Richard Kahlenberg and Bernard Wasow make a strong argument for a bold idea, but I am compelled to offer some cautionary notes.

I agree with their proposition that American public education as a whole is not in crisis and that the rhetoric of crisis does a disservice to the discussion we most need. Having said this, I believe that their characterization of the system’s performance is too charitable. While it is true that U.S. students rank far from the bottom in international comparisons, a closer look at the figures reveals trends that do not reflect credit on our educational institutions. By international standards U.S. fourth-graders do very well, eighth-graders noticeably worse, and 12th-graders worse still. The authors themselves note that adults in the United States with 12 years of education perform more poorly than Germans with only nine years. This is hardly the bottom fringe of our population. Of American 25-year-olds, about one quarter have a B.A. or higher degree and another 35 percent have had some post-secondary education. But fully 30 percent complete high school and go no farther; dropouts form the bottom decile. So, a country that spends more per capita on K–12 education than all but three other nations (and where median per capita spending for African-American students is now just about the same as for whites) purchases a school system that leaves 40 percent of young adults far behind international norms. This helps explain the broad and growing support that standards-based reform has enjoyed during the past two decades.

The authors and I also agree that a portion of our system is in crisis—namely, the schools that serve children living in areas of concentrated poverty. For that reason, real-world voucher proponents (as opposed to Chicago-style economic theorists) favor not comprehensive plans, but rather means-tested vouchers targeted to families at the epicenter of the educational crisis. That is the only kind of voucher regime that has actually been implemented, at least in the United States. Means-tested vouchers can hardly increase economic stratification, and given that most would go to students who attend virtually all-minority schools, it’s hard to see how they could increase racial segregation, either. So the examples of Chile, New Zealand, and southern segregation academies are beside the point.

While I heartily agree with the authors about the key civic function of schools, I am disappointed by their formulation of the civic case against vouchers. In the first place, two decades of research suggests strongly that Catholic schools (about half of the non-public sector) are at least as effective in imparting civic knowledge, skills, and beliefs as are the public schools that students in Catholic schools would otherwise attend. Second, the rhetorical questions posed about the anti-civic teaching that vouchers might conceivably support miss the point. The same body of constitutional law that guarantees the right of private schools to exist also gives government the right to subject those schools to reasonable regulation, for both academic and civic purposes. (Many conservatives have qualms about vouchers because they fear—rightly, I think—that they would serve as the entering wedge for extensive public oversight). There is absolutely nothing that prevents voucher programs from making public funding contingent on verifiable compliance with public norms. It is at best misleading to compare what would be a wholly uncontrolled voucher program with the authors’ proposal for carefully designed and highly controlled public-school choice.

Kahlenberg and Wasow note that school choice is already taking place within the public school system. If anything, they understate the matter. In addition to the magnet, charter, and alternative schools that they mention, nine states provide intradistrict choice; 26 states provide interdistrict choice; nine have both. Further, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires local education authorities to give students at low-performing schools the opportunity to attend better public schools within their district, to provide transportation to non-neighborhood schools, and to spend at least five percent of their Title I funds (if needed), for this purpose.

There is, in short, a substantial body of experience from which a solid research base on public-school choice could be developed, with more on the way. But as Kahlenberg and Wasow concede, that research doesn’t yet exist. So the case for their proposal is based on a handful of examples that have been studied less rigorously than vouchers, plus an inference from a general proposition about the virtues of socioeconomic integration. In my judgment it is risky at best to rest a comprehensive reform of American public education on such a weak evidentiary foundation. The authors’ argument leads more properly to the conclusion that the form of public-school choice they advocate should be tried out in multiple sites under realistic conditions, with careful controls and strong experimental designs. In the meantime, better studies of existing forms of public-school choice would be useful. (While I can’t claim to have mastered the literature, the few studies I’ve seen of charters, magnets, and intra- or interdistrict choice have shown at best modest results along the dimension of academic achievement.)

I turn, finally, to the specifics of Kahlenberg and Wasow’s proposal. The first thing to note is that, as formulated, it cannot attain its core objective—namely, socioeconomic heterogeneity in schools serving the students who most need our help. The reason is this: If the unit within which families exercise choice is the school “district,” as the authors repeatedly suggest, then districts where two-thirds to three quarters of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches cannot place these students among middle-class majorities—whatever constraints the system imposes, whatever choices parents make. Unfortunately, this is precisely the demographic challenge with which most central city school systems are now wrestling. Full implementation of the authors’ plan in Washington, D.C. or Baltimore (to pick the cities I know best) would solve nothing.

On the other hand, if the unit of choice were the metropolitan area, then the means would be proportionate to the end . . . at least in theory. In practice, the political obstacles to metropolitan plans have been virtually insuperable for a generation and are likely to remain so.

This brings me to my concluding point. Kahlenberg and Wasow embrace the premise that “parents must be convinced to buy into any reform agenda.” Moral suasion alone is unlikely to achieve this result; parents must also be convinced that their children will be at least as well-off under “reform” as they are in the status quo. That’s where things get dicey. By the authors’ own figures 36 percent of all families with school-age children are now able to use the choice of housing they enjoy to select precisely the neighborhood school they want. These parents, who tend to be upscale and typically constitute at least half of all frequent voters, are unlikely to be consoled by the thought that under the new regime they will have a 98 percent chance of getting one of their top three choices. And the more schools differ within the geographical area of choice, whatever it may be, the more dissatisfied the parents will be. Moreover, the prices they have paid for their houses reflect the expectation of assignment to a specific school; any disruption of that expectation would inflict direct financial damage. Add to that the fact that many of them have configured job and child-care decisions around particular schools, and we have a formula for what is likely to be effective political resistance.

Nonetheless, Kahlenberg and Wasow are absolutely right: trapping kids in failing schools is morally unacceptable, and traditional reform strategies won’t work fast enough to save the next generation. Is there nothing else we can do? I think there is. The alternative to the authors’ comprehensive but infeasible approach is a plan that broadens current legislation to allow children in failing schools to transfer to better schools anywhere else in their state. (This isn’t armchair policy speculation; for example, Minnesota now has a state-wide choice system.) My suggestion can easily embrace aspects of the Kahlenberg/Wasow plan: the parents of exiting students could designate three schools and be guaranteed admission to at least one. Unless overwhelmed by prospective transfers (some formula for determining unacceptable overloads would have to be worked out), the “receiving” schools would be required to accept all comers, regardless of geographical origin, in return for a cash transfer equal to their current per capita expenditures. In this way a large number of lower-income kids could be integrated into majority middle-class schools without substantially disrupting settled expectations and generating a backlash that would serve no one’s interests.