans, like the one in the East Harlem section of New York City, illustrate the possibilities. Ten years ago, the district ranked last among 32 community districts in student achievement. Only about 15 percent of its students could read and do math at grade level. Today, 65 percent of the students score at or above grade level, and the district has moved to 16th among the districts. East Harlem is one of the rare urban districts which has a waiting list of people who want to work there. What happened?
The district began allowing teachers to create distinctive schools from which families could select. Gradually, every junior high school became a magnet ... there are no assigned schools.
Similar results have been produced in Cambridge, Mass., which about six years ago made each K-through-8 school an option. Teachers created distinctive schools from which parents selected. The district established a parent information center, with multilingual staff who help parents choose schools. The results: Overall test scores are up, and the gap between white and black students has decreased.
Minnesota offers a third example. The state pioneered programs that allow public-school juniors and seniors to attend colleges and universities with tax funds following students and permit students to move across district lines so long as the movement does not have a negative impact on desegregation and receiving districts have room. The Minnesota PTA, League of Women Voters, Minnesota Business Partnership, and many educators support these programs. Results are encouraging: Hundreds of students have returned to school, more than 90 percent of students and parents report satisfaction with the programs. Statewide newspaper polls show support has increased from about 33 percent in 1985 to more than 50 percent today.
Well-designed choice programs can help stimulate widespread improvement and serve the needs of all students. However, not all programs are equally effective. While choice plans differ, the best specify goals and procedures all schools use; provide parent information and counseling; avoid ``first-come, first-served'' admissions procedures; prohibit admissions on the basis of past achievement or behavior; help most schools within a given geographical area to become distinctive rather than developing a few ``super magnet'' schools; provide transportation within a reasonable area for all students; use racial balance procedures that promote integration; and continue oversight.
Permitting choice among public schools will not solve all of education's problems. But it complements other reform proposals by expanding opportunity, recognizing that there is no one best school for all students or educators, and changing the monopoly relationship schools have with many families. Choice is a powerful, progressive reform.