Massachusetts implemented, in the 1991-92 school year, an interdistrict choice policy that has been widely criticized as inequitable to poor and minority pupils and to urban school systems, as well as unconnected to school improvement. This chapter provides an insider’s recounting of the effort to obtain support for an interdistrict policy that would be equitable and responsible, and of the political and practical consequences of the Massachusetts policy.
Supporting parental choice of schools does not mean supporting everything done in its name. When Massachusetts implemented a program to promote interdistrict school choice, strong supporters of school choice opposed it as irresponsible and incapable of achieving its stated goals of school reform and expanded opportunity. As more and more states and local communities implement school choice policies, it is essential that we think carefully about essential design considerations, such as those developed in Massachusetts over the past dozen years but ignored in pushing through the interdistrict program in 1991.
Of course, parents have always made choices about the education of their children for reasons that seem good to them. They clearly have a right to do so in a free society, a right confirmed by the Supreme Court’s 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters and by the international treaties to protect human rights. By deciding where they will live or whether to pay tuition to a private school, they make decisions which may serve the common good as well as their private interests. It is only as we begin to make public policy to encourage and support parental choice of schools, and thus seek to influence to some degree the private choices parents make, that fundamental principles such as equal access and the common good must guide the shape those policies take.
There are three reasons why I support well-crafted policies that encourage and support parental choice of schools. First, allowing parents to make decisions about how their children will be educated, within a framework that protects the interests of the children, is essential in a democratic society. Second, all parents should, as a matter of simple justice, be enabled to make these decisions; the United States is almost unique among Western nations in not providing public funding to allow poor parents to exercise the same rights that wealthier (but not necessarily wiser or more concerned) parents possess as a matter of course. Third, after twenty-one years attempting to reform urban schools from the top down, through enforcement and extra funding, I’ve grown convinced that the present structures are essentially unreformable and only break the hearts of fine teachers and administrators. Parental choice, if organized right, can create the climate, the freedom, and the incentives for schools to become effective.
The interdistrict choice program adopted and implemented during the first months of the administration of Massachusetts Governor William Weld has satisfied the first of these goals for a handful of parents, but it has no prospect of satisfying the second or third. It is important that we understand why.
The development of this program must be seen against the background of the