Date: 
Monday, February 22, 2010

School choice more complicated than once thought

Seattle, WA - So why, after nearly 30 years, hasn't the combination of charter schools, vouchers, and other alternatives to standard public schools not delivered the changes their advocates expected, even promised?

Simply put, school choice is like baseball: on the sidelines it looks easy, but in the field it is hard to do well.

In Learning as We Go: Why School Choice Is Worth the Wait, a new book by Paul T. Hill, the author provides a straight-talk analysis of why school choice has been slow to become a game-changing force for reforming and improving public education.

Hill is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In Learning as We Go, he draws upon his own research, as well as the work of his colleagues, including the Doing School Choice Right Project, the National Charter School Research Project, and the Finance, Spending & Productivity projects.

This new book recalls the early debate by reformers over whether allowing school choice (i.e., competition) or revising curriculum (new methods, better content) was the silver bullet for more effective public schools. Hill observes, "What the debate made obvious is that the real argument for choice is complex and conditional, not simple. Forces of competition and freedom are real but don't guarantee success every time."

School choice was expected to trigger a virtuous cycle in which parents demanding better schools create a market for new, more effective schools, which in turn causes existing schools to improve. The new schools will offer innovations and pay more for good teachers. Talented people will be drawn into teaching by better salaries and existing teachers will respond by upgrading their skills. All this will establish the virtuous cycle that over time raises the quality and results of public schools.

It hasn't happened as quickly or dramatically as choice advocates anticipated. Why? Hill cites four factors:

  • Political opposition
  • Policies and regulations that either create big obstacles to the success of school choice or go only halfway toward creating the conditions necessary for its full operation
  • An entrenched system built on procedure, compliance, employee protection, and secrecy about resource use and productivity
  • A set of time lags intrinsic to the operation of a system of choice

Despite these problems, in sum, unrealistic expectations, Hill sees the reality of school choice as an established, small, but increasingly growing fact of public education in the U.S.

He calls for reinvigorated initiatives to accelerate school choice, saying philanthropies can invest in new schools, richer local support environments, new routes into teaching, and new career structures for teachers.

Policymakers can eliminate financial advantages enjoyed by one set of schools (those run by districts) over another (charters and other schools of choice) by tying public funds to students.

Public officials can also change the legally defined missions and powers of school districts so that they can manage all their schools on the basis of performance, thus allowing weak schools to die and new options to emerge.

Hill concludes his book on a realistic note: "Choice is a simple sounding intervention. But if it is to transform public education as thoroughly as supporters hope, choice must set off a complex set of events that we have called the virtuous cycle."

Learning as We Go: Why School Choice Is Worth the Wait is available from Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, for $19.95.

Hill, the author of many books and articles on public education, is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the John and Marguerite Corbally Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He is also a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a member of its Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.