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
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.