The Problem of School Choice
Is it right to force students to attend the schools prescribed for them by geography? Is it fair to deny students who live in poorer neighborhoods the chance to go to better schools with better facilities, better teachers and safer conditions? Should we allow our tax revenues to leave our school districts for greener pastures? Should we permit schools poor in both resources and performance to wither on the vine, an acceptable casualty of competition?
Because of dissatisfaction with many public schools, particularly those in large urban settings, a movement to allow students to choose alternatives to their assigned schools has sprung up in various parts of the country and abroad. Proponents argue that competition for students (and their attendent tax revenues) will automatically make all schools better. They point to towns in Vermont who have no schools of their own and allow all their students to pick from surrounding public and private schools, applying their tax dollars to those entities. They talk about the successes of magnet schools and charter schools and link the school choice concept to our basic rights under the Constitution.
What kind of American would argue with that? What kind of capitalist would disagree with the beneficial effect on performance brought about by competition? Who wouldn't love the idea that students could pick their schools based on quality or experience of teachers, special offerings or curricula? Who doesn't cringe when they see images on television of graffiti-scarred inner city schools with bars on the windows and fear in the eyes of their students? Wouldn't we all want to see students escape these schools?
Of course we would. But let's consider why some schools in some neighborhoods have fallen so far. One problem is that our society has stopped seeing public education as something that benefits the whole community. As our populace ages, especially in small, old towns, more and more voters begrudge spending on schools, students and teachers. School board candidates, knowing who votes, campaign as "taxpayer advocates" much more often than they run as "student advocates." The voters want to pay as little as possible and get acceptable results. For many of them, acceptable results means graduating most of their students with as few problems as possible. Innovation is seen as an expensive, unproven luxury that taxpayers on fixed incomes cannot afford. Buildings are maintained at the lowest possible functional level; aesthetic improvements rank very low in budget priorities.
In inner city schools, a smaller proportion of the cost of educating students comes from local tax revenues; more comes from state sources. If there's one iron-clad truth it's that, as much as taxpayers dislike paying taxes to support their local schools, they hate their tax dollars going to schools outside their community even more. So the impoverished schools are...