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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Perspectives / Making Choice Work

      The animosity between advocates and opponents of choice inschools is intense. When not citing research funded by their ownideologically compatible groups, supporters and opponents quotefrom the same studies but offer differing conclusions and thencall the other side's interpretation disingenuous.
      Privatization in schools has grown considerably in the pastdecade, though, and choice in public school offerings hasincreased as well. This summer, we can expect to hear from theU.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of a law that allowsCleveland, Ohio, parents with low incomes to use public dollarsin the form of vouchers to pay for their children'seducation at religious schools.
      What do objective sources (if there are any) say about theimportant questions related to vouchers and charter schools? Doeschoice enhance achievement for all students, give opportunityto the poorest students most in need of a better education, helpintegrate schools by race and class, and encourage innovationin instruction? Does it cost more or less than education ina neighborhood public school? Will increased opportunity forparents to choose the school, curriculum, and instruction fortheir children further democratic ideals? Will choice promotehealthy competition among schools, or will it cripple publicschool efforts by funneling money away from them?
      Although no one can answer any of these questions definitivelyat this time, a comprehensive analysis from RANDEducation looks at what we know and don'tknow about the effectiveness of vouchers and charter schools.(See p. 90 for a Special Report on this study.) On the one hand,researchers conclude that students in some choice schools showmodest, short-term gains on tests and that participating parentsare satisfied with the schools they choose. On the other hand,effects on the achievement of students in public schools andwhether choice increases integration or promotes citizenship areunknown.
      To maximize the benefits and minimize the harm associatedwith vouchers and charter schools, the RAND researchers make thefollowing recommendations (among others) for policymakers:
      Enforce requirements for testing and informationdissemination. Student achievement in choice schools mustbe evaluated objectively and reported publicly. Unfortunately,in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the longest operating voucherexperiment, the state eliminated the requirement for annualevaluation five years into the program. Without reliable data,researchers will never discern the complex variables that may bethe causes of success or failure. In addition to collecting testdata, researchers need to follow the students up to and aftergraduation.
      Require open admissions. To preventmostly high-achieving students from exiting the public schools,thereby reducing the achievement of those left behind, theresearchers recommend that voucher/charter schools admit allapplicants or admit by lottery if they are oversubscribed.
      Give public schools the autonomy to act competitively.Choice advocates and public school defenders alike often notethat extensive regulations hamper innovation and are the reasonthat conventional schools remain conventional. Whereas equitableadmission policies and some testing must take place in all schoolsthat receive public money, overregulation of public schools andunderregulation of choice schools is unfair and unlikely to helpschools learn from one another.
      Permit existing schools (public, private, andparochial) to participate in choice programs. Evidenceshows that it takes start-up programs longer than one year toproduce good results.
      Provide generous funding for schools that servelow-income students, including supplemental funding for studentswith special needs. We can never hope to balance theglaring inequities in resources or close achievement gaps if weincrease the racial and economic stratification that now existsin schools.
      As authors in this issue of Educational Leadershippoint out, educators who seek reform and innovation are notphilosophically opposed to efforts that propose to boost achievement,transcend bureaucratic rules, and target the poorest studentsmost in need of a good education. But the details of implementationdo matter. This issue looks at some of the controversies thatsurround choice and the customization of schools. Our authorsmay disagree with one another, but they offer their research,experience, and opinions to help readers understand one of themost contentious issues of our time.
      End Notes

      1 Gill, B. P., Timpane, P. M.,Ross, K. E., & Brewer, D. J. (2001). Rhetoricversus reality: What we know and what we need to know aboutvouchers and charter schools. Santa Monica, CA: RANDEducation.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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