GIVING parents a choice among schools for their children emerged in the mid-1980s as a red-hot reform idea. It promised much: Choice would shake up rigid school systems by forcing them to compete. Teachers would get more power; schools would develop more-coherent missions; disadvantaged and ethnic children would have more access to better schools.
The presidential candidates make some form of choice a main innovation in their education platforms. George Bush favors vouchers that can be used in private schools; Bill Clinton advocates public-school choice within states; Ross Perot wants to give parents choice within public-school districts.
Now comes a Carnegie Foundation report stating that claims for choice are overblown, "a myth," and that for leaders to emphasize choice as a panacea for all education's ills is a strategic mistake. In a year-long look around America, Carnegie found that the rhetoric of "choice" was being used to sell a wide range of reform ideas, some not so good. It found the track record of choice is mixed: In Brockton, Mass., choice has actually widened inequities between rich and poor schools.
The Carnegie people want to move the choice discussion in two new directions. First, they want choice to be one of a number of reform strategies, not the only one. Second, rather than parents having to look afar for school options, the focus of reform should be on improving existing schools by giving teachers more power inside schools - "school-based management."
The Carnegie effort to put choice in perspective is useful. Choice was co-opted by the very education establishment it sought to change. The problems of inner-city schools won't be solved by rhetoric and cheap concepts. Nor is it adequate to simply "let the marketplace decide" on a matter as important as schools; specific safeguards are needed.
Yet Carnegie ignores what might be called the "choice dynamic." It is exactly because local schools weren't improving that choice emerged. It created a crucial dynamic for change. The idea of school-based management advocated by Carnegie was legitimized in the choice climate. Choice has problems; but it has created bright models.