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This 'Card-Carrying Liberal' Endorses School Choice

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All of us, at times, find that our view on an issue puts us with people that make us uncomfortable.

All of us, at times, find that our view on an issue puts us with people that make us uncomfortable. For me, a card-carrying liberal social worker, the issue that most reflects this "politics makes strange bedfellows" scenario is school choice.

I am for it.

More precisely, I am for a well-regulated, high-standards-for-certification-and-licensing, publicly financed system of education that allows individual families to freely choose to educate their children in a wide range of approved settings. In part, my support for this system is driven by the recognition that many public school systems, particularly urban systems, are inadequate as places of learning, are destructive to children's well-being, and are unsafe. Given that recognition, I believe that those parents who think they see a better way should be supported rather than blocked from pursuing other options.

An additional reality is that middle-class and well-to-do families already enjoy freedom of choice and they can, and do, vote with their checkbooks and exit the public schools in large numbers. Those families choose to pay for education twice: once when they pay their taxes and again when they write the tuition check. For poor families, the only group who are unable to choose, real freedom requires the ability to take funds that would otherwise have supported public education and to use those funds to purchase education elsewhere.

In New York City, it is reported that an unexpected baby boomlet has caused the district, which serves 1.06 million children, to be short of classrooms for 91,000 kids. Classes are being held in bathrooms, hallways, and in rented trailers parked on what used to be school playgrounds. The city's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, reminds children that Abraham Lincoln learned in a one-room schoolhouse. Seeking to encourage them to learn despite difficult circumstances, he forgets that one room is exactly what nearly 10 percent of the kids in his system are not getting. Why should public school systems that are so badly run receive what amounts to a multibillion-dollar sole-source contract?

Various districts and states are tinkering around with school voucher plans of one sort or another.

Various districts and states are tinkering around with school voucher plans of one sort or another, with mixed results. Milwaukee's 6-year-old school-choice program has increased the academic achievement of children who left the public schools and entered private schools with publicly funded vouchers--if you believe a study by education faculty members at Harvard and the University of Houston. But, alas, the University of Wisconsin researcher who has studied the program for many years questions the new study's methodology, so who really knows? ("At Odds, Studies Fuel Private Choice Debate," Sept. 4, 1996.)

Cleveland has, beginning this year, gone one step beyond Milwaukee and is allowing its vouchers to be used in religious as well as secular private schools and, predictably, Ohio is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the number of states allowing charter schools within the public system continues to increase, numerous states struggle over standards and teacher certification, and the whole education-reform pot boils over with seemingly good ideas that, to me at least, never seem to produce dramatic results or clear answers.

I favor school choice because the public schools are so bad, but the truth is that I would favor it as a matter of individual rights, even if most public schools were excellent. The fundamental question for me is who gets to decide where children are educated--their parents or the state department of education? While the University of Wisconsin guy and the Harvard guy fight over the data, neither one apparently has a child in an inner city Milwaukee public school. School-reform pilot experiments that take years to show results do not mean anything to the parents of a struggling 3rd grader who will be in high school, or perhaps will have dropped out of school, before the inconclusive evaluation of the five-year pilot has been published.

A remarkable thing about the school-choice debate is that it occurs in such isolation. Maybe because I am not very much immersed in the education industry, I keep wondering why questions are not raised about school choice in comparison to public-policy positions that are held in other service systems. For example, many of the very same folks who strongly oppose school choice favor "free choice of vendor" when talking about choice of doctor and hospital in Medicare. The whole country rose up and rejected the Clinton administration's health-care-reform plan, chiefly because they believed that they could not keep going to their own doctor. Why favor free choice of physician and hospital but not of teacher and school?

In another inconsistency, the devolution of social services--taking responsibility away from big public bureaucracies and giving it to neighborhood-based agencies--is favored by people who would not want to do the same for schools. Reformers who call for parent involvement in the decision processes of public school systems frequently stop short of advocating for what must seem to them like too much parent power--the right to take their kid and their share of the pot to some other education store, like consumers of nearly everything else can do.

Medicaid dollars go to Mount Sinai Hospital, public social service dollars go to Catholic Charities, and somehow the Constitution survives.

The boogeymen of the school-choice discussion are freedom of religion and separation of church and state. Yet here, too, we have to look beyond K-12 public education. Medicaid dollars go to Mount Sinai Hospital, public social service dollars go to Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, and somehow the Constitution survives. Across the country, tens of thousands of university students use publicly financed loans and grants to attend private and religious colleges and universities. The use of accountants and time studies, it seems to me, can see to it that public dollars go for basic education and do not support the teaching of religion.

I am not naive about this. I know that there are not enough private schools to serve any really significant population of urban youths. I know that private schools, if allowed, will try to avoid taking the most troublesome and disruptive kids, just as public schools do now. I know that some private schools will do a bad job, that someone will figure out how to scam the new system and steal some money or bribe their way to a lucrative contract. And I know that some school districts will use choice as a hammer to bust the teachers' union.

But as a matter of public policy and individual freedom and in the face of failing urban public school districts, I see very little to lose and potentially much to gain by letting loose of education and allowing a free market to develop. It is the only truly radical school-reform idea that is even under discussion. And right now, while a number of public school districts face enrollment increases and private and parochial schools are threatened with severe revenue shortages, seems to be a good time to let things settle out in a deregulated, consumer-driven, free market sort of way.

Whether they are right or wrong, I like it that the school has enough control to tell kids what jewelry they can wear.

At a minimum, I would suggest that there be a level of incompetence established that triggers an "all bets are off" option in which parents can take their fair share of school revenue and buy education on the free market. In these instances, the social contract has been broken and the break came at the hands of the school system, not the public. Such a trigger mechanism might scare districts into doing better work--certainly they would not callously be short of classrooms for 91,000 kids.

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I should disclose that, on the mornings when I get up early enough, I can see my 8th grade step-daughter in her plaid skirt and white blouse as she heads off to the Catholic school she has attended all her educational life. And at dinner I can hear bitter complaints about how inconsistent the sisters are about how much jewelry the girls can wear in class. Whether they are right or wrong, I like it that the school has enough control to tell kids what jewelry they can wear and that the kids, by and large, will listen. If they listen on the little things, maybe they are listening on larger issues as well. And I particularly like it that my daughter is not likely to be strong-armed for her lunch money and does not have to pass through a metal detector seeking to reduce the number of guns in her school.

I am not a part of the angry population that has no children and yet pays huge property taxes to support failing schools. Nor am I part of the even angrier group that pays for schools twice. In fact, I am not angry at all. Instead, I am glad that my family can afford to exercise school choice and I wish everyone else's could, too.


Ira M. Cutler is a partner in Cornerstone Consulting Group in Greenwich, Conn., a firm that focuses on human services, organizational development, and community revitalization. This essay is reprinted from his weekly column appearing on Handsnet, an on-line service for the health and social service fields.

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