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When School Choice Is Counterproductive

As readers of this column know, I've long supported parental choice of schools, even though I acknowledge that not all children have parents who are involved enough in their education to take advantage of the options open to them. But there's another consideration that has been largely overlooked: What happens when there are too many choices available to parents?

Posing this question probably seems more theoretical than practical in the U.S., where choice is still not the norm. But that's not the case in England. According to an article in The Independent on Sept. 10, parents are faced with a "bewildering array of different types of schools" ("Experts: UK has too many types of school"). The result has been utter confusion and a call to improve standards in all state schools. For readers interested in the number and kind of schools available to parents, I recommend reading the story. It's understandable why parents are befuddled.

On the same day that The Independent published its article, The Guardian ran a story that further calls into question the touted benefits of parental choice ("Doubts grow over the success of Sweden's free schools experiment"). When Sweden implemented a competitive system of free schools in the early 1990's, it was supposed to usher in a new era of quality education for all students. (Free schools are publicly-funded but autonomous. They can be created by charities, universities, businesses or teachers.)

What happened in Sweden, however, is reminiscent of what transpired in New Zealand when it instituted Tomorrow's Schools about the same time (When Schools Compete, Brookings Institution Press, 2000). The unintended result was that school segregation increased in both countries. Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd explain in detail how the most sophisticated parents rapidly took advantage of school choice to fill all available seats, forcing the best schools to close their doors to students whose parents didn't know how to game the system.

I continue to support parental choice of schools. But I think the experience of other countries raises several caveats that cannot be ignored if equity is a goal. At present, social Darwinism reigns.

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