Question #15

How successful have actual systems of competition and choice been?

Genuine systems of competition and choice do not yet have much of a track record. Magnet schools and limited forms of open enrollment have been tried in hundreds of school systems around the country. These experiments have generally proven popular with parents and students, and have been credited with improving education of the students fortunate enough to attend schools of choice. [35] Magnet systems have also had some success in promoting desegregation, a goal that first brought many of the magnet programs into existence. But whatever the virtues of these innovations, they only hint at the prospective consequences of competition and choice. Virtually none of the existing innovations has made the kinds of changes in the demand and supply sides of public educational systems that are necessary for the results of competition and choice to be adequately observed. The results of the many experiments with competition and choice are encouraging, to be sure. But they are only encouraging; they are not confirming.

Nevertheless, there have been a few experiments with competition and choice that have made more radical changes in previous systems. These experiments support the concepts of competition and choice rather strongly. In East Harlem, New York, one of the poorest areas in the country, student achievement has been raised from the lowest in New York City to the median using a system of competition and choice that has multiplied the number, variety, and effectiveness of schools, while reducing the size and central control of them. In the state of Minnesota, students have been free to choose to attend any public school in any district in the state since the fall of 1987. The most comprehensive system of competition and choice in the United States, the Minnesota plan has not been operating long enough to gauge its effects on school performance. But the plan has proven to be workable administratively, and it has already resulted in abundant efforts by schools to reach out to students and parents. It has also encouraged school improvement without the actual transfer of many students – less than 1,000 so far. The mere threat of student departures seems to influence schools significantly. Finally, the Cambridge, Massachusetts educational system, faced with the increasing flight of affluent parents to private schools, created a system of elementary school choice in the early 1980s that has won back parents and satisfied the first or second choices of the overwhelming majority of students.