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Parental Choice, Really?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.

In the late 1990s, I once found myself in a social conversation with a member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, a small agency of leading economists charged with providing the Executive Office with objective analysis and advice. When I asked about her views on education policy, she offered up a set of policy solutions largely based on the traditional economic viewpoint that a more market-based approach to education would lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes. She supported a menu of policy solutions that clustered around the concept of "school choice."

I then inquired which Washington, D.C., schools her children attended. She replied that her kids had remained back in her hometown, attending a private school. When I shared that I happened to know the school because a friend had once taught there, she asked in an unsure voice, "Oh, is it a good school?" In return, I asked her, "With all the resources at your disposal you are still not sure whether you made the right choice for your kids. How do you expect that in a free market, with many less resources at their disposal, low-income parents will be able to confidently make a decision that you cannot?"

I remembered this conversation as I read the recent op-ed in The New York Times, "Why School Choice Fails." It chronicles the challenges faced by the author, Natalie Hopkinson, in finding a good middle school for her 11-year-old in Washington, D.C.--one of the hotbeds of the school choice movement. In Hopkinson's view, the district's policy that students in failing schools be allowed to "transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school" is a failed one. She believes that as a result of these policies the educational outlook for D.C.'s working- and middle-class families is "bleak."

Not surprisingly, there are those that disagree with Hopkinson's analysis and her conclusion that there is "lack of proof that school-choice policies work." Education Week Blogger Sara Mead addressed the fundamental attribution error in the Hopkinson op-ed, and later followed up with a thoughtful piece on why pure school choice cannot be left entirely up to parents.

As economists may tell you, consumers must be well-informed for market-driven education reform to succeed. As was clear from my conversation with the professor who was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, even well-educated, highly trained professionals with time, access to all available information resources, and high-level decision-making skills have a hard time making choices in the education "marketplace."

Market-driven education reform will continue to be challenged as an education improvement strategy until the average parent has more and better information, improved access to this information, and support to sort through the options. Only then will parental choice be real.

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