No reform issue is more hotly debated than the concept of introducing marketplace competition into education by allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend. And the air turns blue when the calls for open enrollment include offering vouchers or tax credits to allow students to choose private schools.
Some elements of choice have long existed within public education--magnet schools, alternative schools, schools within schools. But the thrust of parental choice as a reform tool is to break up the monopoly of public education, to shake up the bureaucracy and force schools to compete for students by raising quality, and to give parents as consumers more say in the governance and operation of schools.
Minnesota became the first state to adopt a public school openenrollment plan in 1985, and today more than 20 states have either enacted some form of choice or are considering it. Between 40 to 50 major sites across the nation have programs that fall under the banner of choice.
The Milwaukee school system operates the only program that permits public funds to be used to pay private school tuition; it covers the costs of a limited number of economically disadvantaged children attending nonsectarian private schools. But President Bush has proposed a $500 million program that would take this idea nationwide, providing vouchers to allow low- and middle-income students to attend private schools. So far, Congress has rejected such proposals.
Social scientists John Chubb and Terry Moe gave the choice movement a big boost in 1990 with their book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. They proclaimed choice to be the "panacea'' for the problems of America's public schools. And a brand new book, Reinventing Government, by journalist David Osborne and management consultant Ted Gaebler, sees little hope for school improvement without a nationwide choice program.
Public school educators are virtually unanimous in opposing any choice program that includes the private sector. While many are less critical of controlled choice limited to public schools, they argue that it won't bring about the changes its proponents intend and worry that it will do serious damage to the system. Critics also worry about resegregating education, about the kinds of abuses that unregulated competition has spawned in most other social sectors, and about what will happen to schools and teachers who don't have the resources to compete fairly.