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Competing on an Unequal Footing

Reformers like to cite the success of choice schools as evidence of their superiority over traditional public schools. As readers of this column know, I support parental choice. But I've repeatedly emphasized that there are unavoidable costs associated with the strategy.

A compelling example comes from Wisconsin, where Disability Rights Wisconsin and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that "voucher schools tend not to admit or accommodate students with disabilities" ("In some choice schools, disabilities are liability," wisconsinwatch.org, Jul. 7).

It's important to remember that although choice schools cannot refuse to enroll a student on the basis of a disability, they have no legal responsibility to meet the student's special needs. As a result, traditional public schools become the schools of last resort. They also are the schools that students attend when their parents are not involved in their education. In other words, choice is not a panacea. It will always leave collateral damage in one way or another.

The usual rebuttal is that this is unfortunate, but it is the price we have to pay to improve the education for students who are poorly served by the status quo. I wonder, however, if those who take this position realize the implications. There's no question that choice helps some students who are trapped in chronically failing schools. But what about students whose parents do not take advantage of the options open to them? Do we write them off? Apparently so. The social justice argument is simply ignored. I have never heard a satisfactory explanation why.

The free market that Milton Friedman advocated in 1955 with the release of "The Role of Government in Education" will appeal to ideologues, but I do not believe it will produce the results that many believe.

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