School Choice Emerges, Albeit Briefly, At National Summit

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For the first time at a national education summit, the issue of school choice popped up on the agenda.

But, to the dismay of its proponents, it was not given a prominent place in the debate or in the action statement adopted by participants.

"I'm convinced that more choice for parents is a catalyst for accelerating the good ideas that are being talked about here," Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said in an interview. He successfully pushed his legislature last spring to pass the nation's first statewide voucher program. "It's a little like putting your foot on the accelerator," he said.

But Mr. Bush, a Republican, added that "maybe it's not politically correct" to talk about school choice at an event designed to build consensus.

In the statement adopted at the 1999 National Education Summit late last week, the group of 100 governors, business executives, and education leaders essentially agreed to disagree on the subject.

The statement says that, while participants can unite around public school choice, they can't reach consensus on vouchers for private school tuition.

The statement did not commit summit attendees to take any action on the issue, unlike its call for steps to improve the quality of teachers and stay the course on setting up accountability systems. (See related story, Page 1.)

While the choice provision was absent from earlier drafts of the statement, its inclusion here did not satisfy advocates, who see competition as an important ingredient to any attempt to improve public schools.

But summit organizers were determined not to derail attempts to come to consensus on other matters, such as the need they see for establishing systems of accountability that provide incentives for schools to improve student achievement.

"I happen to be a passionate believer in choice, but it has the tendency to polarize," said Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, the co-chairman of the summit. "We do not want to come together to a summit and polarize the different groups and create animosity," said the Wisconsin Republican.

The goal of the summit was to select a few specific actions, such as strengthening accountability, that every sector represented could act on immediately, according to Susan Traiman, the director of the education initiative for the Business Roundtable, the Washington-based consortium of leading corporations that co-sponsored the summit.

Liberating the Schools

While the town-hall-style discussion here steered away from vouchers, one participant offered a proposal for radically expanding the number of charter schools.

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, said educators know how to create schools that serve urban, minority, low-income children well, but they don't know how to run effective school systems.

"It's entirely possible that we should give up the ghost on that," he said. "It's time to ask the question whether we shouldn't charterize every school. ... We need to liberate the schools to educate the children."

Under his proposal, urban superintendents would become chief accreditation officers of schools in their communities, appointed by the state superintendent to issue charters and monitor performance. But they would no longer be directly involved in operating schools, and urban school boards would cease to exist.

But Gov. Bush of Florida and other advocates for choice said vouchers also need to be integral elements in plans to encourage improvements in schools.

Charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of market-based competition force schools to change immediately, according to another outspoken choice proponent. School officials react as soon as their enrollments drop and state per-pupil funding starts to decline, argues Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group that runs a privately financed choice program in Dayton, Ohio.

"It causes change faster than a new test or accountability system handed down from the state capital," said Mr. Finn.

Other supporters of choice, however, agreed with Gov. Thompson's approach of avoiding controversy at the expense of losing consensus.

The vague mention of choice is what you get "when you've got a committee of 100 trying to write a statement," Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican, said in an interview.

Waxing or Waning?

Critics of choice argued that the lack of attention to it here suggests that its power is waning.

"There seems to be more of an understanding that we've got to devote the time and attention to the issue of improving the quality of public education," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, who attended the Sept. 30-Oct. 1 summit as one of several experts available to advise participants.

"This is a group of people whom you would expect, if there was going to be a major push for that--the business community and governors--they would do it," said Mr. Cross, whose Washington-based group advocates high standards.

In the end, the actions taken here probably won't have any impact on the choice debate, said Mr. Finn, another of the resource people at the summit.

Its future is going to be decided by the existing voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida, he argued. "It would benefit from a boost [from the education summit], but it's happening anyway," he said. "It certainly won't be retarded by what's happening here."

Vol. 19, Issue 6, Page 21

Published in Print: October 6, 1999, as School Choice Emerges, Albeit Briefly, At National Summit
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