As millions of children dust off their lunch boxes and check bus schedules for the new school year, American public education faces a deepening crisis in parental confidence - despite an unprecedented decade of reform.
To be sure, reform efforts have taken root, expanding education choices for students and their families. In most large cities, there are magnet schools for the arts, technology, and even ethnic studies. There are charter schools - publicly funded but privately run - that explore a variety of educational methods.
But at the same time, if opinion polls are a valid guide, American distrust of public education has never been greater. As SAT scores stagnate and concern about school violence escalates, for the first time ever a majority of Americans favor letting the government give at least partial financial support to parents who send their children to private and parochial schools, according to a recent Gallup poll.
The implications of this distrust may have a powerful effect. Whether it spurs public schools to greater reform - or leads to a steady withdrawal of students - will determine the future of America's century-old public education system.
"It's a wake-up call for the public school system to acknowledge it has some work to do," says Kathy Christie, an analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank in Denver. "One of the biggest reasons for [parents'] distrust is that schools listen very well, but they don't respond very well. Hopefully, this poll will prompt them to be more responsive to what the community is telling them."
For now, vouchers are at best a conceptual threat to most school districts. Only two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, give taxpayer money to parents to help pay for private-school tuition.
Still, the Gallup poll is just one sign that the broader concept of school choice is catching on nationwide.
"Americans like choice in everything: They choose the movies to go to, they choose the neighborhoods where they live," says Lowell Rose, director of the annual poll conducted by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, the professional fraternity for educators. "So the simple idea of choosing the schools where their children go to is something that they like."
SUPPORT seems strongest among African-Americans and Hispanics, Dr. Rose adds. A 1997 poll by the Joint Center for Political Studies found that 56 percent of blacks and 65 percent of Hispanics support the concept of school choice, whether public or private.
No wonder, then, that minority parents have become some of the most articulate advocates in the voucher movement.
Carol Butts, for example, withdrew her two children from Malcolm X Academy, a public elementary school in Milwaukee, and placed them into the private Clara Muhammad School. This year, she is applying to the city to receive $4,900 per child to help pay for tuition.
"Malcolm X Academy had a very good program, but I don't think the school system was putting enough attention into the children," she says, adding that the budget at Malcolm X was cut two years in a row. At Clara Muhammad, her children are in smaller classes, with 15 students per teacher; and most important to Mrs. Butts, a Muslim, her children study in an Afro-centric environment informed by Islamic values.
Religion was an important motive, too, for Ofelia Levine, who received $5,000 a year from a private foundation for each of her three children to attend a private Christian school in San Antonio. "I'm not saying that they'll turn out perfect just because they go to a Christian school, but it makes me feel better," she says, noting that she appreciates the smaller class sizes and regular prayer times.
Critics of voucher programs note that every public dollar that goes to fund private tuition is a dollar that won't be used to improve public schools. And despite the appetite for school choice, there has been no exodus from the public schools. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of children from kindergarten through eighth grade attended private schools in 1995, compared with nearly 15 percent in 1960.
"Suburbia has a much higher concentration of public schools than do urban areas, and there has been no abandonment of the public schools there," says Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "That tells you that the impression of flight to the private schools is created by all the people in New York and Boston and Washington, not where most Americans actually live."
To be sure, Americans are ambivalent on the voucher issue. A 1997 poll, by Republican John Deardourff and Democrat Celinda Lake, asked if "public tax dollars should be spent to improve public schools" or used "to assist parents who send their children to private, parochial, or religious schools." Given this choice, only 27 percent favored vouchers.
"It depends on how the question is phrased," acknowledges Bruno Manno, an analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. "When people hear words like privatize and voucher, it begins to rattle them a bit."
That said, the voucher issue has critics even among parents who send their kids to private schools. Consider Betsy Vlieth, whose daughter attends a pricey, private middle school in the Washington area. "Middle-school kids need a lot of care that takes them through a hard time in their lives," says Ms. Vlieth, a health-care analyst, noting that her son, a third-grader, attends a public school. "If our society made education a priority,... the schools would improve."
Sue Geffen, too, is skeptical about vouchers - and private schools in general. This Austin mom took her fifth-grade son out of the public school system and placed him in a local Christian school, only to yank him out after being disgruntled with the quality of education.
"There are times when maybe we should help parents send their kids to private schools, especially if they have special needs," she says. "But we owe all children a good public education."