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A Closer Look at School Choice

Choice is increasingly promoted as the best way to improve schools. The argument has great intuitive appeal. Good schools will flourish, as students flock to their doors, and bad schools will vanish, as students abandon them. At least that's what Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1955.

But there's another side to the story that needs to be told. The latest example was on display in New York City, which is home to the nation's largest school district. For the second consecutive year, hundreds of families will receive letters informing them that their children have been placed on a waiting list for their local elementary school ("At Some New York Schools, Wait Lists Grow Longer," Mar. 24).

If Friedman and others are correct, then New York City should soon see new schools springing up in areas where demand exceeds supply. That's how an open educational marketplace is supposed to work. There's only one problem: economies of scale do not apply to schools. It is expensive to staff and equip a school no matter how often the process is repeated. This reality is particularly the case in densely populated cities, where the cost of real estate is prohibitive. The matter is exacerbated during a recession, when funding is tight.

There's yet another fly in the school choice ointment that's given short shrift. Although parents have the right to send their children to any school they want, not all parents are involved enough in their children's education to take advantage of the options open to them. With no one in their corner, these children are left to languish in execrable schools when their classmates flee.

That's why educators instead have long urged improving all existing neighborhood schools. By doing so, officials would give parents a sense of assurance that they wouldn't have to look elsewhere for a quality education, or participate in a lottery to gain admission to coveted schools that are oversubscribed.

So by all means, let choice prevail. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that it will provide all students with a quality education. It won't.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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