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Get Real About School Choice

The caveat that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is has particular relevance to education. I'm talking specifically about parental choice of schools. I've long supported the policy, but at the same time I've cautioned about expecting too much from it.

New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, serves as a cautionary tale. According to the Department of Education, waiting lists for elementary school for the fall semester are longer than they were last year ("Kindergarten Waiting Lists Get Longer," New York Times, Mar. 30). There are 3,195 children who find themselves in limbo. This is nearly 1,000 more than last year. It means that even after charter school lotteries are held, gifted programs have made their selections and private schools have sent out acceptances, many parents will not get their school of choice for their children.

Not surprisingly, choice has led to unlawful practices by desperate parents. Some have lied about their addresses to get their children into coveted elementary schools ("Kindergarten cops," Mar. 31). According to the New York Post, the Department of Education has dispatched investigators to verify addresses. I expect the trend to accelerate as parents become more frantic.

Paradoxically, the longest waiting lists are not necessarily at schools that are considered the most prestigious. Instead, they are found in the most crowded neighborhoods. This finding calls into question the argument made by education free marketeers. They have long based their case on the assertion that when parents are granted the right to send their children to any school they want, the ensuing competition will force the worst schools to close. This has not happened.

Let's assume, however, that the worst schools did close. Where would the students go? Education free marketeers say that new schools would open in their place in the same building with different teachers and administrators. But this has not happened either. Consider Mar. 31, which is known as Match Day in New York City. More than 8,200 eighth graders did not get into any of the high schools to which they had applied. This comes out to 10 percent, compared with 8 percent last year. The Department of Education said the rise was the result of the increasing popularity of a smaller number of successful schools.

If there was not already enough frustration associated with choice, it is made even worse by the confusing rules. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, allows parents to pick the schools they would like their children to attend. But the district also considers diversity, a family's income and whether their child went to preschool. South Boston has a similar vexing problem. A federal ruling limits the number of seats available to students at the five local public schools. As a result, many parents are denied admission to schools in the neighborhood merely because of the imbalance created between supply and demand.

Nevertheless, supporters of parental choice blow off these consequences, maintaining that it is still too soon to draw conclusions. Perhaps it is premature. But I think that parental choice promises far more than it will ever be able to deliver. It's the difference between theory and reality.

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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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