I have this prediction: by the time our fifth-graders, the class of 2000, are seniors, school choice will not be an issue. About the only people discussing it will be a few Ph.d. candidates who will have chosen to investigate that strange era when local government monopolies had control of the most valuable and important enterprises in America - our schools - and fought furiously to keep the doors to many of the best schools closed to middle- and low-income children. The era will be especially difficult to understand because it will have flourished at the same time that the ideas of freedom, choice, and opportunity were sweeping the rest of the world. In hindsight, it will look like we Americans were determined, in education at least, to be the last to practice our own best ideas.
School choice will not be an issue in the year 2000 because it will then be commonplace. Middle- and low-income parents will have demanded it, and the public at large will have remembered that consumer power is a tried and true American way to encourage innovation and improvement. Still, for most people today, it is hard to imagine that the idea that parents - not the government - should decide what is best for children will become commonplace so quickly. There is no more divisive issue in American education today than the idea of school choice, especially when it is extended to include schools or academic programs that may have been invented and operated by someone other than the local school board.
Trying to encourage our education system to give all families the same options that, say, my family has or President Clinton's family has when it comes to choosing schools was only one of a number of proposals that President Bush and I supported when I was his secretary of education. Some of these proposals were very different: setting new national standards in basic subjects, devising a national examination system geared to those standards, creating thousands of "break the-mold schools" from scratch, removing most federal regulations that handcuff classroom teachers, and inviting the genius of America's huge, vibrant, creative private sector to help create the best schools in the world for our children.
But these proposals - taken either singly or all together - did not stir anything like the intense reactions evoked by the idea of giving all parents the opportunity to choose among all schools. When I appeared before newspaper editorial boards with the intention of discussing President Bush's entire America 2000 education program, I often found much of my time consumed by arguments with editors who had plenty of choices for their own children but were worried about giving those same choices to parents with less money. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, whom I had always found to be reasonably receptive to different ideas, became positively red-faced and grumpy over our persistent advocacy of school choice. He described it as a "dagger to the heart" and helped to lead an enormous political effort to support Bill Clinton and to end the talk of private school choice.'
Many educators told me that they greatly feared that school choice, instead of helping to create better schools, would create worse ones. And when, having been interrupted in my work by the voters, I climbed into my Ford Explorer on January 20 and drove back home to Tennessee, I had among my papers a clipping quoting one lobbyist as saying, with obvious relief, "Well, that is the last we'll hear of "break-the-mold" schools and private school choice.'
Of course, the lobbyist was wrong. When I arrived in Maryvine, Tennessee - the small town at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains where I grew up, where both my parents taught, and where my father was school board chairman - there in the Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times was a story about how the school board was turning Fort Craig Elementary into a "school of choice. …