But even small, restricted choice programs have shown promising results -- not revolutionary, but promising. Last year a group of nine leading educational researchers summarized the evidence this way: "Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. ... Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive."
Only recently, a few innovative governors -- particularly former Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana -- have decided to bring this promise to scale. The Louisiana Supreme Court will soon issue a judgment on Jindal's program. The Indiana verdict could hardly have been more favorable to the choice movement. The court found that Indiana is serving valid educational purposes both by maintaining a public schools system and by providing options beyond it. And it held (as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002) that including religious schools as an option does not establish religion. "Any benefit to program-eligible schools, religious or non-religious," the Indiana court concluded, "derives from the private, independent choice of the parents."
These principles have broader implication. The pursuit of the public interest does not always require a public bureaucracy. Medicare pays for services provided at Catholic hospitals. The GI bill allowed veterans to use their scholarships at religious colleges and universities. The proper role of government is to ensure the provision of essential services -- not always to provide those services itself.
In the case of children in failing public schools, this argument gains moral urgency. Choice may not be a system-wide panacea. But it remains a disturbing spectacle when teachers' unions count it a legal "victory" when disadvantaged children are returned to troubled, unsafe institutions.
Yet it is probably not the moral arguments that will prevail. The opponents of educational choice are attempting to defend the monopoly of the neighborhood school in a nation where most monopolies and oligopolies (see the phone company, the post office or newspapers) have come under pressure. Parents, including suburban parents, increasingly expect educational options such as charters, home schooling, magnet programs and career academies. Customized, online learning will accelerate the trend. The tie between a ZIP code and an educational outcome is being broken -- whatever our intentions.
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