“I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this.” So began Ronald Reagan’s landmark 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing.” He went on to say, “You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down.” So it is with American public education. Our decisions either move us up, providing more students with a great education, or they move us down to poorly performing schools and lower graduation rates. Forget left and right; think up or down.
Consider school choice, for example. So far it’s been mostly left/right arguments that quickly deteriorate into partisan buzzwords and talking points, with virtually no honest or legitimate debate. For those on the left, perseveration of the present system proves paramount, while those on the right speak of vouchers for private schools as though private schools are the panacea for all that ails public education. That’s not a debate about school choice; it’s just a political divide with each side retreating to the shelter of its rhetoric.
Recasting the Issue
Recast as an up or down debate, virtually everyone agrees that choice is better than no choice, that having options is better than not having options. School choice moves us up, because school choice promotes diversity; school choice promotes quality teaching; school choice promotes parental involvement; school choice promotes innovative leadership; school choice promotes accountability; school choice promotes economic efficiency; and school choice promotes investment in education.
How does it do these things? It naturally promotes these ends by forcing fundamental changes in focus and in funding. In a broadly implemented school choice model, the focus naturally shifts to attracting and effectively educating students. Competing for students makes schools better academically and socially. School choice also fundamentally changes funding so that it follows students to schools they choose to attend rather than flowing to schools to which students are assigned based on where they live.
Charter schools—that is, public schools with a legal charter to operate independently of local school boards or union contracts—are a step in the right direction to school choice. Like other public schools, they don’t select students based on achievement or aptitude and they don’t charge tuition, but they are generally free to innovate. The problem with charter schools, despite President Obama’s support for them, is that there are just too few to make much of a difference. Even with the president’s push to lift state caps on the number of charter schools allowed, things have changed only a little so far. New York, for example, where Governor Paterson also supports charter schools, raised its cap from 100 to 200 charter schools, but that barely moves the needle toward school choice. New York City alone has some 1,100 schools, so not only is the total still way too small, but even that cap change came with compromise, as the protectors of the system only allowed the increase in exchange for a law automatically unionizing any charter school with an enrollment exceeding 250 students. In the end it’s just a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward result for real choice.
The Penalty of Perseveration
In his first major speech on education, President Obama postulated that “the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens,” and he opened the door to debate about school choice with his push for more charter schools. But expanding the limited choice opportunities afforded by current charter school legislation is just a start. The most important step to finding the best solutions is to avoid the penalty of perseveration, which is the price we pay when we worry too much about how expanding charters or some other new initiative will affect the established model and power structure of public schooling in force now. Instead we should be focused on how new approaches can improve outcomes for students, even if it means creating an entirely new public school structure.
We should accept the president’s invitation to engage in vigorous debate about charters and school improvement. That’s the only way to make school choice a reality for all families, not just the wealthy. We will move up or we will move down. It’s our choice.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.