LET THE SCHOOLS COMPETE

This year's 28th annual Gallup Poll of American attitudes toward public schools found that 66 percent of parents gave ''high honors'' to the public schools their children attended.

''High honors'' meant that parents bestowed either an A or B grade. Newspaper editorial boards, elected officials and union leaders rejoiced.It's true that this approval rating was down almost 10 percent from 1990, when 72 percent of parents were happy, but Gallup - everyone agreed - showed once again that public education was not in trouble.

Far from taking comfort in these Gallup results, however, public school supporters should be sobered. First, the proportion of disappointed parents (34 percent) is huge. One-third of all public school parents equals some 14 million families. To this number should be added the 3.5 million families using private schools, who have expressed their opinions with their feet. In other words, the parents of 30 million students are happy with what they are getting in public schools, and those of 21 million other students are not.

Second, these discontented parents are almost surely disproportionately minority and poor. Commentary on the report assumed that the malcontents were uniformly distributed, as if one-third of parents were unhappy in every school across the country.

But the suburbs are full of families that moved out of cities, often reluctantly, because of the schools. It's the families left behind - in deeply troubled schools overseen by deeply troubled districts, disproportionately in non-white neighborhoods - that are the most unhappy. Third, public school supporters should be further sobered by the reality of standardized test results. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of the country's 17-year-olds in 1992 could not recognize geometric figures, solve simple equations or compute with fractions, decimals and percentages. Reading skills were similarly deplorable.

In other words, a large proportion of parents giving their children's schools an A or B have children who are not doing A or B level work. What are we to make of all of this?

Clearly, the traditional American faith in public education is crashing on the shoals of ever weaker schools. And it's crashing even as public education consumes a hefty bite of the gross national product (some 7 percent). After years of trying all sorts of tricks and panaceas, we should face facts. The only way to promote a good and common education for all is to introduce choice in all its forms - charter schools, vouchers, tax credits - to public education. Remove the restrictions on the education marketplace and let all schools compete.

We know that competition, even when it takes the form of government-funded vouchers and loans, works in education. Indeed, it has been flourishing in higher education since World War II. Colleges and universities compete in an aggressive marketplace in which some fail and others open their doors for the first time. Both private dollars via tuition and tax dollars via government loans and scholarships move with students to their chosen colleges.

This is the opposite of the funding system for public elementary and high schools, under which government funds the schools, not the students.

For years, public school educators simply denied the existence of inadequate public schools.

Now that evidence of mediocre public education is unavoidable, we need a system, modeled on higher education, that would fund students directly and permit them to take assigned education dollars to a freely chosen school.

Under the current system, poor parents are captive markets. They have little economic ability to choose their housing, and their housing determines where their kids attend school.

Those who attack choice argue that it will worsen exactly the situation it's trying to improve by permitting the most aggressive and ambitious parents to transfer their children into the best schools. Those schools will quickly close their doors to new admissions, the critics argue, leaving the poorest students behind in the poorest schools.

But this argument also is based on the assumption, which many public school advocates now push, that no new schools will be permitted to compete within this system.

Rather, school choice will work best in an open system in which all schools are allowed to compete and in which successful principals and teachers are allowed to replicate their successes by opening new schools.

The presumption behind so much public education policy is that the schools would never be able to hold people by choice, and therefore they must be held through coercion.

How can this tax-financed disdain for the American promise of freedom and equality be justified?

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