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Read the Fine Print About School Choice

As readers of this column know, I've long supported parental choice of schools. But at the same time I've always cautioned about its limitations. Now comes the latest caveat that free-market reformers don't want you to know. It's important to bear it in mind because 13 states enacted school choice legislation this year, and 28 more states have legislation pending.

The setting is the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, Leslee Komaiko, the mother of a first grader at a charter school in the mammoth system, explains how the process of parental choice actually works ("L.A. Unified's grade-school game," Dec. 14). What she wrote is cause for pause.

I say that because I read her piece three times and still can't believe how byzantine and frustrating the process is. For starters, buying or renting a residence - the customary way of establishing the right to attend a neighborhood school - is no assurance. How come? The LAUSD has rules that defy common sense. If the choice is a charter or magnet school, the process is even more bizarre because it involves amassing points.

It's here that I thought I was reading a satire. To enhance the chances of acceptance, the best way to get points is to move into a residence in a part of the city with an execrable school that is overcrowded, lacks books and desks, and is "predominantly Hispanic, black, Asian or other." But that's just the beginning. Parents must submit their application to their desired magnet or charter school the winter before their child starts kindergarten. Paradoxically, rejection from kindergarten enhances the chances of acceptance the following year. In other words, failure is cause for celebration.

If this were not enough to deter all but the most determined parents, the LAUSD also issues permits without transportation, child-care permits, and intra-district and inter-district parent employment-related transfer permits. Other cities have similar dizzying systems for parental choice, including San Francisco and New York. But don't ask me to explain how these work because I'm not a Philadelphia lawyer. However, you get the picture.

Here's the point: parents have the right to select any school they believe best meets the interests and needs of their children. But the devil is always in the details. If truth-in-advertising laws were applied to school choice, I think more parents would be reluctant to expend the time, energy and money in the hope of getting a quality education for their children. Instead, parents might be willing to push for improving existing traditional schools in their neighborhoods. But don't try telling that to reformers.

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