Supporters of education vouchers, convinced that choice and competition are the keys to genuine education reform, will love what Norman Macrae has to say on the subject. Teachers' unions and other opponents of vouchers, who see the idea as elitist and destructive of public education, will deplore it.
Voucher agnostics (and I include myself) might find that the proposal not only answers most doubts but also makes sense on issues they've never much thought about.
Although his piece (in the Sept. 20, 1986, London Economist) is about British schools, Macrae knows a good deal about America's public-education problem and more than most Americans about the best of the voucher experiments. His conclusion is that what public education needs is: Vouchers-plus.
The key features of his scheme include these:
The schools should be run not by local authorities but by boards consisting primarily of parents of current enrollees.
A school's budget would be based on the number of pupils it was able to attract: a per-semester "capitation fee" based on current costs and, therefore, requiring no new outlays.
Enrollment would be open; parents could send a child to any school that would accept him.
Since the latter two features might come into conflict -- a superior school might reject underachieving or troublesome youngsters -- capitation payments would be higher for the most-rejected categories of students, highest for the 5 percent or so thought to be unschoolable. Even the worst youngster might get into the school of his choice if he brought with him a big enough voucher.
Not that all parents would want their children in the equivalent of the Bronx High School of Science. Indeed, says Macrae, Britain has made the mistake of copying the American notion of trying to provide essentially the same college-oriented education for all children, hoping that the lower achievers would be leveled up (while trying to allay the fears of more affluent parents that their high-achieving youngsters would be leveled down).
His proposal would follow the West German model, which has only about a quarter of students attending the college-prep Gymnasium. A third attend Realschule -- a technical or vocational school that typically leads to an apprenticeship. That still leaves nearly half of the West German youngsters to attend Hauptschule, the lowest of the three tracks. But a tenth of these manage to pass the Realschule exams and gain their technical apprenticeships and fully 80 percent leave Hauptschule and move either into an apprenticeship or a permanent job.
But wouldn't such a three-track system prove unacceptable to American parents, who, after all, want only the best for their children? Macrae answers with a quotation from the authors of "Save Our Schools":
"The arguments about which type of schooling should be imposed would all become meaningless in a system which allowed proliferation. . . . The choices of parents would determine not only the policy for each individual school. They would, by deciding where to send their children, determine the overall pattern of education which resulted."
No doubt the greatest resistance to Macrae's scheme -- both here and in Britain -- would be over "capitation" and his proposal to allow parent-dominated school boards to decide what salary to offer to attract any particular teacher. But for Macrae, that flexibility is vital.
Under the present system, he argues, bad teachers earn as much as good ones, and "teachers in yesterday's subjects earn as much money as scarce teachers of mathematics, physics and modern languages -- even in boom areas where other job opportunities for the 2 percent of Britons properly educated in mathematics abound."
The results include a shortage of high-tech teachers and a drain of teachers from London.
"This anti-working-class system stays in being," says Macrae, "because the teachers' unions see it as the way to keep themselves and their restrictive practices in power."