An article in the op-ed section of today’s Washington Post makes some excellent sense about school choice programs, including the DC voucher program now being debated in the Senate. Both sides of the issue need to read what the writer, Paul T. Hill, has to say, which is that school choice is one part of a major change in the way that schools in this country are organized. IF the plan is done correctly.

Proponents talk about choice as if it were a cure-all, while critics charge that helping a handful still leaves the vast majority with the dregs. But choice isn’t a prescription or a curriculum. Rather, a system of choice organizes schools in ways that let students and their parents pick the program – a vocational school, say, or small charter school focused on science – that best suits their needs. Properly handled, vouchers and choice have the potential to do a lot of good; poorly designed, they could lure students to substandard programs that basically take the money and don’t deliver.

This is a first report of a commission by the Brookings Institution* looking at how to design a school choice system that works. Their criteria for assessing choice programs is exactly right.

We defined four criteria for assessing choice and voucher programs: higher achievement for children whose parents choose new schools; protecting the quality of academics for children whose parents choose to leave them in their current schools; avoiding increased segregation by race, class or income; and enhancing civic values. It is important to emphasize that we were not interested in protecting the status quo. Our interests turned on the welfare of children and the civic consequences of their effective, or ineffective, schools.

An accurate assessment of the results is something that seems to be missing in most school choice programs, including the DC voucher plan. But school choice cannot be just giving parents a check and permission to move. There are other parts to creating a plan that will meet these four criteria and actually improve public education for every student. As Hill notes any plan must have adequate funding and parents must understand all their options as well as the admission rules of the private schools involved.

Hill notes that they discovered many surprises in doing the research for this commission. I disagree. There is nothing surprising here: "Our commission also uncovered many surprises. Chief among them: Choice doesn’t give a community the luxury of discarding a dysfunctional school district. Public schools will continue to educate the vast majority of our children."

There’s much more in this article – go read it! – but I’m going to end this rant with Hill’s final conclusion.

But if Congress, local politicians, educators, union leaders, parents and community groups are willing to swap soap boxes for thinking caps and develop a creative, comprehensive blueprint for change, school choice could deliver many of the benefits its advocates tout while avoiding the disasters its detractors fear.

Man! That is one big IF!!

* I have no idea if Brookings is a "conservative", "liberal" or <insert your own label here> think tank. The label doesn’t matter if what they say makes sense!