You don't have to be much of a psychic to make this New Year's prediction: Before the year is out, your community will be arguing about -- maybe even implementing -- some version of school choice.
Choice is the hot new issue in education. Long an item on the conservative agenda (remember vouchers and tuition tax credits?) choice has finally become a legitimate issue for political liberals as well. The two key reasons, apart from general dissatisfaction with the pace and direction of school reform, are the Bush administration's commitment to it and the recent Brookings Institution book, "Politics, Markets and America's Schools," by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe.
Its most fervent advocates are so enamored of the idea that they have abandoned the once-obligatory phrase for any new proposal: "It's no panacea, but ... " For Chubb and Moe, it is a panacea, the ultimate in school reform, academic improvement and parental control.
The older arguments -- chiefly that parents of modest economic means deserve the same options as the rich as to where their children will attend school -- have given way to a newer, more compelling one: It works.
And it does. In some jurisdictions, choice has attracted both private school students and drop-outs back into public school classrooms. In others, it has prompted the institution of specialized and college-prep courses. In still others, it has increased the amount of racial integration.
But not always. In Norfolk, for instance, where an early version of choice allowed any child to attend -- with transportation provided -- any school in which his race was a minority, attendance patterns scarcely changed. Neither integration nor test scores showed much improvement.
Still, there is enough evidence that choice does more good than harm that most school districts are likely to be debating some form of the option during the coming year.
Should your schools try it? Yes, but start with the public schools only. I know this goes against one of the key principles of Chubb and Moe, who argue that the key to choice success is that parents be allowed to choose among both public and private schools, with the school district picking up the tab in the form of "scholarships" based on current per-pupil outlays.
If, as they argue, public school reform can't work because government itself is the problem, why not expand choice to include non-public schools?
Listen to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who gingerly supports public school choice.
"In principle, choice is a fine thing. Americans cherish their freedom to choose where they will live, what church they will worship in, what stores they will patronize. And public school choice ... has worked well in some places. But schemes that allow public funds to pay for education in private schools are a different beast altogether; they give the real choice to the schools, not to the parents or kids."
For Shanker, the mistake is in thinking of the Chubb-Moe "scholarships" as the equivalent of "shopping at Macy's with a big, fat gift certificate." If you've got the cash, Macy's will sell you the goods, in your choice of size, brand, color and price. In truth, he argues, choice that incorporates private schools is more nearly analogous to applying for membership in a private country club than shopping at a department store.
"Private country clubs don't accept you merely because you have filled out an application form and can pay the fees. A club that needs more warm bodies might be happy to get money on the barrel. But in an exclusive club, the membership committee will ask itself how you'll fit in with the crowd that already belongs. And if they have any doubts, they'll probably decide that it's not worth the risk of losing a bunch of old members to get one new member. You can choose a country club, but the real choice is the club's."
In short, thoroughgoing choice is more likely to segregate along lines of race and class than to provide real alternatives for children languishing in the worst of the public schools. Indeed, it could leave the principal victims of the present system worse off than they are now.
The advice here is to give choice a chance, starting with the public schools, while keeping alert for pitfalls, unrealistic expectations and unintended consequences.