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First National Commission on Choice in K-12 Education Urges More Funding for Charters and Vouchers, More Autonomy to Hire and Fire

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Jeff Henig, Professor of Political Science

Jeff Henig, Professor of Political Science

The National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education has concluded a two-year study that details the good that can be done if school choice is well implemented and the harm that can result if it is done quickly, carelessly and on the cheap. It also recommends ample funding-making the case that this will help prevent segregation-more autonomy for all schools to hire teachers on the basis of fit, and raises questions about the capacity of existing school districts to properly oversee choice. The report, School Choice: Doing it the Right Way Makes a Difference, was released on November 17th.

Jeff Henig, one of 14 members of the commission and Professor of Political Science at TC said, "This report is meant as a guide. It is not a step-by-step roadmap, or a list of "dos and don'ts." But it does begin to lay out a way to think about school choice policies that can help citizens and officials escape the centrifugal forces of ideology and partisan competition."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation funded the Commission, which was administered and staffed at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. The Commission's task was to explore how school choice works and to examine how communities could develop new school options while avoiding choice's potential damage. It defined choice as any arrangement that gives parents options among schools.

The report said there was a real chance that choice would benefit children and improve schools if done well. It identified the following risks if choice programs are poorly designed: children left behind if their parents don't take advantage of the new options, public schools left behind with the least-qualified teachers, separatist schools that teach hatred or discrimination or stratify students by income, class or race, and increased segregation.

"As we went about our work, we became convinced that the ideological fervor and conviction of those on each side of the debate mask a great deal of uncertainty," said Paul Hill, chair of the Commission and a research professor of public affairs at the University of Washington. "Each side has asserted that particular outcomes of choice are certain to occur. However, as we soon learned, results good and bad depend on many things. The effects, far from being inevitable, depend on how choice programs are implemented."

According to Henig, "The so-called school choice movement in the U.S. has had two very different streams. One is rooted in a market vision that conceives of choice in terms of privatization and vouchers-as something that happens largely outside of and despite governmental oversight and democratic control. This is the stream that stirs the most intense and ideological responses-pro and con-and has dominated public debate. The other stream is rooted in a different vision, one based on notions of alternative legitimate forms of pedagogy and organization, adaptation to varied student needs and interests, decentralization, and new forms of public service delivery to adapt to a changing world. This stream is more pragmatic and incrementalist in its orientation; it seeks to make public education better, not to displace it with a radically different model.

While less dramatic in its claims, it is this second group that has led to the substantial changes in the American education landscape that the Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education took as its starting point. Choice, embedded within and responsive to democratic processes and public institutions, is growing and is here to stay. But there are very important political and policy decisions that communities must make if they are to ensure that choice creates healthy and effective schools that work for all students, including the least advantaged."

American public education is no longer a monolithic, one-size-fits-all system, the report says. Options in public schooling are increasing at a surprising pace, with 41 states having legislation that provides for charter schools, and six states with state-funded voucher programs. Charter schools and home schooling were both a rarity 10 years ago, but today, there are roughly 2,700 charter schools educating nearly 750,000 children. In 1999, some 850,000 were being schooled at home, according to the National Center on Education Statistics.

The Commission report asserts that choice in American public education will continue to grow, so it behooves elected leaders, policymakers and educators to engage in careful, deliberate planning, including making sure there is adequate funding.

While some believe that even careful, judicious expansion of choice threatens public education, the report says it all depends upon how communities and policy makers proceed. "It is equally possible that, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt used the power of government to save capitalism from itself, current state and local leaders can employ the power of choice to improve their chances of achieve the great goals of public education," the report concludes.

For a full copy of the report as well as information about other Brown Center events and publications, please visit the Brown Center on Education's Web site at www.brookings.edu/browncenter.previous page