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Give choice a chance


PRESIDENT Bush's decision to move education to the top of his domestic agenda underscores two increasingly urgent realities. First, the nation is dissatisfied with the performance of its public schools. And second, unless schools improve dramatically, the United States will have disqualified itself from the global economy of the 21st century.

The president's plan would provide parents with public funds to educate their children at the public or private schools of their choice. I have opposed ideas like this for most of my 20 years in public education. Instead of allowing parents to leave failing schools, we should work to make all schools successful.

But recently, I have changed my mind. Seven years after the schools were declared to have created "a nation at risk," public education has failed to respond in any meaningful way. Despite the best efforts of thousands of teachers, significant increases in spending and lots of talk about restructuring, little about the way we do business in the classroom has changed.

I am convinced that the absence of choice, more than any other factor, explains the incredible resistance that public education has exhibited toward reform. As long as parents and taxpayers have no alternative, the system will prefer the status quo to the rigors of real improvement. It is no longer a question of better teachers, new programs or more money for the system. It is a question of the system itself. While parental choice is not a panacea, it is the only realistic strategy capable of breaking the logjam of intransigence.

School choice is consistent with basic American values. We expect to have choices in the careers we pursue, the automobiles we drive and the restaurants we patronize. Parents who can afford to live in an affluent community or pay tuition at a private school have been choosing their children's schools for decades. For some reason, choice is only controversial when it ++ comes to the middle class and the poor.

Choice provides an incentive for productivity and quality. A protected monopoly will never work as hard to improve performance and control costs as will an organization that faces the competition of the marketplace.

Choice sets the stage for teacher professionalism. Most successful businesses have learned the importance of extending ownership and authority to front-line employees. But public schools continue to burden teachers and principals with a stultifying web of rule-makers and regulators.

When this system of bureaucratic accountability is replaced with the natural discipline of the marketplace, the faculty will concentrate on teaching children and serving families, rather than on complying with administrative directives. Educators will finally enjoy the respect -- and exercise the responsibility -- associated with other professions. Teaching will retain many of its bright, energetic educators and attract others who, under present circumstances, do not consider it a career.

Because education is a state responsibility, it is up to the governor and legislators to see that parents have the right to choose schools that are best for their children. Parental choice should extend to any public school. Parents should also be able to choose any non-sectarian private schools that commit themselves to open enrollment and equal opportunity.

Choice poses no threat to good teachers and effective schools. Because both are in short supply, they can only flourish in a free market. Choice poses no threat to equal opportunity. In fact, a properly fashioned choice plan would undo the inequities the system of public education has long imposed on the poor and the disadvantaged.

Public education is responsible for much that is good about the United States. But as institutions, the public schools have stood still while the tides of social, technological and economic change have passed them by. We can continue to pour the talents of teachers and the treasure of our communities into a system that is fundamentally incapable of doing much better, or we can realize that the values of public education require new rules for schooling our children. The hour is late, and the stakes are high.

3' It is time to give choice a chance.

Stephen C. Tracy is superintendent of schools in New Milford, Conn.

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