IF WE were asked to start from scratch in 2008 and create a seamless education system, from prekindergarten (PK) through college, what would it look like? Which elements of each level--early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary--would we retain? Which would we change?
I propose that we would benefit greatly by expanding to K-12 the elements of parental choice that now mark our early childhood and postsecondary systems. Often, support for public education and support for the traditional forms of school choice (vouchers or tax-credit scholarships) are viewed as being in direct opposition rather than as being complementary strategies for improving educational outcomes. Given that many of us remember our public school experiences with pride and affection, this should not be surprising.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood schools of today are often very different from those we attended. Most of us would agree that the overriding goal for America's public education system is the provision of high-quality educational opportunities for every child. The public schools have been the primary mechanism for achieving that goal. But today, too many public schools fall short of providing the opportunities every child deserves. While we should insist on reforms that make public schools better, we need to do everything we can to ensure that children have access to a good education today. One of those reforms is parental choice of schools.
Real choice means that all parents, regardless of income, have more than one high-quality educational option for each school-age child. In this broadest understanding understanding of "choice," I would include open enrollment, charter or community schools, virtual or online schools, magnet schools, traditional public schools, home schooling, and educational vouchers and tax-credit scholarships that provide new options for those otherwise unable to attend private schools.
WHAT A CHOICE-DRIVEN PK-16 SYSTEM WOULD LOOK LIKE
A system of PK-16 parental choice would look much more like the current situation in early education and in postsecondary education than like our system of K-12 neighborhood schools. The changes required would provide more options for a tailored or customized educational experience for each child than those now offered by our K-12 public school infrastructure. The problem with that infrastructure is not that it doesn't serve some children well--it does--but that it tends to treat the children as interchangeable units, rather than as individuals with unique learning needs. The system tends to work toward sustaining and expanding itself, rather than toward the success of each child. The bureaucracies associated with education are not the same as the delivery of education. For the moment, though, let's walk through the systems currently in place and consider the role parental choice plays in them.
Early childhood system. Prekindergarten education has made use of a diverse delivery system that is somewhat similar to the delivery system at the college level, with a range of private and public providers serving parents. A variety of options exists, ranging from neighborhood programs run out of homes, to faith-based programs, to Head Start sites, to Reggio Emilio programs, to Montessori programs. Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute, points to this flexibility as a strength: "America's flexible approach to early education gives children a strong foundation. Skills assessment at kindergarten entry and reports by kindergarten teachers show a large and increasing majority of preschoolers are prepared for kindergarten." (1)
This flexibility shows up in state-funded programs as well. Florida has the largest parental-choice prekindergarten program in the nation, allowing more than 85,000 children to attend private preschools in the first year of the program. Parents participate in the program voluntarily and have complete control over the provider they choose. …