Why do some people judge a proposed reform against a standard of perfection instead of against the status quo? When it's obvious that the reform isn't perfect, they say we should accept things as they are even though the status quo is bad and the reform would be an improvement.
No better example of this exists in public policy debate today than the matter of public school choice. Should Michigan law permit parents to choose a public school that best suits their children's needs even if that school is located on the other side of an invisible political boundary known as a school district border? In the land of the free and the home of the brave, such a proposition should hardly invoke visions of apocalypse-but in the minds of some, it actually does.
Senator Bill Schuette has proposed a bill in Lansing that says simply this: If parents prefer a school outside the district of their residence, and that school is willing and able to accept their child, the home district's approval will no longer be required to permit the transfer. That was precisely the case in Michigan until 1982. Only the State's per pupil aid would follow the child to the receiving district; the home district still would keep whatever revenue it derives from the local property taxes paid by the parents who have opted out.
If parents choose one of Michigan's new charter schools, the law says they can do so without the approval of the local district. This new choice initiative actually applies that principle to all public schools, which even non-reformers ought to embrace as a measure to level the competitive playing field.
The Schuette bill does not force anyone to do anything. No child will be bumped from a place in his home district to make way for a child from another district. No district would be ordered to accept any particular number of non-local students and no district would be given authority to violate the civil rights of any students in their admissions policies. But parents who find that a willing school in another district is the best one for their child, or is actually closer than the one assigned to them, will have an option formerly available only to the wealthy. Fair enough?
Not to Representative James Agee of Muskegon, Minority Vice-Chair of the House Education Committee and a retired public-school superintendent. Agee denounced the initiative in very strong, if not hysterical, terms: elitist, a nightmare, and no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Using class warfare vocabulary, he said that public school choice reeks (yes, reeks!) of private education and that The poor will become poorer and the rich will become richer. Poor families, he suggested, might even sacrifice food on the dinner table in order to pay to transport their children to a school of their choice.
The government, in other words, should make sure the poor eat their dinners by forcing their children to go to schools they don t like. In some quarters these days, that passes as compassionate public policy.
These are the unemotional facts of the matter: Under today's system, if a parent is lucky enough to convince a home district school board to release a child to another district, the other district can say no for all of the reasons Representative Agee and choice opponents fear might motivate it if the Schuette bill becomes law. The difference would be that the child would be coming with a portable State aid check in hand-a powerful incentive to have only good reasons for saying no, such as space limitations or maintaining desired teacher-student ratios.
Some say that a high-spending district would never accept a student from a low-spending district if it had to absorb the difference between the student's State aid and its own spending level. But the cost of adding a new student is usually lower than a district's average cost for all students, so cross-district choice need not pose an insurmountable financial dilemma. Allowing choice permits parents and schools to work this out; the status quo effectively denies them that option.
Though it is true that many parents wouldn't or couldn't exercise the cross-district choice option if they had it, that's no argument for denying it to everybody. It isn't necessary for everyone to leave a restaurant for the chef to get the message to improve the menu. Where service providers are accountable to customers in a competitive market, the fact that even a few might go elsewhere works to the benefit of every customer. In Minnesota, now five years into the very experience Senator Schuette envisions for Michigan, cross-district choice has done precisely that and enjoys as much as 76 percent support in statewide polls.
In the pre-Civil War debates about slavery, there were those who saw all sorts of problems with freeing the slaves. Will they make the right choices if they re free? Some may even have wondered whether or not they might skip their dinners. The day is coming when we will view the rantings of the anti-school choice extremists in the same light. We will ask them, Instead of opposing freedom, why didn't you put your thinking caps on and help us make it work?