Bush Pledges His Support For Choice, But Is Mum On Private-School Option

By William Snider — January 18, 1989 7 min read
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President-elect George Bush last week signaled that public-school choice would be a high priority in his Administration, saying that expanding parents’ right to choose public schools is a “national imperative.”

“I intend to provide every feasible assistance--financial and otherwise--to states and districts interested in further experiments with choice plans or other valuable reforms,” Mr. Bush said in a speech that provided an early glimpse of the education-policy objectives of the new Administration.

His remarks were made before an unparalleled gathering of choice advocates and experts invited to the White House for a workshop on choice in education that also featured a speech by President Reagan.

Both the President and the President-elect avoided any mention of extending choice to private schools--an idea that the Reagan Administration had vigorously but unsuccessfully pursued for more than five years.

Mr. Bush’s “discreet silence spoke volumes,” said Denis P. Doyle, senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The President-elect “is by nature a conciliator,” Mr. Doyle said. ''He doesn’t take pleasure in fights that don’t produce results.”

The speech by Mr. Bush clearly let down those participants who favor using vouchers or tuition tax credits to enable parents to choose freely among public and private schools.

“I’m disappointed,” said Sister Patricia A. Bauch, assistant professor of education at The Catholic University of America. “I think he made it quite clear that private schools would not be included.”

The President-elect’s speech represented “a basic shift towards public-school choice,” concurred Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of several participants who expressed relief at Mr. Bush’s moderate tone.

‘Ecumenical’ Gathering

Sandwiched between the much-anticipated appearances by the President and President-elect was a full day of discussion and debate on the need to expand parental choice.

The 200 participants heard testimony on the merits of choosing schools from three students and two governors, as well as a wide range of school officials and policy experts.

“This conference was intended to be very ecumenical,” said John D. Klenk, the White House policy ana4lyst who organized the workshop.

“It wasn’t designed for the feds to push any particular proposal,” he added. “It was intended to be a town meeting in which people would share their own ideas on what they’re doing themselves.”

The most frequently cited plan was the one that has brought national recognition to Community District 4 in New York City’s East Harlem.

“Choice is an excellent beginning, but if we think of it as a panacea, we will be in for a lot of disappointment,” said Seymour Fliegel, one of the architects of District 4’s plan and currently working in District 28.

Officials in District 4 did not set out to adopt a choice plan, Mr. Fliegel said. Rather, they allowed groups of teachers to design their own junior high and middle schools, and when only a few schools remained as traditional comprehensive schools, district administrators decided to let every student choose his or her school.

“Choice has no real meaning if you don’t have quality and diversity to choose from,” he added. “You have to work slowly to build quality schools that have their own mission, their own dream.”

Proceeding with Caution

Even the most dedicated adherents of choice warned that ill-conceived plans could have more negative than positive effects.

Speaking of the large number of districts that have only a limited number of spaces available in magnet schools and other schools of choice, Charles Glenn, director of the bureau of equal educational opportunity in Massachusetts, cautioned that these systems may be promoting inequities.

“There is a widening gap between students who grab the brass ring--who get into the selective magnets--and those who don’t,” said Mr. Glenn.

“Choice is powerful medicine,” he added. “It has to be prescribed with care. It has to be well designed and flexibly managed.”

“Working educators’ concerns about the consequences of choice must be heard, acknowledged, and met,” Mr. Bush said in his remarks.

“And other reforms will be necessary to make choice meaningful,” he added, “greater autonomy and authority for teachers and principals, for example, along with better publicized and more reliable measurements of school performance.”

“Choice, by itself, will not solve all of our problems,” concurred Joe Nathan, an expert on the subject who is a senior fellow at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

“But it permits the freedom educators want and the opportunities students need,” he argued, “while encouraging the dynamism that our public-education system requires.”

State-level Choice

Minnesota’s “access to excellence” program, which includes open enrollment across district lines, postsecondary options for 11th and 12th graders, and a broad range of choices for at-risk students, was also held up as an example for other states.

“What we did was enact the reforms piece by piece, so that the public could gain confidence in the ability of choice to broaden both the level of participation and the level of excellence in our schools,” said Minnesota’s governor, Rudy Perpich.

The Governor won applause from some private-school advocates in the audience when he discussed his new plan to allow at-risk students to use state money to attend private, nonsectarian schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1989.)

Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin used the occasion to unveil two new proposals for choice that he will ask legislators in his state to consider this year.

The first would allow students in grades K to 6 who live in Milwaukee County to use state money to attend any public or nonsectarian private school in the county.

The Wisconsin legislature had refused last year to act on the Governor’s proposal to extend choice to both private and parochial schools. Mr. Thompson said he had scaled back his proposal to include only nonsectarian private schools in recognition of “political realities.”

The second proposal is patterned on the voluntary open-enrollment law currently in effect in Minnesota, which allows students to transfer between districts that agree to participate in the program.

“I’m confident that choice does work,” Governor Thompson said. “Let’s give it an opportunity.”

At least a dozen states currently have state-level choice proposals under consideration, most put forward by governors or other state officials.

But a measure of the lingering resistance to choice is the fact that the chairmen of education committees in only six state legislatures expect to address the choice issue this year, according to a recent survey by the National Conference of State Legislators. (See related story, page 8.)

“Works With a Vengeance”

“Choice works, and it works with a vengeance,” President Reagan said in his speech. “Choice is the most exciting thing that’s going on in America today.”

“We’re talking about reasserting the right of American parents to play a vital--perhaps the central--part in designing the kind of education they believe their children will need,” he said.

The President’s remarks early in the day, in which he pointedly left out any mention of private-school choice, set the stage for a vigorous debate on the merits of using public funds to support private-school attendance.

“By limiting choice to public schools, the bureaucracy will still be in charge, and the parents will still be at their mercy,” said Jackie DuCote, executive vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

“Choice should not just be to promote academic excellence or to pre4vent at-risk students from dropping out,” said Sister Elizabeth Avalos, a teacher at Mercy High School in San Francisco. “It should also provide equal opportunities for those parents who would like a religious education for their children.”

At the end of the day, Mr. Bush called the private sector in education “the thousand points of light” that can push public schools to innovate and improve.

Universal Choice?

Several private-school advocates noted that programs such as the G.I. bill have allowed higher-education students to choose sectarian colleges without violating the separation of church and state--a worry frequently cited by opponents of vouchers and tuition tax credits.

“Just because students are of a certain age, they shouldn’t be denied the right to make an equally free choice of schools,” said Richard Duffy, the representative for federal assistance for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

“I was disappointed the whole focus was on choice in public schools,” Mr. Duffy said of last week’s event.

“If it hadn’t been for the private-school representatives there,” he added, “I don’t think the issue of universal choice would have been raised.”

“We’re just trying to give kids in public schools what kids in private schools already have,” responded Mr. Fliegel.

A conciliatory note was struck by Gregory Anton McCants, a parent and former board president in Community District 4 in New York City.

“We don’t have to agree on what kind of choice to offer,” he said. “We don’t have to agree on how it is to be done. We only have to agree that we want more opportunity for our children.”

“We spend a lot of time justifying choice in education,” added Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and now president of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

In the American system, he said, where choice is prevalent in all other sectors of society, the question “ought to be why not?”.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Bush Pledges His Support For Choice, But Is Mum On Private-School Option


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