Current School Choice Models Inadequate

Much has been made over the past several years regarding efforts to provide choices to parents for the education of their children within the public school model. Voucher programs, like those in Milwaukee, Ohio and many other states have been touted as a means by which families whose children attend poor performing schools can move their kids to a better school. Charter schools have been hailed as an effort to provide options for parents. However, both models fail one large class of people—the middle class. Once again, when it comes to important societal benefits, the middle class gets screwed.

People accept as axiomatic that wealthy parents have far more options for the education of their children than anyone else. They can afford to send their kids to private schools, leave them in public schools or take other steps. For the wealthy, school choice is a reality born of their financial success and circumstances.

However, for decades, the lower and middle classes had no school choice options. But with the failure of schools in many areas, usually poor and largely minority areas of the country, educational reformers formulated solid ideas to provide a way out for people trapped by economic circumstance in a school system in which there existed little hope for breaking out of the cycle. Thus was born the voucher experiment. Vouchers gave the poor and minorities with children in bad schools the ability to take their kid to any school in the district with the money granted in the voucher. In city after city with poor performing schools, parents snapped up vouchers like the lifeline they were.

In other areas of the country, charter schools began their increase in popularity, providing a public education without the public bureaucracy to stand in their way. In most states, the charter school movement is just taking root. But the problem with charters is that they are granted by the school board in the locality, a school board that is competing against the charter school for enrollment and control. Hardly a mechanism for unbiased, conflict of interest free provision of educational services by the state or county.

While charter schools are generally open to anyone, the schools have sprung up more in areas already providing choices through vouchers, namely poor, largely minority neighborhoods needing options for education. Not to begrudge these efforts as they are very important, the self-selection of these charters means that most middle class suburbs have little option but to attend their neighborhood school. While many of these suburban and exurban schools do a good job educating kids, the fact remains that the middle class populace does not have the options, beyond the occasional limited enrollment magnet schools, accorded to the wealthy and the poor. They have no choices in education.

The middle class fights over neighborhoods with the best schools, but as the neighborhoods get more crowded, school district lines are redrawn to match the enrollment capacity of schools. New schools get built whose quality is hardly assured. The fact is that most Americans have their school decisions made for by a mere accident of their residence.

For this reason, all of the school choice efforts inadequately serve the majority of Americans. To change this fact, we must drastically alter the method in which schools are governed and managed. I have encouraged the consideration of the New Zealand model of school governance, where each school is governed and managed by a board of trustees elected by the parents of children attending that school. However, simple management changes mean nothing if not coupled with a basic market feature--choice.

Even supposing suburban and exurban schools can be directly managed by a board of trustees, there is still a matter of allowing parents to choose the schooling best for their kids as determined by them alone. School management reform must be couple with an absolute right of the parents to choose the right school for their child, regardless of whether that school is public or private, secular or parochial.

Choices in education do not belong only to the very rich and the very poor, but must belong to every parent, regardless of their location and regardless of their socio-economic status.

Posted by Matt Johnston at August 16, 2005 4:05 PM