The biggest problem with school voucher programs and other policy arrangements that call for a greater role for private schools at the K-12 level is that private schools can control who they admit. Entry restrictions through academic testing or high tuition bills allow many private schools to ensure their own success by restricting access to those students most likely to succeed. Such restrictions arguably subvert one of the main roles of education in a democracy - that is, K-12 education is supposed to provide excellent opportunities for all students regardless of the relative wealth and status of their homes and communities.
Of course, no one would argue that American public education, as it is currently organized, even approaches that ideal; but voucher programs that give public funds to schools that can restrict access to incoming students deemed unlikely to succeed cannot be a serious vehicle for reducing inequality of opportunity.
There may, however, be a way to introduce more choice and competition into the K-12 system (a conservative goal) while promoting equal educational opportunity for disadvantaged students (a liberal goal). Voucher and charter policies, where they are introduced, should require schools to accept applicants on the basis of lotteries rather than on the basis of interviews and test scores as a condition for receiving public funds. Differentiation between schools needs to be based on factors other than who gets in; curricula can be different, allocation of resources can be different, teacher pay can be different, and the aims of education (i.e., vocational preparation versus college preparation) can be different. But publicly-financed schools should not differentiate themselves by restricting access.
Over at the Noble Street College Prep network of charter schools in Chicago, students are admitted regardless of their previously demonstrated academic capabilities - just as they are in most public schools. However, students and their parents must consciously choose to attend a Noble Street school, accepting a longer school day, a longer school year, and college-level homework loads as a consequence. Incoming students and their parents must agree to make college admission the overriding goal of their high school years.
The consequence? Over 85% of Noble Street College Prep graduates attend college.
It is remarkable what students can achieve when they are asked to consent to getting a great education as a condition of high school admission. Students' consent to hard work - rather than their scores on a high-stakes test - becomes the method by which students are put on a college-prep track.
Is this the answer to the age-old debate about "tracking" students? Can it be replicated on a larger scale? I wonder whether providing middle-school students and their parents with extensive information about career paths, wage differences between jobs that require a college education and those that do not, and similar data and then asking them to place themselves in a vocational track or college-prep track might improve students' high school experiences and the likelihood that they will reach their educational goals.