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School Choice: Myths and Traps

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To The Editor:

Willis D. Hawley ("The Predictable Consequences of School Choice," Commentary, April 10, 1996) has no evidence supporting his assertions that children who attend public schools that mix children from different ethnic and religious backgrounds graduate more tolerant and well-behaved adults than children who don't attend such schools. In fact, in Los Angeles, race riots between rival racial groups are common occurrences. Students sit in separate racial groups at lunch time and in play yards. I'll bet that a kid cloistered in an all-white or all-black religious school is far less likely to graduate spewing racist rhetoric and fomenting violence than a public school graduate.

Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the mixing of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds in public schools is a myth for most of America. Public schools, like their neighborhoods in cities and suburbs, are usually divided along economic and racial lines.

Absent any sense of moral mission, the mere "mixing" of students doesn't provide any benefits. The glue that binds students comes from the values imbued in a school's curriculum and its staff. Because these values are missing from public schools, parents of all races and income levels are seeking them in private schools. If Willis D. Hawley bothered to visit some private schools in low-income neighborhoods and talk to these parents, he would have discovered this fact. Then he could have written a much more informative Commentary.

David Barulich
Education Policy Consultant
Excellence through Choice
in Education League (EXCEL)
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

While the fears about "school choice" expressed by Willis D. Hawley are understandable, it is distressing to find someone of his intelligence and experience falling into what might be called "the trap of school-choice universalism."

For all too many years now, the entire discussion of the possibility of allowing parents to choose the schools their children will attend has been beset and rendered confused and incoherent by a general inability (or refusal) on the part of the discussants to make the crucial distinctions between the quite different kinds of school choice.

For the first 13 paragraphs of his Commentary, Mr. Hawley commits this fundamental error by clearly talking about and referring to only one kind of choice: the policy of providing public funding to enable parents to send their children to private (and perhaps parochial) schools, that is to say, the voucher approach to school choice. Along about paragraph 14, he begins to mention some other policy initiatives that would mitigate or eliminate the dangers he has been describing in those first 13 paragraphs. But these are not spelled out as genuinely alternative approaches to the problems he describes.

What Mr. Hawley has failed to do is make it clear right at the start that there are two fundamentally opposed and mutually incompatible forms of school choice. One is the voucher approach of enabling parents to choose a school outside the public system, an approach that does raise all of the dangers he describes. The other is to provide parents with a diverse range of school choices but always within the public system. This is an approach that includes such viable options as open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and in its most powerful and effective form the "controlled choice" plans that have emerged from attempts to desegregate school districts through choice.

In such controlled-choice plans, all parental choices are constrained by the necessity to guarantee full, equal, and thoroughly democratic access to all schools to all children and their families, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income level. None of Mr. Hawley's unfortunate "consequences" occur under such plans.

Mr. Hawley also is talking about only one aspect of school choice--parent choice. There is another form that is equally important, and that is the ability of professional staff--teachers and principals--to choose the kind of school and therefore the kind of schooling they wish to practice. It is only when these two forms of public school choice are found together that genuine school improvement and innovation are going to happen.

Evans Clinchy
Institute for Responsive Education
Boston, Mass.

To the Editor:

I am a proud graduate of School Without Walls, a public, alternative, magnet high school in Rochester, N.Y. I and others like me were straight-A students from the suburbs who were enticed into leaving the college-preparatory suburban schools for this inner-city alternative school because of the creative possibilities School Without Walls offered. My classmates included students on parole, students who had recently left drug-rehabilitation programs, and students who had been kicked out of so many schools that School Without Walls was seen as their last chance.

I am presently a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University. My high school classmates are now mothers and fathers, editors, waitresses, computer analysts, and a philosopher with a Ph.D.

I know from personal experience that public school choice can provide the best opportunities for the integration of students from diverse social, racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds.

I agree with Willis Hawley that allowing public funds to be used for private school attendance through vouchers could be terribly detrimental to our public school systems. But choice within our public schools offers a system that can allow for a true democracy of diverse schools for diverse learners and integration based on interests and learning styles, rather than forced by mandates.

Flynn Pritchard
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I can't see that Willis Hawley's Commentary has contributed anything more than a ham-handed attack on choice. He sprinkles it with a liberal dose of "moreovers, it follows, furthermores, accordingly, will lead to, inevitable consequences" and ends with total certainty, "Bet on it."

Forty years as a teacher, principal of six schools, professor, and other roles in education have conditioned me to question the overly emotional critic of school alternatives and to wonder about motives. Mr. Hawley's confident assertion on one of his points that "every study in every country studied leads to this conclusion" does not even pass the smell test for anyone familiar with social science or educational research.

In fact, emerging evidence on some types of choice shows increased learning, improved attitudes toward school by students and parents, and better teacher morale. Some examples: a 1996 Hudson Institute report on charters, New York City studies on school choice in District 4, a Minnesota study on open enrollment.

Wayne B. Jennings
St.Paul, Minn.

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