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The Latest on School Choice

On paper, the argument in favor of school choice is impeccable: Parents will be able to enroll their children in a school that best meets their needs and interests, bad schools will be forced to improve or close, and society will benefit from better educated graduates. But the reality is different.

Consider New York City, home of the nation's largest school district. The New York City Department of Education announced on Apr. 6 that more than 2,400 children who will be entering kindergarten in the fall have been placed on wait-lists for openings at the schools closest to their homes ("Nearly 2,500 students were wait-listed for kindergarten slots at 125 public schools," New York Post, Apr. 7). As disheartening as these numbers are, they were even worse last year when some 3,195 children were wait-listed for their zoned schools.

Proponents of parental choice counter that in the long run the situation will get better. They base their prediction on a business model that goes like this: Sensing the profits to be made by opening schools in neighborhoods where demand exceeds supply, entrepreneurs will rush in to convert existing buildings into schools that will appeal to parents whose children have been shut out.

The problem is that achieving this objective is harder than it seems. First, real estate in urban areas is often prohibitively expensive. I grant that New York City is particularly so, but even in distressed cities buildings still have to be retrofitted for labs and the like. Second, no matter how many schools are opened by entrepreneurs, economies of scale do not apply because education is labor intensive. Finally, not all parents are involved enough in their children's education to take advantage of the choices open to them. As a result, there will always be students who are left in the lurch.

Despite these caveats, Louisiana is about to put into place the most ambitious system of school choice in the nation ("School Vouchers Gain Ground," The Wall Street Journal," Apr. 12). It will provide vouchers to about 380,000 poor and middle-class students in underperforming schools. The plan builds on a small program started in New Orleans in 2009 that serves approximately 1,800 poor students in K-6. One of the big selling points is that Louisiana spends only about $4,500 on average for voucher students compared with $8,500 per student in traditional public schools.

I've long supported parental choice, but at the same time I've warned about its downsides. Are we willing to write off students who don't have any adult in their corner as unavoidable collateral damage? Pro-choice advocates say that we've already been doing that for decades by not allowing them to escape from execrable schools. There is some truth to that argument. But wouldn't it be better for all if existing schools were provided with the wraparound services and stimulating curriculums that have proved successful in reaching hitherto abandoned students?

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

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