Bad Choice


Bush the Wimp has done what Reagan the Revolutionary would never do: proposed the most revolutionary of education reforms, school choice. And not just public-school choice, but real choice, including both private and public schools.

Now comes the tricky part—figuring out how to make it work. If we do it wrong, school choice could become a disaster of S&L proportions. And this time, we could lose more than money. We could lose vital institutions and disrupt the lives of millions.

One of the easiest ways to blow school choice is to deregulate demand but not supply. One way to do this is the magnet school approach. Here, you let parents choose schools but you don't let the schools adjust to reflect demand. So no matter how popular a school is, it never gets any bigger. Parents and kids have to camp out in line, like people trying to buy underpriced concert tickets or Russian toilet paper. The losers get shipped to mediocre schools they never would have chosen.

Sy Fliegel, the man behind East Harlem's successful public-school choice program, criticizes most public-school choice programs for exactly this reason. Harlem's system works, he says, because it lets popular schools expand and forces unpopular schools to shrink or shut down. East Harlem can do this, in part, because it has redefined what a "school" is, tying the institution not to its building but to its staff and mission. In East Harlem, several schools may occupy the same building, each with a separate program and teacher-principal. And successful schools may be spread across several locations.

The magnet-school problem is particularly characteristic of public-school choice. But we can imagine what would happen in a real choice system, where public and private school compete. Suppose my neighborhood Catholic school, St. Joan of Arc's, becomes so popular that it could enroll twice as many kids as its building and staff can handle. What would happen?

Quite likely, the state would implement some sort of rationing scheme. It could be first-come, first-served, a la the magnet schools. Or it could be based on racial balance or income distribution or even academic achievement. No matter which system was adopted, however, it would undermine the very autonomy that makes private schools successful.

Already, people who oppose including private schools in choice plans are raising the dire possibility that such schools might actually be allowed to choose their own students. "Won't public schools still have to keep violent students in school while private schools can expel them or not admit them?" writes Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. "Won't public schools have to keep students who don't do their homework while private schools can refuse to let them in? Will students and parents really be allowed to choose schools or will private schools choose the kids they want?"

Shanker's questions are serious, and they point up serious flaws in the current system. Why should a school, public or private, have to keep students who don't live up to their side of the bargain—who threaten other students and teachers or who won't fulfill minimum requirements? The answer to Shanker's questions should be that in a choice system, both sides would have a choice. Neither public nor private schools would have to guarantee slots to kids who disrupt the education of their fellow students.

Of course, specialized schools might evolve to handle the hard cases. John Hall, the founder of such a program within the L.A. Unified School District, has endorsed school choice because he thinks it would make more room for programs like his Options for Youth. Since Options depends on such bureaucratically unthinkable innovations as hiring teachers not for their credentials but for their skills in working with former dropouts, it has been shut down—despite an excellent track record.

The public schools in a real choice system would have to be very different from today's bureaucracy-bound institutions. Introducing school choice without breaking up our enormous public-school districts and letting each school manage itself would be a disaster. Public-school teachers, buildings, and other valuable resources would be trapped—unable to innovate as private schools siphoned off students. As existing private schools filled up, more private schools would form to satisfy demand that innovative public schools could have met.

If such a system allowed public schools to fold for lack of students, it would be OK in the long term; schools that couldn't keep up would shut down, freeing their staff and buildings and books. But if the system remained dedicated to keeping public schools open, it would become a colossal waste.

The prospect of real school choice raises fundamental questions about what a "public" school is. If it is merely a tax-funded institution, then real choice would by definition wipe out public schools by funding students rather than institutions. Such a system would take the money spent on schools and divide it among all school-age children, whether they now attend public or private schools. (Larger scholarships might go to poorer children.) Public-school districts wouldn't receive any money they couldn't raise by attracting students. Many of those schools that we now call public would remain open, but they would be very different institutions.

This vision threatens powerful interests. Teachers' unions are unlikely to die out, but choice would certainly weaken them. Independent schools, whether you call them public or private, are harder to organize than gargantuan school districts. And they are much harder to hold hostage to contract demands. But school choice might give teachers something the unions haven't been able to deliver—the chance to be treated like valuable professionals, not interchangeable cogs in an educational machine.

In response to this prospect, the Los Angeles Times proposes that any school that participates in a choice program should have to unionize its teachers. This idea suggests the major threat posed by choice: that it will recreate private schools in the image of public schools. This threat will appear in many areas from admissions to curriculum to hiring. It can be overcome. But, first, we must watch out for it.