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Claims for Choice Exceed Evidence, Carnegie Reports

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Claims about the benefits of school choice "greatly outdistance the evidence,'' and most public school parents have little desire for such a system, according to a study to be released this week by one of the nation's most prominent education-policy experts.

School choice has emerged as one of the most vigorously discussed and aggressively pursued education innovations in the country. Thirteen states and many more school districts have adopted some kind of choice plan in the past five years. And the issue has gained further visibility in the current Presidential campaign.

But Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the author of the new report, said in an interview last week, "There's no question, when you look at what's going on, the claims seem to greatly outdistance the evidence, thus far.''

Mr. Boyer's report, "School Choice,'' is based on a year-long study. Among other results, it found that 70 percent of parents with children in public school said there was no other public or private school to which they currently wanted to send their children.

In states where school choice has been adopted, it found, fewer than 2 percent of eligible parents participate in the programs. (See related story below.)

Moreover, the report says, parents who transfer their children to another school do so mostly for nonacademic reasons.

Contrary Findings

The 118-page report also contains the results of a new survey of more than 1,000 members of the general public on school-choice issues.

When given two options, 82 percent of the respondents said that the best way to improve public education is to strengthen all neighborhood schools by giving them the resources needed to achieve excellence. Only 15 percent believe that the best way to improve schools is by letting them compete for students.

Advocates of choice plans that involve private schools, including the Bush Administration and such researchers as John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, argue that the competitive pressures of a "free market'' system are the best way of spurring improvements in public schools.

The Carnegie findings also counter those of a Gallup poll released last month by the National Catholic Educational Association. That survey found that seven out of 10 people responding would support a government-funded voucher system that enabled parents to send their children to public, private, or parochial schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)

The Carnegie study also found that the public school parents surveyed opposed private school vouchers by a 2-to-1 margin.

Public-opinion polls about choice are notoriously tricky, with respondents' answers varying depending on how the questions are worded.

Mr. Boyer argued that previous surveys have left the trade-offs involved in choice plans "out of the equation'' and thus have overstated the level of support. He suggested that the push for choice is coming "more from theoreticians and politicians'' than from parents.

Timing of Release

The Carnegie president said it is entirely fortuitous that the release of the report comes just before the Presidential election and a vote in Colorado on a controversial voucher initiative. "I didn't think it had much to do with the political debate,'' he said.

Mr. Boyer, who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Carter Administration, noted that President Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot all support school choice, although Mr. Clinton would limit such programs to public schools.

The Democratic and Republican candidates have aired their disagreements on private school choice both on the stump and in the recent televised debates.

Lambastes State Programs

The Carnegie study found that distance alone "rules out school choice for literally millions of children.''

"And this says nothing about the quality of the next-closest school,'' it adds.

In the survey of more than 1,000 public school parents, one-fourth of the respondents said that the next-closest schools offering their children's same grade levels were from 10 to 80 miles away.

The study was based on site visits to three well-respected districtwide-choice systems (in Montclair, N.J., East Harlem in New York City, and Cambridge, Mass.); national surveys of parents, the general public, and all 50 chief state school officers; and scores of interviews with parents, students, teachers, and administrators in states with the most comprehensive choice plans: Minnesota, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Washington, Iowa, and Nebraska.

The findings are particularly critical of many statewide programs, which Mr. Boyer described as "swiftly and arbitrarily imposed.''

In particular, the study found no signficant educational gains attributable to choice in the 13 states that have adopted open enrollment. The report also argues that such plans will widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged as long as funding disparities between districts remain.

And it says that most state choice laws fail to require adequate consumer information about schools or adequate transportation among districts.

The report also takes aim at the nation's only publicly funded voucher experiment, in Milwaukee. Most private schools involved in the program, which took effect in 1990, thus far have failed to report academic results--let alone demonstrate gains. And the small-scale experiment has failed to spark broader improvements in the school system.

Mr. Boyer also stressed that a lack of public accountability in the system left some 150 pupils stranded in the middle of 1990-91, when one of the private schools closed amid questions about its finances and operation.

The report is more positive about the comprehensive districtwide-choice systems in Montclair, Cambridge, and District 4 in East Harlem.

"Under the right circumstances,'' it says, "districtwide-choice arrangements--those in which all children and parents can participate--can help revitalize schools, empower teachers and principals, and stimulate parents to consider which program is best suited to their children.''

But Mr. Boyer cautioned: "It wasn't so much choice alone, but that the districts had to talk about their goals and keep talking about them to keep this thing going year by year. And if they saw weak schools, they had to go in and fix them.''

With all of the work in East Harlem, he noted, only 38 percent of its students scored at or above grade level on standardized reading tests in 1992. And East Harlem now ranks 22nd out of the city's 32 community school districts.

'Supplement, Not Supplant'

Based on his findings, Mr. Boyer recommends that choice be used to "supplement, not supplant'' the local network of neighborhood schools.

"The solution, we believe, is to focus choice not on a building but on the quality of education,'' the report states. "Instead of providing choice only among schools, why not create choices within schools?''

"What I am concerned about,'' Mr. Boyer said last week, "is that choice would be presented as the one strategy and would divert attention away from the need to keep each neighborhood school strong'' and to address the many societal problems that affect the schools.

The report makes the following recommendations for the development of effective choice programs:

  • Programs should not be arbitrarily imposed. Parents must be actively engaged in the planning and be well informed about the alternatives available to them.
  • Transportation must be provided to students who need it.
  • No statewide choice program should be established until a series of essential requirements, such as equitable funding, have been met, and all existing programs should be held to the same standards.

In general, Mr. Boyer said, choice should be embraced only if the nation's commitment to public education is "unequivocally reaffirmed.''

The real agenda for school renewal, he asserted, is to insure that every school has the elements of a "good school'' and those elements can be found in choice and non-choice settings alike.

Copies of "School Choice'' will be available in December and can be ordered for $8 each, plus postage, from California/Princeton Fulfillment Services, 1445 Lower Ferry Rd., Ewing, N.J. 08618; telephone: (609) 883-1759 or (800) 777-4726.

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