A new wave of school reform is beginning to sweep the nation. From coast to coast school boards and state legislatures are looking at ways to use parental choice, an innovative concept in school organization, to improve education. This is exciting because parental choice represents a genuinely promising approach to school improvement. Properly implemented, parental choice would eliminate perhaps the most crucial source of school failure in the United States today and create powerful new forces for school success in the years ahead. But parental choice may never fulfill its promise. Like so many past waves of reform, it may wash over the country's educational systems without making a desirable difference.
Parental choice may not fulfill its promise for precisely the same reason it has so much of it. A basic premise underlying the concept of parental choice is that America's educational systems are a large part of the reason that American education is mediocre. Organized as public monopolies, America's schools and school systems have come to exhibit many of the potentially serious problems – excessive regulation, inefficient operation, and ineffective service – that are inherent in this form of organization. If these problems are to be more than temporarily alleviated, America's educational systems will need to be reorganized fundamentally. Public school monopolies will need to be opened to competition, and social control over schools will need to be exercised less through politics and central regulation and more through markets and parental choice.
There are many reasons to believe that such reforms will promote school improvement. But what makes parental choice an especially promising idea is that it tries to get at the root of the problem of educational mediocrity. Unlike so many past reforms that treated symptoms and were eventually undone by our systems of education, parental choice tries to eliminate a basic source of mediocrity, the systems themselves. By aiming to do so, however, parental choice may ultimately never be able to fulfill its great promise: really changing any system as thoroughly institutionalized as public education may be more than today's reformers are willing or able to do.
Still, parental choice has made it onto political and governmental agendas around the country, was recently endorsed by the Bush administration, and is in limited use in many places already. In the next few years, parental choice is bound to be implemented, in one way or another, in more states and districts. The opportunity does exist for parental choice to make a desirable difference in public education. But the opportunity could easily be squandered or lost if reformers fail to appreciate the basic reason that choice has so much promise – that it provides the means to restructure the way American education is provided. If reformers do not understand this, if they see choice as just another reform to be turned over to our educational systems to implement and to control, choice will not make much of a difference. Fortunately, there are many sound reasons why reformers sincerely concerned about the quality of American schools should favor systemic change, and should support a system of educational choice. Our purpose here is to supply a good number of those reasons.
We shall do so by trying to answer the questions that we most frequently are asked by politicians, journalists, administrators, and educators who have read our work on school performance and reform, or who are otherwise interested in educational choice. We have already written many professional and popular articles on the causes of effective and ineffective schools. And the Brookings Institution has published a book in which our findings are elaborated, and the final results of our nationwide study – of 400 high schools and over 20,000 students, teachers, and principals – are reported in detail. But that work, however accessible we have tried to make it, was not written expressly for those interested in reform, and may not directly answer some of the important questions that reformers have. Here we try to answer those questions – and to show why reformers should give choice a chance.