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A Proposal for School Choice

It's time to acknowledge that parental choice of schools is the wave of the future. Its foes can continue to try to stall its growth through a series of rear guard actions, but they will not succeed in derailing the movement. It is too powerful. The only question, therefore, is the form that parental choice will ultimately take. There is an urgency to the issue, however, that is not fully appreciated.

I say that because the education of children is time-sensitive. Education Department data show that children from disadvantaged backgrounds enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and math skills, and never catch up. But children from other families are no less entitled to a quality education in their days at school. In other words, there is a narrow window of opportunity to educate the young, regardless of the backgrounds of those involved.

In a perfect world, all neighborhood public schools would provide the kind of education that all parents believe is best for their children. But this is not reality. Of course, we should strive to make public schools better so that parents would see no reason to look elsewhere. In the meantime, however, what are involved parents to do when they are profoundly disaffected with the public schools their children are attending after they have tirelessly worked through proper channels to improve matters?

The answer is they do what they have always done by applying to private schools of various kinds. Yet we know that families with means are in the most advantageous position. That's why prep schools have existed for generations. However, not all parents can afford the cost or have children who can meet the requirements for admission. These obstacles apply as well to more recently established private schools. Parents can also apply to charter schools or to magnet schools. But demand too often exceeds supply. Meanwhile, the clock is steadily ticking on their children's education.

Since voters in more than 25 states have rejected vouchers or their variants, I raise the possibility of education tax credits. They combine personal-use and donation credits. The latter are an extension of existing tax benefits for charitable giving. Critics argue that this position is anti-public education. I understand their reaction. But I remind them that I graduated from an excellent public school district (K-12) and taught in the same public high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District for my entire 28-year career. As a result, I fervently believe in public education. I want it to thrive - not disappear.

Yet I also know that many parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds are angry and frustrated. There's little sense trying to convince them that a greater good than their own children should enter into their thinking. They have already strapped themselves financially by selling their houses or vacating their apartments to move into neighborhoods with better schools in order to give their children the education they want. On June 25, the Wall Street Journal documented the extent of this desperation across the country ("Good Schools, Bad Real Estate"). It puts a human face on the sacrifices that parents make to get their children into exceptional schools.

I've avoided mentioning religious schools so far as one of the choices that parents should be able to opt for because it is the third rail in the debate. (So before electrocuting myself, I hasten to point out the quid pro quo I lay out in the final two paragraphs of this post.) I believe that parents have the right to consider religious schools as one of the options. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees. In 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, it ruled that vouchers do not violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution when they are given to parents, rather than to schools.

Critics will maintain that this is a dubious distinction because religious schools get the money in the final analysis. But I think they confuse intent and effect. The intent of the ruling is to provide what parents believe is the best education for their children's needs and interests. That's why many parents choose religious schools in spite of their affiliations, rather than because of them. If parents use the vouchers in their hands at religious schools, the effect is clearly beneficial to those schools. However, which is ultimately more important: the child's education or the school's finances?

It's important to remember as well that religious schools often attract students from other denominations and races. The New York Times on June 25 cited the example of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, which has become one of the most racially mixed charter schools in New York City. According to the Times, about one third of the 150 students are black and several are Hispanic ("Success and Scrutiny at Hebrew Charter School"). Moreover, religious schools usually charge lower tuition than non-sectarian private schools.

In return for allowing parents open choice, however, public schools need to be given wider latitude to expel - not merely suspend - miscreant students. At present, their hands are tightly tied by the state education code, board of education policy, and court decisions. We cannot expect teachers and administrators to do their jobs when public schools become de facto holding pens for students who sabotage the learning of others. I'm not talking about the adoption of zero-tolerance policies, which I consider to be indefensible. But when students repeatedly demonstrate they they do not want to learn and become disruptive, they need to be promptly removed from class. The amount of time, energy and money spent on these students is an enormous drain. Public schools can't be expected to produce outcomes that will make them attractive to parents when they must play by a different set of rules.

For the same reason, all schools must administer the same standardized tests and publish the results. Private and religious schools can't have it both ways. They can't participate in parental choice programs at taxpayer expense and not be subject to the same accountability that public schools must follow by law. State assessments, independent website ratings and annual magazine rankings of public schools are available for parents to consult. The same information should apply to all schools. Only then will parents be in a position to make an informed decision. I'm willing to bet that the differences between schools serving the same proportion of children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds will be virtually indistinguishable.

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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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