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Parents Will Make Choices
Will the Legislature ever get it?…

[by K. Lloyd Billingsley] 2/24/06

The experience of a school district here reveals a curious habit of California's parents, who remain firm in their quest for choice in education.

The San Juan Unified School district maintains a policy of "open enrollment," with eight public "choice" schools where students post high test scores. When enrollment was on a first-come first-served basis, parents would camp out overnight in sleeping bags to be first in line. The district has since switched to a lottery system, but parents remain keen on choice because they believe it improves results.

A recent profile in the Sacramento Bee noted the case of a fifth-grade student still unable to write a sentence after five years at the school she had been assigned. After one year at Green Oaks Fundamental Elementary, a choice school, she was writing multi-page essays. Her mother attributes the change to a structured program with high standards, discipline and responsibility.

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

"Parents will make choices," said Sue Hulsey, the director of San Juan's open enrollment policy, in an interview with the Bee. "We can't force people. We would rather have them in one of our schools as opposed to private schools."

That is an argument from self-interest. Districts get money from the state based on student attendance. For parents things are not so simple. Should a parent opt for a private school, their tax money will remain behind in the government school system, and that is not the only obstacle they face.

The success of open enrollment in the San Juan district has not canceled anti-choice sentiment. Some district officials charge that because some parents have transportation issues, this constitutes an argument against choice. It isn't. A transportation problem is just that.

Others say that the choice schools "skim the cream" by grabbing the good students, and that this hurts neighborhood schools. As it happens, interest in school choice runs strong among so-called disadvantaged groups that are dissatisfied with what the schools bureaucrats choose for them. If those schools want to retain students, they need to serve them better. And if the choice schools want good students and involved parents, that is not an argument against choice. It simply strengthens the case for hard work and parental involvement.

Government education officials know choice works, but they strive to keep it limited. Open enrollment, though better than the status quo, still falls far short of full educational choice of the type that higher education demonstrates. The student, not the system, gets the funding, and the student selects the school.

Charter schools offer other K-12 choice options and can provide disadvantaged students with the opportunity to succeed, as Pacific Research Institute's Lance Izumi recently noted in Free to Learn. But charter schools serve only a small portion of California's students. All schools could become charter schools and all districts could offer open enrollment, but that is unlikely under the current government system. Those who run the system enjoy getting millions in tax dollars, without any pressure to show results. That is why California languishes near the bottom in student achievement, and a tenth-grade level high-school exit exam has become such an issue.

California should establish full parental choice in education for all, as a matter of basic civil rights. That would amount to true open enrollment and would speed reform on all levels. When legislators consider the issue, they should disregard the dog-eared arguments of a reactionary establishment and think of parents camping out overnight to get one of the few morsels of choice the system offers.

As Sue Hulsey put it, "Parents will make choices." Legislators need to recognize that reality and give parents more choices to make. CRO

copyright 2006 Pacific Research Institute




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