The following chapters examine the major policy options relevant to each goal. The options are arranged within the framework of the four generic strategies for altering finance systems introduced at the end of Chapter 2:

  • Reduce funding inequities and inadequacies.

  • Invest in capacity.

  • Change incentives to make performance count.

  • Empower schools or parents to make decisions about public funds.

Although we examine policy options separately by strategy, in many cases the strategies will be most effective if they are combined in a coherent way. In general, the case for combining strategies is most compelling when policy makers are trying to work within the existing system of school governance. Some proponents of major change in the governance system (e.g., through vouchers allowing parents to choose public or private schools) see little reason to combine finance strategies. To them, the introduction of more choice and competition among schools will provide whatever incentives are necessary to induce schools to make the types of investments needed to improve student learning.

The importance of making major changes in the governance system takes on special urgency in the context of goal 2, because many decades of attention to the educational problems facing at-risk children and urban schools in the framework of the existing educational system have so far resulted in improvements that are marginal at best. The seriatim discussion of individual policy options for goals 1 and 2 arranged by finance strategy may mask an important overall question, which we as a committee wish to highlight specifically, although we are not of one mind about how to answer it.

The question is whether it is more important to focus on finance changes that leave the structure of American education basically intact (as the first three strategies assume) or to explore options that would constitute a strong break with past practices (as policies emphasizing school and parent control over education dollars might do). Many reforms are occurring in schools and districts serving high proportions of at-risk students. It is still unclear, though, whether the current round of reforms will be more successful than previous ones. At the same time, how effective new structures would be is not yet knowable either, since many are largely untried. Thus policy makers face fundamental choices for which we cannot provide scientific solutions. These choices will rest on individual conclusions about the prospects for meaningful change within the current educational structure and on values in addition to those of enhancing fairness and productivity.

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