School Choice

I was asked to review the book School Choice: The Findings by Herbert J. Walberg (2007), which compares the status quo traditional public school system alongside a few alternatives. Though not specifically addressing programs in the state of Oregon nor the Montessori educational approach (topics of personal and community interest), nor saying much about homeschooling (another relevant topic of interest), this book organizes a clear framework for considering potential educational options.

This is a statistics-heavy research-based publication. Parents and students who are able to make a school choice and attend a school other than the default public school in their district are found to be more satisfied with their educational experience. When schooling is detached from random housing boundaries, the results are positive. Consistently, students do as well or better than their peers who are in the nearby government-funded and government-run schools.

In reviewing charter schools (see below), voucher programs (publicly funded scholarships to private schools), and private schools (privately funded and run), the book does not necessarily advocate a singular path away from traditional public school but rather emphasizes choice and the positive effects of available alternatives. All three of these options must be chosen, they cannot fall into the lap of the parent. And each of the three must be given as an available option in order for the choice to be made. Choosing families and non-choosing families in the community are most commonly affected with a positive outcome by the choices the choosers are able to make.

It is suggested that most parents with students in public school do not choose for their children to be there – they just ended up there by default. Either the parents want an alternative to traditional public school and are unable to obtain it, or they simply accept the situation as it is, often with reservations. I don’t think this can be true for everyone, but the research shows it is typical that most parents dislike (to one degree or another) something significant about their public school.

As one of the three options presented by Walberg, Charter Schools are explained as having the benefits of wider accessibility due to their funding source by the state (similar to a public school), and as having the greater economic efficiency and improved academics possible through non-centralized, independent leadership (as often found in private schools). A compromise between extremes, charter schools are popular and they generally accept (by random lottery) only a fraction of those interested. Research shows that enrolled students do well and the charter school raises the local standard of excellence in the community by influencing neighboring public schools to make positive competitive changes.

That charter schools are only a compromise rather than something totally different from a traditional public school is observable from by the following. They are often over-regulated, a quality they were most often founded to avoid, and they receive lower funding than public schools, though funded from the same source. Funding varies widely from state to state and can lag significantly behind the local neighboring public schools. However, as with private schools, charter schools have shown they can do more with less.

Walberg finishes by discussing the positive benefits of competition resulting from school choice and the importance of parental satisfaction with school choice. Hopefully we are moving towards increased freedom of choice, allowing parents to step outside the rigid boundaries of the status quo to make individual decisions about the quality education each wants for their children. In order to do so, it is important that a great many options are made available, in order to make a choice.


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