A big omission from both Kentucky's and Tennessee's school reforms is parental choice. Joe Nathan of the Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis calls this a tragic mistake. His evaluation of the results of school choice in Minnesota shows that it improves performance--something not yet demonstrated for school-based management and improved accountability alone.
Educators in Kentucky and Tennessee retort that choice means little in their rural eastern counties, many of which have only one school and little transport. They fear that choice, especially if extended to private schools, could lead to two-tier education or the re-emergence of segregated schools. Advocates of choice say this should not happen so long as it is pupils that choose schools, not the other way round. The best test for both sides, as with other much-talked-about school reforms, will come when the results of change are known.
Until then it might be worth watching Britain, where the 1988 Education Act is using a mixture of local management, increased accountability, and greater parental choice to raise standards. By making finance depend partly on the number of children a school can attract--in effect by turning each pupil into a voucher--and by published results of national tests--the goverment hopes to channel money to the best schools.
The federal government loves to say that more money will not solve America's education problems. But reforming states have found that more money is a necessary way of getting entrenched interest groups behind school reform. Even if the money is found at the state level, it affects Washington because state income taxes are deductible from federal taxes. If [U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar] Alexander is to make his mark, he may find himself battling federal budgeteers as well as state educators.
--From the March 16, 1991, issue of The Economist.
Vol. 10, Issue 33