Schools Without Boundaries

The Washington Post
By David Osborne

Few issues in American education are more controversial than school choice. Seventeen states have passed public school choice laws, giving students the right to leave their school district and attend another public school. These are not voucher programs; with a few exceptions, parents can’t take their public dollars to a private school. Instead, public dollars move with a student to the new school, creating competition between districts.

The theory is simple: Different students learn in different ways, so they need different kinds of schools. Hence students should be able to choose the schools that suit their needs. If we then let public dollars follow the children to their new schools, we create consequences for performance. Good schools earn larger budgets; bad schools have to shrink and, in some cases, close.

The logical result should be that principals, teachers and superintendents should start working harder to improve their schools.


Minnesota has gone the furthest to test this theory. Since 1990, it has allowed:

  • Families to leave their districts and take their public dollars with them to another district.
  • High school juniors and seniors to take their public dollars to any college in the state and earn both high school and college credit.
  • Dropouts and students at risk of dropping out to choose any public school in the state, as well as private alternative schools that contract with public districts.
  • Parents, teachers and others to create new independent public schools, called “charter schools.”

Overall, roughly 19 percent of Minnesota public school students — more than 150,000 in all — attend schools they or their parents choose. Since 1986, the number of alternative schools in Minnesota has tripled from 108 to more than 300. A competitive market has begun to emerge.

As choice began, James Tenbusch and Michael Garet surveyed 126 high school principals. Most said they were making changes to compete: lengthening their hours, adding more counseling and developing new educational programs. If they didn’t, they said, they might lose students and money.

In an intensive study of eight districts, the University of Minnesota’s Cheryl Lange found that, “Parents are flexing their political muscles by demanding desired programs and services. If the requests are not honored, many threaten to leave the district. Findings suggest that it doesn’t take a large number of families threatening transfer for administrators to take seriously the requests.”

As one superintendent told her, “Open enrollment has a lot of impact on us. One of the things it does is that we don’t dare, even under budget constraints, we don’t dare curtail programs.” Cuts come out of administration, not education.

Opponents of public school choice often argue that it will help the brightest, most affluent students, but leave poor students behind in inferior schools, increasing racial segregation. That hasn’t happened in Minnesota, in part because the choice legislation says a student can’t change districts if it would increase racial segregation, a rule that has kept white students from leaving Minneapolis for suburban districts.


Minnesota is just beginning to use statewide tests, so there is no data to indicate whether students are learning more in their schools of choice.

Hard data does exist on one choice program — the one that lets juniors and seniors take their high school dollars to colleges. An evaluation by the state legislature found that 6 percent of all juniors and seniors were taking some college courses (12.5 percent in the Twin Cities). With the exception of those at technical colleges, they had a higher collective grade point average than college freshmen.

Some 73 percent of these students said they were “very satisfied” with their experience, while 95 percent of parents said they would “probably” or “definitely” encourage their children to participate again.

Spurred by competition, high schools had doubled the number of Advanced Placement courses they offered and tripled the number of students who took them. Almost 40 percent had also hired colleges to teach courses on their campuses.

Ultimately, citizens are the arbiters of any public program’s success, and Minnesotans love school choice. By 1994, 86 percent of adults surveyed supported the program. Seventy-one percent said the increased competition would improve the quality of education.

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