As the father of a child who just completed the first grade, I can attest that few things are more stress-inducing than turning your child over to a school for long days of instruction. Part of this is unavoidable: One of the defining aspirations of American education, whether public or private, is to inculcate independent thought and critical analysis. If all goes according to plan, your child will develop his own mind, his own thoughts, his own talents and priorities, many of which will have little or nothing to do with parental wishes and desires. Indeed, what most parents want out of education is not a child who has been molded to fit their preconceived plans, but one who will return home from college with the skills to tell his parents exactly why there's no way in hell he's going to study to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant anymore. That's a successful conclusion to an American education, and it's easy to see why the process inevitably inspires a good dose of parental anxiety.
But a large measure of concern over schools comes from a very different source, one that both can and should be remedied: the inability of parents—especially low-income parents—to pull their kids out of mediocre and failing schools. In "Schoolhouse Schlock" (see page 28), education analyst Lisa Snell writes of her problems enrolling her son in her local public school. She also details exactly how the major federal program designed to help low-income children, Title I, has done precisely nothing to improve schools. More distressingly still, Snell lays out why George W. Bush's much-ballyhooed education plan, which will give more money to failing schools and institute nationwide testing, will likewise have no effect.
Why? Simply put, because it doesn't increase choice. It doesn't give parents the one thing that matters in any consumer situation: the ability to take your business elsewhere. Without that spur to efficiency, schools will never be responsive.
The theme of choice energizes two other stories in this issue. "Old Law vs. the New Economy," by James V. DeLong (see page 44), explores how labor legislation from the New Deal era is stymieing the sort of individually tailored job situations that would benefit workers at all levels. "The free agent universe of the visionaries," writes DeLong, "is resisted by the labor and tax bureaucracies." It's going to take a lot of time and energy to win that battle. Jesse Walker's fantastic tour of alternative film communities ("Beyond Miramax," page 62) demonstrates what creative people can do with choice that's enabled by cheap technology and new distribution networks. The short answer: pretty much anything they want. Which is an outcome worth fighting for in education and the workplace.