SCHOOL CHOICE: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF AMERICAN EDUCATION. By Peter W. Cookson Jr. Yale University Press. 152 pages. $20.
THOSE WAITING for a short, readable and informative book on the hot issue of school choice will probably want to read Peter Cookson Jr.'s latest work. Be forewarned, however, seekers of ammunition for the position that school choice represents a panacea or Pandora's box will be confronted with a somewhat more ambigious slant. Indeed, the book is a notable departure from the polemics that have dominated this issue.
Mr. Cookson, a college professor who is known to be a moderate voice in the debate over school choice, gives the reader a sense of how the school choice movement arose, what forms it has taken and how it has faired where it has been implemented both here and abroad. In the final chapter, the author offers a modest proposal for improving public education using the principles of school choice.
Most people who have followed the school choice debate would have little trouble accepting Mr. Cookson's position that the rise in people's faith in markets and the attendant decline in their belief in government has contributed greatly to the growth of the school choice movement. This was especially true by the mid 1980s when conservative efforts to improve public schools by other means seemed not to be bearing fruit. These factors, the author points out, fed a burgeoning public perception that private schools were academically and socially superior to public schools, which consequently made choice plans seem even more attractive, particularly to those interested in equity issues.
Whatever the etiology, choice plans were bound to take a variety of forms, as their proponents covered a broad political spectrum. Mr. Cookson aptly discerns that the forms these plans take have significant consequences not only for achievement, but also for the climates of the schools and the nature of the communities in which the experiments occur. He discusses the basic types of choice plans, including vouchers, charter schools, tax credits and what he calls "controlled" choice, where choice is restricted.
Key among the systems he examines where choice plans have been implemented is Minnesota, which has probably the largest U.S. choice plan. It allows for unrestricted choice of public
schools and encourages the growth of private school enrollment through tuition tax credits. Voucher plans, such as the limited experiment being tried in Milwaukee, afford a small percentage of parents the opportunity to send their children to any public or participating private school.
Based on preliminary results, the author suggests that there is little evidence to support the belief that such school choice plans will be widely used, or that they will lead to innovation.
In reviewing the international efforts to improve education through school choice plans, the author is even less sanguine. Typically, he finds situations such as the one in Scotland prevailing, where fewer than 10 percent of parents remove their children from their designated schools. Or, as researchers have discovered in Britain and Australia, better educated parents tend to exercise choice more frequently than those with less education.
Where the author does see hope, however, is in the "controlled" choice plans in Cambridge, Mass., and White Plains, N.Y. Those districts provide parents with a system of choice that aggressively attempts to place each child in one of the three schools that the parent has selected. Mr. Cookson views these plans favorably because (1) they attempt to create racial and class balance, (2) they educate parents about the schools through an extensive parent-information network, and (3) they appear to operate under a democratic, community-based model that views schooling as a manifestation of citizenship rather than consumership.
When Mr. Cookson moves from description to analysis, there is pause for thought. For instance, he cites factors such as increased use of whole language reading instruction and greater parental support as evidence of the accomplishments of the controlled choice programs. While such innovations may eventually improve student achievement, it's not immediately clear.
In discussing the widespread choice that exists in the Netherlands, he dismisses its impact, citing little innovation there.
Despite some shortcomings, this book contributes significantly to our understanding of the school choice issue and serves to remind us that reform must proceed from democratic, not market, principles.
Craig B. Schulze is assistant principal of Harford Heights Elementary School in Baltimore City.