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Class Notes
What 'school choice' means in D.C.
(Published November 18, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

Bush's 2001 Education Reform Bill makes the bold promise of ensuring that there will be "no child left behind" even in our nation's most underprivileged public schools. One of the landmark changes the bill implements is the opportunity for greater school choice. If a school is deemed "failing" based on certain specified criteria, parents will have the option of moving their child from that school to an alternate school in the region.

The level of school choice in public schools varies from district to district, and educators continue to debate the amount of choice that parents ought to have in their own child's education. Below are presented four levels of choice in our public schools, the first two widely adopted, the third with scant trials, and the fourth never attempted. Choice in and of itself is a positive quality, but to provide it requires new strategies for implementation and possibly extra funding.

Selective schools. These public schools restrict admission to those with exemplary grades, standardized test scores or extracurricular involvement. For the very best students, a selective school is ideal: it gives access to some of the best teachers, facilities, and motivated peers. In the District, Duke Ellington, School Without Walls and Banneker senior high schools select only high-achieving students to join their ranks.

Charter schools. Running on public per-pupil funding and open to all students, charter schools are exempt from conventional public school requirements, so they are free to set their own policies on teacher recruiting, daily schedules and extracurricular programming. Some may cater to particular ethnicities or to a specialized niche such as arts, music, engineering or languages. In the District, most charters are small (about 250 students), but collectively they serve 15 percent of all public school students.

While research has not demonstrated that charter schools raise test scores, they receive consistently higher satisfaction ratings from parents. Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, an organization promoting charters in the D.C. region, reports that less than 7 percent of all charter schools opened in the District have ever been closed, which they claim puts charters ahead of conventional public schools, which have an 11 percent failure rate.

Vouchers. The infamous "v-word" gets people riled up on both sides of the aisle. Selective schools and charters are almost assuredly here to stay, but publicly funded voucher systems can be found in only five jurisdictions in the country: Florida, Maine, Vermont, Milwaukee and Cleveland. The Supreme Court this summer affirmed the constitutionality of publicly funded vouchers, but without strong public support, such programs have an uncertain future. Though incarnations of the voucher idea vary, in essence a parent would be given a lump sum of money, say $5,000, which could be used to pay tuition at public, private or parochial schools.

Currently, popular opinion is widely divided on the vouchers debate; a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year found a virtual dead heat, with 45 percent approving of vouchers and 50 percent opposing. Proponents of vouchers fall into disparate camps. Laissez-faire economists, religious fundamentalists and welfare moms have become unlikely bedfellows in their backing of voucher propositions.

On the opposing side are teachers' unions and most mainstream liberals. The opposition is usually grounded in two arguments. The first main objection to vouchers is that they are unconstitutional, since the state is supporting religious education. Under this criterion, equally unconstitutional are federal grants and loans to students who choose to attend Georgetown or any other Catholic university. The second argument against vouchers is that they rob scarce resources from already under-funded public schools. But if the same money can buy a better education elsewhere (and who better to decide than parents?), it is hard to see why that opportunity should be denied to children.

Complete deregulation. At the far end of the choice spectrum is a free enterprise educational system advocated by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. He reasoned that there is no reason why the state must be involved in administering education. Why not provide every child an annual education stipend to be used at the school of his choice? The government would regulate schools, just as it regulates airlines or restaurants, but leave the business of education to those who do it best. Friedman claimed that this free-market model could be equipped with provisions to safeguard the poorest children against falling through its cracks, but few educators thought such a plan would actually be feasible, and it never left the drawing board.

The conditions of many of our nation's worst schools are desperate. At my school, out of a class of more than 200 seniors, only half a dozen scored higher than the mean (1000) on the SAT. One mother expressed her frustration with her children's education as she drove me to the subway one afternoon last week: "The classes, the level of discipline - I just know it's not what kids out in Montgomery County see every day." What can one say to alleviate the frustration of a parent like her?

What we have does not work, and every year that the situation does not change is another year that many of our children are underserved in their education. Wealthy children automatically have access to more educational options than poorer children, and this will probably always be the case. But new movements to increase school choice for low-income families have created many experiments in quality education around the city and across the nation. Right now it may be too early to tell how successful each will become, but educators ought to seize on these as opportunities to learn what programs and policies succeed, and which ones fail. If parents are empowered to choose their own child's school, we may expect these quality practices to be adopted even more quickly.

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Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator