THE DEBATE over school choice may be about to take a new turn. For years, reformers of left and right have dueled over whether the best way to shake up poorly performing public schools is to provide parents with the opportunity to switch to private schools (through vouchers) or to allow parents to move their children to better public schools (through public school choice). The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law last year, represented a victory for the advocates of public school choice: the law rejected funding for private school vouchers, but did mandate that districts allow children in persistently failing schools to transfer to public schools that perform better.
The law thus established a nationwide test of public school choice as a means of both providing better opportunities for individual kids and creating pressure on schools that are performing poorly.
The early results of that test are now coming in--and they don't look very encouraging.
From coast to coast, school districts large and small report that hardly any students in failing schools are using the choice provisions of the federal law to move to other public schools. Even in some of the nation's largest cities, the number of kids traveling across town to attend better schools on any given morning might not fill a single school bus.
In part, the law's impact may be tempered by parents' inertia, lack of knowledge, or reluctance to upset routines and friendships by removing their children from neighborhood schools. Another problem is the sheer lack of high-quality public school alternatives within reasonable driving distance of many a failing urban school; given the choice between the low-performing school in their own neighborhood and the mediocre school ten miles away, parents may stick to the path of least resistance.
So far there is little evidence that suburban schools are opening their doors to refugees from the urban systems. The federal law encourages such transfers, but does not require them, and most urban superintendents have found litde enthusiasm for the idea among their suburban neighbors. In Dayton, Ohio, for instance, Superintendent Percy Mack says that he was turned down by half a dozen suburban districts when he asked them to accept children from the poorly performing city schools. "Basically what they said was they did not have space within those districts for any of our kids," he says. This is a problem familiar to education reformers: a voluntary 25-year-old program that sends minority students from Boston to surrounding suburban districts has a waiting list that exceeds 12,000 kids because the receiving schools say they don't have enough space to accept more children.
These obstacles are compounded by the fact that few districts are making it easy for parents to exercise their right to choose or to avail themselves of the related option that offers "supplemental services," such as after-school tutoring, to students who remain in schools that have failed to improve student performance.
Massive resistance might be too strong a term to describe the way in which local school officials are implementing these new options for parents. But not by much. Using both subtle and overt strategies, school districts of every size have made it difficult for parents of children in failing schools even to learn about the new choices, and they have structured the programs in ways that make them less attractive to the parents who might be interested. "The only way you make something like this work is to fully inform parents what their options are and how to exercise their options, and school superintendents aren't doing that," says William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, a liberal advocacy group.
The lack of enthusiasm--and in some cases overt hostility--toward the new requirements underscores the difficulty of implementing any reform that requires school districts to impose changes that challenge their bureaucratic self-interest. …