July 15, 2019
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School choice is the wrong choice

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (right) smiles during a ceremony where he signed a bill authorizing charter schools at the State House in Augusta, Maine on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.

Market dynamics work well in so many facets of American life, fostering competition which in turn spurs innovation, adaptation and often, excellence. But public education is not an area where market forces — which by definition create winners and losers — should reign.

Maine’s Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen last month unveiled a plan to reconceive public education. The theme behind the plan was to make schools more student-centered, even if that means jettisoning century-old systems and approaches. The commissioner’s willingness to be bold in this endeavor is welcome.

But this week, the other shoe dropped.

It’s no secret that Mr. Bowen is an adherent of the hard-right conservatism espoused by the Maine Heritage Policy Center (for whom he used to work), and its progenitor, the national advocacy group the Heritage Foundation. These organizations believe a school voucher system is the way toward better education for both consumers (parents and children) and schools.

But these ideological articles of faith must be set aside or at least tempered in the interest of governing, especially given that Gov. Paul LePage won 38 percent of the vote. Implementing school choice is too radical a change, especially now, given the wringer districts have been through with a poor economy, leaner state funding, declining enrollment and the consolidation process.

The logic behind school choice is not fatally flawed. By letting parents choose the school they want for their child rather than the one dictated by where the family lives, schools will work to improve to get those vouchers, is the argument in favor. And schools may work to fill niches sought by parents — an arts-oriented school here, a science and technology themed school there.

Market dynamics will kill the bad schools and boost the good ones, choice proponents believe. It’s just like when three shops selling lattes open in a small Maine village; the one offering the best value will likely survive and at least one of the others will close. But location, the color of the shop’s walls, the attractiveness of the wait staff and other such nonsubstantive factors can spell success or failure as much as the flavor of the latte.

And lattes are hardly essential to society. So if the line is too long at the single surviving shop and you skip buying the beverage one morning, life goes on. Education for all, though, is essential to society.

Under a voucher system, parents with intelligence, means and time will get their children to the better school. Parents who are struggling to keep a car running, who must be at work on time and can’t travel the extra miles to take their child to the better school, who aren’t intelligent enough to evaluate the benefits of one school over another will send their child to the school nearest home.

This market dynamic will create excellent schools, but it also will create bad schools. This would be a return to the separate but unequal education system of the 1950s.

One of the arguments made in favor of socialism is its efficiency. Instead of three latte shops, with all three having to keep more product on hand than they sell and having to keep staff on the clock even when business is slow, a single shop would operate more efficiently. The school choice scenario would turn this upside down. Bad schools would remain open but would, presumably, be sparsely attended and yet still have to be heated, lighted and staffed.

School choice is an idea that is attractive in the abstract but dangerous in implementation.

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