Take Your Pick Education: Giving Parents Choices for Their Children's Education Is All the Rage. but Some Worry That It May Be Too Much of a Good Thing

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For Francisco Lopez, the decision was easy: "When our oldest daughter was going to public school, her classroom had more than 25 students in it. We were worried that because there were so many children, she would be lost and not get the attention she needed."

The solution? The Milwaukee School Choice Program, one of the most comprehensive taxpayer-funded school voucher programs in the country. More than 11,600 low-income students, who would normally receive public education, are enrolled in any one of more than 100 private or local religious schools.

Today, Francisco and Monica Lopez have two daughters, Jessica and Rosie, enrolled at Pius XI High School. A younger son, Abraham, studies at Notre Dame Middle School. Their classrooms have 18 students or less. "That means the teacher can give them more attention," remarks Francisco Lopez, "and that's what we wanted."

Lopez is grateful that they live in Milwaukee where they had a choice. "Maybe if we had been in another city, we would have had to keep them in schools where they were not doing that well."

"By far Milwaukee has become the model that choice advocates would most like to see replicated throughout the country," says Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

"Milwaukee has the most options," Hill says. Not only does the city have a "working voucher program, as well as a charter program," he says, "but they also allow students to transfer to other schools within their own districts and outside those districts."

"This is what supporters of choice say is best," Hill says. "Not just one alternative for low-income parents who may be unhappy with their nearby public school, but a variety of choices--even within the context of the public school system itself--that may provide a better fit."

There's no question that the choice movement is growing. "The discussion about 'choice' today is as much about 'how' and 'how much' as it is about 'whether,'" says a November report "School Choice: Doing it the Right Way Makes a Difference," from the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education, which Hill chaired.

This past school year, more than 750,000 students were enrolled in some 2,700 charter schools--the largest number of such schools to date, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. In addition, 2 million children are home schooled. Forty-one states have passed laws allowing charter schools. Every state and the District of Columbia has passed legislation permitting home schooling.

"The choice movement is both historic and new," says Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation and author of, "School Choice 2003--How States Are Providing Greater Opportunities in Education."

Kafer, who tracked the growth of the choice movement in each state, credits its popularity to two factors:

* The high rate of dissatisfaction among parents with their local public school.

* The yearnings of what she calls a "pluralistic society."

"We are a people who want different things out of education," Kafer says, "just as we do in life. A charter school offering a back-to-basics approach is different from a charter school offering a progressive approach.

"People want these options not because, in every case, they are fleeing a horrible inner-city public school," she says, "but much more because they are just simply interested in finding a school--no matter where they live--that connects better with their children."

Florida, Maine, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin passed laws allowing students to use state-or district-funded scholarships to attend a private school. Nine states guarantee public school choice within districts. Twelve guarantee choice between districts. And 21 offer dual enrollment programs that enable high school students to attend college classes for credit. …