If and when families get the freedom to choose schools, there is no guarantee they will have anything from which to choose. Charter schools are few in number and most have waiting lists. Parochial schools also fill up quickly. Government programs such as the new federal No Child Left Behind Act give families the right to move children out of failing schools, but for many the school they now attend is the only one available.
School districts are willing to create new schools to serve a growing population but not to create options for current students.
In most big cities neither the government nor the private sector is prepared to create new schools. Edison Schools, a private-sector organization aimed at creating innovative public schools, is in trouble because it is the only group capable of creating large numbers of new schools: ideological opponents reason that if they cripple Edison by revoking the corporation's contracts they can hurt the entire choice movement.
The choice movement might be winning the policy battle, but an inadequate supply of alternative schools might cause it to lose the war. If choice becomes legally possible but good choices do not emerge, middle-of-the-road Americans will conclude that the school district monopoly was the only feasible way to provide schools after all.
Nonprofits that have already started to run schools and training organizations have stayed on the sidelines because, until recently, anyone ready to develop large numbers of new public schools would have been all dressed up with no place to go.
Where can large numbers of new schools come from? The key is to get experienced private organizations into the business of operating publicly funded schools.
One possible supply-side solution is interfaith coalitions of churches that have experience running their own schools. The Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Jews all know how to run private schools. Hundreds of thousands of people either teach or administer in such schools or have done so in the past. These people know how to make such schools work and could start new ones. As Catholic archdioceses implode financially, as a result of their recent struggles, the number of experienced people available to work in new schools will grow.
Interfaith coalitions have other advantages in that they include organizations with financial and managerial competence, established nonprofit status, and access to funds. They can easily pass constitutional scrutiny by offering value-based education that does not proselytize. Such coalitions have effectively provided low-income housing and social services. Now is the time for them to turn to education.
Interfaith coalitions already exist in most cities. All that is required is a little leadership to move them into providing schools. A single leader—a rabbi, priest, county executive, or layperson—could assemble a group to develop charter schools or create new schools to make it possible for children to leave failed public schools. Interested national foundations could offer start-up funds to interfaith coalitions willing to create new schools.
Good new schools don't just happen; groups morally committed to children's welfare must take the initiative.