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For School Choice, Let's Follow the F.A.A.

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Educational choice is being touted as an alternative to serious investment in our public schools. It's a low-cost, pass-the-buck "solution"--attractive politically but damaging educationally. In California, where I work, choice has taken the form of a $2,500-per-pupil voucher initiative for private schools. Proponents are currently collecting signatures to place the measure on the November 1992 ballot.

Support for choice, in California and elsewhere, is short, sighted. It diverts attention and resources from the real problems in education. However, if public schools are going to compote against taxpayer-subsidized private schools, let's have a level playing field.

In many cases, the proponents of private-school choice want it both ways. They want government money on the one hand but freedom from government regulation on the other. In today's economy, where scrutiny of our tax dollars is greater than ever, this kind of no-strings-attached spending is unacceptable.

Related Commentaries by Chester E. Finn Jr. and William B. Ball on pages 30 and 31.

If private schools receive public money, it's only fair to demand a common regulatory body for both public and private schools.

I suggest we use the Federal Aviation Administration as a model. The F.A.A. places paramount importance on the safety of airline travelers and has developed a means of regulatory oversight. After all, we must assume the education of children is as important as the safety of airline passengers. Here's how an F.A.A. model might regulate school choice. . Licensing. All commercial pilots must be licensed by the federal government. They must take regular physical examinations, undergo periodic flight training, and take tests to ensure competence. Though they work for private companies, they are still subject to these requirements.

If private schools are to receive public tax dollars, private school teachers should be subject to the same licensing requirements as public-school teachers. Currently, many states do not have any licensing requirements at all for private-school teachers. In California, private-school teachers do not need a college degree or a teaching credential, and they do not need to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test. Under California's voucher plan, schools employing unlicensed teachers would still be eligible for public money. No one would allow their children to fly with an unlicensed pilot, and we should not allow children to attend schools staffed with unlicensed teachers. . Flight plans. Commercial airline pilots must file flight plans. Pilots have to state when they are leaving, where they are going, and how they plan to get there. In this sense, flight plans can be compared to a school curriculum. All schools should be required to file their "flight plan" with local or state education officials, and the plan the local curriculum--should be available for inspection.

This curriculum--in addition to teaching the basic skills-should include in-depth coverage of United States history and the Constitution, neither of which are required subjects for private schools in all states. In California, private schools are required to cover the same subjects as public schools, but enforcement is nonexistent.

For more than two centuries, we have counted on public schools to teach the basic tenets of democracy. Unregulated private schools would be free to promote their particular religious, social, or ethnic agendas at the expense of our democratic traditions. America cannot afford to let this happen.

  • Safety. The F.A.A. mandates tough safety standards for all aircraft. Private schools, however, are not subject to the same safety standards required of public schools. If earthquake safe buildings, for example, are important for public schools, why should private schools be held to a lower standard?
  • Accountability. Airlines are accountable to the federal government for their performance. The public is aware of which airline has the best "on time" record and which airline has received the greatest number of complaints. At present, many private schools have no reporting requirements with regard to student achievement, or dropout and graduation rates. What's fair for public schools should be fair for private schools receiving public money. Let's have common standards for measuring success and see how private and public schools stack up.
  • Serving the disabled. Airlines are required to make special accommodations for the needs of disabled passengers. Private schools are not required to accept students with disabilities. Public schools, on the other hand, must bear the expense of providing a flee public education to all disabled children between the ages of 3 and 21. This sometimes requires public schools to place students in private treatment centers costing as much as $100,000 a year.

In California, special education usually runs a deficit and public schools are forced to make up the difference. If private schools receive public money, they should be required to educate students with disabilities, even though the cost per student is significantly greater.

  • Nondiscrimination. Airlines cannot discriminate against passengers or employees on the basis of race, sex, nationality, or religion. Similarly, public schools are required to accept every student living within local district boundaries. Public schools cannot reject students who are poor, don't speak English, or don't behave properly in class. If private schools receive public money, they should not be allowed to accept only the top students, reject students that cost extra money to educate, or send only the most disruptive students back to public school.
  • Governance. When passengers are unhappy with an airline, they can complain to the F.A.A. When parents are unhappy with their public school, they can complain to the locally elected school beard. If a private school spends public money foolishly, to whom can taxpayers complain? Whatever the problems with public schools, they are capable of redress at the local level through the democratic process. Not so with private schools.
  • Access. Prior to deregulation, the F.A.A. required airlines to provide service to out-of-the-way, relatively small communities. Airlines were not allowed to skim off only the most profitable routes and leave other communities high and dry. Similarly, private schools receiving public funds should not be allowed to serve only wealthy students in elite communities; provisions should be made to allow students in poverty areas to have access to private schools in affluent neighborhoods.

Speaking of money, California's voucher initiative would provide a minimum of $2,500 to each of the 531,489 students already in private school, beginning in 1995-96. That's a hefty $1.33 billion off the top--money that would go to students who would attend private school anyway.

What's fair is fair. If private schools receive public funds, let them be subject to the same standards. If some regulations are unduly burdensome, let's relax them for public and private schools alike. But please, let's not do what the backers of private-school choice are advocating: one set of rules for public schools and another set of rules--less stringent and much less costly--for private schools.

Harry C. Weinberg is superintendent of the San Diego County Office of Education.

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