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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2005.1 (2005) 137-173

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School Choice:

How an Abstract Idea Became a Political Reality


When Diane Ravitch mentioned that she was putting together a collection of Brookings papers on hopeful developments in American education, I told her that it would probably be the shortest volume in the series. I was then reminded of an essay we had written together for the Public Interest in 1996 that began on a similarly upbeat note, declaring, "Yes, there is hope."1 Encouraged by the varied initiatives that were already taking hold around the country, we envisioned a transformation in the basic character of schooling, one that would replace the existing bureaucratic system that prizes compliance with a deregulated system focused on performance. Parents would be able to choose from a range of educational options, delivered by an array of educational providers beyond public schools run by local school districts.

At the time we were pleased to observe that Wisconsin and Ohio had passed far-reaching voucher laws and that nineteen states had enacted charter school legislation. The Edison Project (later, Edison Schools) and Educational Alternatives offered living examples of how private companies could manage public schools; and it was already apparent that whereas the former was well on its way toward developing an innovative model that could reshape the institutional structure of schooling in some places, the latter was quick on the path to self-destruction. As I write today, school voucher laws have been enacted in Florida, Colorado (halted by litigation), and the District of Columbia. In 2004 similar proposals came under serious consideration in Arizona, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Vermont. Only nine states do not have charter school laws. Privately financed scholarship programs sponsored by groups such as Children First America and the Children's [End Page 137] Scholarship Fund now operate in nearly every state. Brand-name schools like the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies have sprung up all over the map. Fifty-one for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) currently operate 463 public schools in twenty-eight states, compared with thirteen operating 135 schools in fifteen states just five years ago.2 At the urging of President George W. Bush, the Congress passed legislation that has engaged the states in a dialogue on accountability that is unprecedented in American education. Change has not occurred overnight, but it has occurred in a big way.

This paper takes a retrospective and prospective look at the phenomenon of school choice to measure the distance we have come and to assess what needs to be done to advance choice further. It is a case study of how an idea was converted into policy through the political process. Some pessimists might claim that the process of political compromise has denuded the idea of its power to exert real change. Optimists, to the contrary, might argue that the idea of choice has become an unstoppable force that can only gain strength with the passage of time. In accord with the spirit of the present symposium, I take the latter position.

Because politics is the apparatus that converts ideas into policy, my analysis is very much a tale—not too tall a tale, I hope—of how an abstract notion came to be translated into a plausible and appealing proposal for improving American education. When contemplating the phenomenon of choice, scholars tend to focus on research; pundits, especially in a presidential election year, are taken with the national political scene. In the end, research and national politics will prove to be peripheral in determining the future of school choice. If we can learn anything from the experience thus far, the real story of school choice will be written at the level of local politics.

The Market Concept

The choice idea is commonly traced to a fifty-year-old essay by the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who advocated a market approach to education.3 Friedman wanted to give all parents a voucher so that they could...


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pp. 137-173
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Archived 2007
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