When the Choice Is Premature

Because of the special election called by Gov. Pete Wilson, the school voucher initiative will be on the November ballot, sooner than originally expected. During the next few months, voters will be bombarded with the arguments for and against the so-called "school choice" initiative. Choice is an appealing concept. But the question is whether a choice approach is the right way right now.

The initiative, if passed, would supply parents with vouchers of about $2,500, or approximately half of what the state spends per pupil in its public schools. That public money could be used for any school parents chose, including private and parochial ones. Public school funding, in the meantime, would be cut not only by that same $2,500 amount but also by at least the additional $2,500 per student that the school usually receives in state aid. Public schools would suffer a multimillion-dollar hit.

The best argument for vouchers is that they would introduce healthy competition among schools. That certainly is a tempting thought. But how about a kind word for public schools? They cannot turn away a student because he's disabled, or she comes from a low-income family, or he's troublesome, or she's slow. (The voucher initiative does require that voucher scholarships not be used at schools that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin, or that teach hatred.) But few private schools that charge several thousand dollars a year are clamoring for students whose families have limited means. And most don't recruit students who take a little longer to learn. So one has to be wary of any reform that threatens to drain the public schools of all children whose parents can afford private school and leave behind only those whose parents can't or those who have special problems that private schools don't want to bother with.

Private schools are of course valuable. If parents are spending their own private dollars they of course have the option of sending their child to any school--including one that accepts only the brightest or most affluent or that gives preference to those of a particular religious affiliation. But when public tax money is involved, the issues of fairness and possible, even unintended, discrimination must be raised.

Many people are understandably frustrated about large and bureaucratized public school systems. But the way to correct the problems of public schools is first to give the ambitious and unprecedented LEARN reform a chance. Years of hard work, good compromise and goodwill have gone into the making of one of the most comprehensive urban public-school reform efforts in U.S. history. Its goal is to empower each school to do the best job it can without excessive regulation or crushing bureaucratic meddling. If the LEARN reform unravels--thus again suggesting the inability of the public sector to reform itself--then perhaps all options ought to be on the table, including vouchers. But that time is not now.

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