Perspectives on Public-School ‘Choice"

By Scott D. Thomson — April 19, 1989 17 min read

With uncanny clockwork, a noisy new movement hits the public schools each winter. Gathering momentum like a cattle stampede, it soon dominates the educational landscape and then quickly fades into the sunset. Later we ask, who was that masked man guiding the herd? Where did he go?

In 1988, the movement was called “restructuring.” The prior year it was “renewal,” or was it “empowerment”? Perhaps that was earlier? One forgets, as time passes rapidly. So, it seems, do educational El Dorados. They often lack the definition or the substance required to maintain staying power.

For 1989, the magic word is “choice"--or so President Bush and other prominent figures proclaimed in January at a national conference in Washington. Choice plans, it seems, will bring public schools out of the wilderness to the promised land of sensational teachers, enthralled students, committed parents, and beautiful prom queens.

But the sizzle of most trends is greater than their substance, and so it is with the concept of choice applied broadly to American schools.

Choose carefully with choice, especially with proposals for interdistrict programs. If educators fail to consider carefully the possible consequences of interdistrict plans, attention to choice might not create basic improvement but simply divert energies away from it.

Some choice strategies make good sense. Magnet schools, for example, provide students with a distinctive curriculum at each site, and their track record is strong. But they are not new; some have operated for a decade.

New to the game of choice is the notion that parents should have the option of sending their children across district boundaries in search of general education rather than specialized curricula. Less rationalized and more problematic than magnet schools, this approach raises several major questions.

First, can choice strengthen a school district currently providing only marginal education to its students?

As the researchers Ray Faidley and Steven Musser have pointed out, competitive markets do breed efficiency, but they also produce different products to accommodate differences among consumers. Thus, a Ferrari may be the automobile of choice for those who can afford it; for those who can’t, a less expensive car such as a Yugo may have to suffice.

But the quality of the two products can hardly be compared--and more important, the quality of a Yugo is only marginally affected by the existence of a Ferrari on the market. Each attracts its own customers, with different expectations for performance.

And so it would be with schools under broader systems of choice. Should Americans support an educational system as differentiated in quality as the automobile market? What would be the social implications and the economic consequences of such a development?

Schools are the one place in society where every child has a chance for an equal start. Admittedly, some starts now are more equal than others, but a choice system will simply aggravate the unevenness.

For every child who transfers to a new school district, left behind are tenfold students who lose the parental commitment and community votes necessary to improve their schools. The forces for the status quo gain strength, and improvement is blocked. The Yugos become used Yugos--because they are the product of choice for the remaining customers.

It is a bald fact of life that the families most committed to good schools are the families most likely to bail out of a mediocre system. They will make the sacrifices necessary to send students across district lines.

But while their children may win, the other students lose. The entire nation then suffers a heavy long-term loss, given the link between education and economic development. When strong parents switch rather than fight, all Americans eventually get the bill.

Viewed broadly, then, choice becomes a short-term expediency rather than an effective long-term solution. It is more likely to increase than reduce the differences in quality among school systems.

Second, educators must ask themselves how choice will improve the essentials for learning: the professional skills of teachers and the quality of resources for students.

Already, a teacher shortage is upon us, and outstanding teachers are in especially short supply. An efficient free-market system presupposes ample sources of people or products. The inefficient person or defective product is moved aside by a higher-quality replacement. But when no replacements are available, the dynamic changes. Improvements must be engineered within the available pool.

A free-market system of choice, then, will not improve teaching in mediocre districts. The poor talent and limited resources are locked in place. What we have is all we will get.

The only way out is to directly address the deficiencies. But such action is likely to occur only if the families most interested in education remain in town and fight for good schools, both at home and at the statehouse. Schools can be turned around; we have ample evidence in every state.

One strategy that does improve weak districts is providing incentives for gains in test scores or reduced dropout rates. For example, South Carolina provides major assistance to previously marginal districts and has achieved positive results.

Teachers in resource-short districts need opportunities for professional growth and resources for students, such as computer software. Losing their best students to the next community--and their best parents from the ballot box--will not help these teachers become better.

Third, how will the leadership and management of schools be strengthened by a choice system? Repeated studies affirm the value of good leadership to effective schools: Scratch an excellent school, and a strong principal usually emerges. The best principals focus on improving the educational program and the learning climate of the school. But choice won’t reinforce this emphasis.

In fact, choice programs could easily draw principals’ energies away from instructional matters toward peripheral management problems, such as refereeing the interdistrict recruitment of talent.

Secondary-school coaches are legendary for locating exceptional athletes. Their appetite is curbed by current regulations that require talented players to attend their hometown school. But what if just one more 200-pound tackle or 6-foot, 6-inch forward would assure a district championship? With choice, legal barriers against such recruiting would fall--if little Terry can transfer, why can’t big Mack?

For other competitive areas, such as music, the problems would be similar. And they would all add up to consume administrative time and attention. Who, for instance, would talk to the distressed parents whose child is replaced as quarterback or first clarinet by the transfer student?

Such concerns are only the tip of the iceberg; under choice plans, uncertainties would abound. How could administrators conduct strategic planning when school census figures mean nothing? How could budgets be set and staff contracts signed? Principals would be forced into jump-start management, seeking short-term or ad hoc solutions to fiscal and political problems.

Fourth, how will choice strengthen efforts to address the major social challenges schools face--for example, improving racial integration, helping at-risk students, combating drugs, or reducing teenage pregnancies?

In fact, choice compounds these problems. The advocates of choice freely admit that restrictions are necessary to prevent schools from becoming racially isolated. California’s school chief, Bill Honig, for instance, has made it clear in discussing a possible choice plan that student transfers would be prohibited if they interfered with desegregation programs.

Early-childhood education--not choice--will improve racial understanding. Small classes and interactive software--not choice--will strengthen mathematics skills. Drug education and strong sanctions against pushers--not choice--will reduce drug abuse.

Minnesota’s experiment with open enrollment is already running into trouble, according to Representative Bob McEachern, chairman of the state’s House Education Committee. This year, only 435 students chose to transfer to different districts, and some school officials are complaining that students are using this option to transfer to districts with better athletic teams or softer graduation standards, Mr. McEachern recently noted.

“We know it’s good for hockey, and we know it’s good for lesser graduation requirements,” he said of open enrollment. “But we’re not sure it’s good for academic reasons.”

Advocating student transfers between districts is a political statement, not an educational strategy. And like Ronald McDonald and the Kentucky Derby, choice is a solid American symbol. But symbols are not substance.

Educators should possess more professional confidence in themselves and their schools. Rather than embrace every trendy proposition, they should measure new ideas against sound educational practice.

Do we really want an educational system that generates large differences in opportunity for students? Rather, should not our democratic society aim for the highest level of eduction for all students in every community? How else as a society do we assure individual development and opportunity? How else can we compete economically among nations? How else can we claim to be the country of the common man?

Don’t break out the champagne just yet for choice. Hold the acclaim and look this one straight in the eye. Get a clear view before you decide to join the herd for 1989.

Scott D. Thomson is executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Interdistrict Program Offer ‘Expanded Opportunities’

Education Week
Volume 8, Issue 30, April 19, 1989, p 32, 24

Copyright 1989, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Interdistrict Program Offer ‘Expanded Opportunities’

By Joe Nathan

While public-school choice programs will not solve all of our schools’ problems, well-designed plans can help provide the freedom educators seek, the expanded opportunities many students need, and the dynamism the public-education system requires.

As interest in choice has grown, however, a number of misconceptions about this strategy have developed. Unless educators and policymakers reexamine these myths, a powerful tool for educational improvement will be misused.

The rationale for choice is based primarily on economic and market metaphors. Wrong. Although use of controlled competition may encourage improvements, there are in fact several other important justifications for choice among public schools. Among these, a key rationale is the recognition that there is no one best school for all students or all educators.

In the early 1970’s, the St. Paul Board of Education helped a group of parents and educators, including myself, create a K-12 public school that developed individual plans for all students, used an adviser-advisee system, combined classroom work with community service, and required demonstrated competence rather than accumulation of credits for graduation. The school won a federal award as a “carefully evaluated, proven innovation worthy of national replication.”

But while some teachers and students flourished at this school, others wanted less flexibility, and this group convinced the board to establish a second, more traditional school.

Though parents and educators in the two programs disagreed on how schools should be organized and instruction provided, both schools educated students effectively. Both enrolled a cross-section of the city’s population, and both are still open 17 years later.

The lesson of St. Paul’s experience holds true around the country. And the view that no one system works best for everyone is not inconsistent with “effective schools” research. An effective school requires a clear philosophy and a staff committed to its goals--and part of the strength of the finest public alternative schools is the distinctive character of their programs. Effective schools are not identical schools.

Choice may undercut efforts to promote equity. To the contrary, a second rationale for more choice rests on the value of expanding opportunities for all students.

The crucial question here is whether, by adopting choice plans, policymakers will narrow affluent families’ educational advantage. The rich already have choice of schools: They can send their children to private schools or pay tuition to another public-school district; they can move to an exclusive suburb and send their children to a “public” school where the price of admission is the ability to purchase an expensive home and pay high real-estate taxes.

These arguments are a familiar element of debates about educational-voucher plans, in which tax funds would pay for students to attend public, private, and parochial schools.

For many people, choice among public schools is an acceptable compromise. In Minnesota, for example, a number of groups that oppose vouchers--such as the Minnesota pta, League of Women Voters, Elementary and Secondary Principals, and Association of Alternative Programs--endorsed Gov. Rudy Perpich’s proposals for more public-school choice.

Some opponents of choice contend that expanding opportunity may be fine in theory, but in practice it will be the most affluent and informed who use choice systems for their children. But sound plans attract students from all backgrounds.

Programs in New York’s East Harlem and in Cambridge, Mass., show that choice can help produce systemwide improvements, including significant gains in achievement and motivation for black and Hispanic students from low-income groups. Each of these districts has made every school at certain levels an option. Both systems provide two critical features: parent information and counseling, and transportation to schools.

Minnesota’s experience also is encouraging. Many of the students who have used our “postsecondary options” and “second chance” programs come from low-income families. And the percentage of minority students who signed up for open enrollment in 1988-89 is slightly higher than the percentage of minorities in overall enrollment.

Many young people from low-income backgrounds will not reach their potential if they all are required to attend schools with a single instructional philosophy. Some will blossom, for example, in a strict traditional school, or one that emphasizes performing arts along with basic skills. Others will do better in a Montessori program.

Charles Glenn, director of the Massachusetts education department’s office of educational equity, has noted that “choice can do much to promote equity. It does so by creating conditions which encourage schools to become more effective ... by allowing schools to specialize and thus to meet the needs of some students very well rather than all students at a level of minimum adequacy, and by increasing the influence of parents over the education of their children in a way which is largely conflict-free.”

There is little, if any, research showing that public-school choice has a positive impact. Mary Anne Raywid of Hofstra University, who has spent more than a decade study4ing choice plans, reports otherwise. From her research, she concludes that providing families with options among public schools can have dramatic positive results.

Ms. Raywid cites more than 120 studies indicating that when families have the opportunity to select among different kinds of public schools, students’ academic achievement and attitudes improve. Graduation rates have also risen.

In addition, Ms. Raywid has found that parents allowed to choose among different schools are more involved, supportive, and satisfied.

While research on Minnesota’s programs is limited, it is encouraging. More than 12,000 students have taken advantage of the state’s postsecondary-options law, adopted in 1985. Many of them were not doing particularly well in high school; hundreds had dropped out in frustration or boredom. But such young people are earning grades as high or higher than those of college freshmen in rigorous courses at postsecondary institutions.

Another choice law, enacted in 1987, enables youngsters who are not succeeding in one district to attend public school in another district. This law has been used by several thousand students, about half of whom are returning to school after having dropped out.

And Minnesota’s choice policies have helped stimulate improvement for students who decide to stay in a district, as well as for those who transfer. The number of Advanced Placement courses offered has quadrupled since high-school students gained the right to attend postsecondary institutions. More than 30 high schools have created new cooperative courses with universities since the program began.

The primary beneficiaries of school choice are parents and students. In well-designed choice plans, educators benefit along with parents and students: They are given the time and freedom to create distinctive programs.

Ms. Raywid’s research shows much higher morale among educators who have helped develop alternative approaches or worked in nontraditional public schools than among educators in conventional programs. They have been empowered; their ideas are respected.

This outcome helps explain why choice plans complement “school-based management” programs--and why neither choice nor school-based management is sufficient by itself. With choice only, a school may try to implement many different approaches--open, fundamental, Montessori, language-immersion, performing-arts--at one time; the result is a bland mediocrity satisfying almost no one.

And school-based management without choice can lead to frustrating conflicts. What happens when some parents, teachers, and students do not like the established program?

While choice within a district may be acceptable, interdistrict choice is a bad idea. Some of the strongest proponents of interdistrict choice are parents and youth workers from rural areas. They have testified about being “captives” in certain districts; they have asked for alternative programs or advanced-mathematics or science courses--funding of which would require modest decreases in athletic budgets--only to be called “elitist.”

Participants in Minnesota’s second-chance program, which has enabled thousands of youngsters who were not doing well in one school to attend another outside their district, have said that the new opportunity changed their lives.

And certain legal limits shape the overall impact of interdistrict choice in Minnesota: The programs cannot have a negative effect on desegregation, and districts may not select students on the basis of previous grades or behavior.

But what works in Minnesota may not be appropriate in other states, as Governor Perpich has noted. After examining the results of choice in Minnesota, Massachusetts, East Harlem, and elsewhere, other states and districts should determine how it can best be applied to help solve their most pressing problems.

Nevertheless, all proposals are not equally effective. To increase the likelihood of success, all plans should:

Clearly state goals and guidelines for schools;

Provide information and counseling to help parents select among various programs;

Avoid “first come, first served” admissions procedures and prohibit admissions on the basis of past achievement or behavior;

Offer opportunities for building-level educators at a range of schools to help create distinctive programs, rather than concentrate resources on a few schools;

Make transportation within a reasonable area available for all students.

Require that dollars follow students;

Implement racial-balance procedures that promote integration;

Continue oversight and modification.

Choice is an alternative to spending money. Both liberal and conservative governors are proposing public-school choice plans because choice reinforces other education-improvement efforts. Expanding educator and parental choice encourages better use of existing funds, but it also costs money. So do providing time for staff and program development, and arranging parent information and transportation. While these costs need not be staggering, they are real.

Seventy percent of the public thinks parents should be able to select among public schools. Chris Wilcox agrees. A Minnesota student who had not succeeded in one public school, Chris used the state’s new laws to attend an alternative school and a local community college.

He recently wrote that choice “gave me the chance to personalize my education and the confidence that I can make something of myself and control my own destiny.”

There are millions of youngsters like Chris who will benefit from well-designed public-school choice plans. Let’s move ahead thoughtfully but decisively.

Joe Nathan, a former public-school teacher and administrator, is senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He coordinated the National Governors’ Association’s project, Time for Results. This essay is adapted from a new book edited by Mr. Nathan, Public Schools by Choice: Expanding Opportunities for Parents, Students, and Teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 1989 edition of Education Week as Perspectives on Public-School ‘Choice”