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Whose school choice?

As the Indiana General Assembly prepares to tackle Gov. Mitch Daniels' ambitious education agenda, it would be helpful to review a few facts about school choice.

Proponents like to frame the argument for vouchers -- or "opportunity scholarships," as we call them here -- in terms of parents choosing what's best for their children. But a story today in the New York Times is a reminder that choice is a two-way street. The article recounts the experience of parents whose children have been "counseled out" of private schools for falling behind or presenting a discipline problem.

It recounts the experience of one parent whose young son attended Collegiate School, "the standard-bearer of all-boys education on the Upper West Side." When extra help didn't bolster his performance, he was removed in fourth grade.

"The school just sat down with us and said, 'You know, he seems really miserable, and we feel like we'd already given him one-on-one," Sandra Klihr told the Times.

Counseling out isn't restricted to pricey East Coast schools. The principal at a local public high school told me a few years ago how several second-semester seniors had just transferred to her school from a couple of area parochial schools, far behind on credits with just months to go in their high school careers.

The parochial schools advise them to transfer, but the effect is to keep them from tarnishing the schools' graduation rates.

It works for discipline cases, too. When I asked a young neighbor why he was transferring from a parochial school to our neighborhood elementary school a few years ago, he matter-of-factly told me "the principal asked me not to come back."

Private and parochial schools have every right to demand students and parents meet certain responsibilities, but the fact is that they can do it when public schools can't. In talking school choice, let's be honest about whose choice it really is.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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