Thursday, October 03, 2002

Bilingual Education and Other Non-Debates

I ran across this article in favor of school choice on the School Reformers website. It would be more persuasive if its chosen target were something other than an uncited article in Money magazine printed "some years ago." Still, the author makes a point not repeated often enough: "But, even if, to quote a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, 'every school a good school' were the norm, individuals should still be able to select one rather than another. Schools may be good without being identical or equally able to serve diverse interests."

Yes, school choice would help contain costs. Yes, school choice would tend to improve performance according to the usual measures (e.g., standardized testing). But the point here is that school choice allows … how can I put this … choice! Competition among schools offers the opportunity to escape the one-size-fits-all solutions offered by the public school monopoly. Consider the panoply of educational issues that currently masquerade as policy debates: bilingual education, single-sex education, mandatory uniforms, teaching of Black English (a.k.a. Ebonics), etc. Why should such matters as these be decided by the state legislature? In a system of school choice, parents could choose among the alternatives, selecting the school with the combination of rules and pedagogy that suits them best.

As just one example, take the case of bilingual education versus linguistic immersion. The real issue, I think most people on both sides would agree, is which method of instruction actually works better at educating non-English speakers. I don't claim to know which method is superior, but my strong suspicion is that it depends crucially on the individual student. So why the rancorous debate? Because everyone involved knows that the public schools will adopt a single policy for everyone. But it doesn't have to be that way. Allow school choice, and see which methods of language instruction pass the market test. Maybe only one method would survive, because schools that adopt it produce superior results and thereby attract more students (and imitators). Or maybe -- and this is my prediction -- there would be an equilibrium in which the market provides both types of language instruction, just as some colleges focus on liberal arts while other focus on professional and technical education. Take the same line of argument, replace bilingual education with any of the other issues above, wash, rinse, and repeat.

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