What Does ‘School Choice’ Mean?

What Does ‘School Choice’ Mean?

Half of adult Americans cannot understand jury instructions or summarize basic information about schools from a simple chart. Although some are recent immigrants, most are products of our primary and secondary school system—whose mission is to produce citizens capable of sitting on juries, assessing policy proposals (about schools, for example), exercising their rights, and seizing their opportunities to live a good life. Each year in inner-city public schools, tens of thousands of students fail to learn even the barest minimum that is necessary—never mind sufficient—for democratic citizenship and economic opportunity.

Education tops the public’s list of salient issues in American politics, and there is no shortage of suggestions for quick fixes. The reform proposal that has gained the most press and political ground in recent years is school vouchers. Parents—regardless of their income—should be able to choose a public or private school for their children, at public expense. George W. Bush’s idea is to give parents “whatever offers hope” for their children. If elected president, he proposes to transfer $1,500 per child per year of federal Title I money from failing schools to parents, to use at the school of their choice.

George W.’s brother Jeb, governor of Florida, has already initiated what the New York Times calls the “nation’s boldest voucher experiment.” Florida is the first and only publicly funded voucher experiment at the statewide level, although citywide experiments in Cleveland and Milwaukee have been in place longer and therefore enroll more students. This year, Florida’s experiment enrolled only fifty-three students; Cleveland and Milwaukee together total more than ten thousand. But the potential enrollment of the Florida experiment is much greater: all parents of students whose public schools fail standardized tests twice in four years will be eligible for vouchers usable at the school of their choice, public or private, secular or parochial. The vouchers this year are worth $3,400 on average—the lesser of the per-pupil cost of the failing public school or the private school’s tuition.

Voucher advocates put their trust in market forces and distrust public standards and values, such as the integrationist idea of bringing children from different backgrounds together in learning as preparation for democratic citizenship. Most would not require voucher schools to renounce racial, religious, or gender discrimination. Many also oppose the idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Most acknowledge that schools, as publicly funded and accredited institutions, should serve public purposes. But they think that these purposes are minimal, and whenever they are controversial—as are many curricular standards, along with the principle of nondiscrimination—voucher advocates oppose public enforcement and defer to parental choice in the marketplace.

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Lima