Resisting Meaningful School Choice

Baltimore offers 194 transfer spots for 30,000 kids

Recent news reports show that superintendents and principals nationwide are resisting the implementation of meaningful public school choice that is called for in the No Child Left Behind Act. School districts are setting very restrictive conditions on when and where parents in the 8,600 failing schools can exercise school choice.

Case in point in today’s Baltimore Sun:

Baltimore school officials said yesterday they will offer 194 places this year for 30,000 students who are in schools designated as low-performing and are eligible to transfer to a better school.

The city, like other school districts around the nation, is required to give parents whose children are in schools that have been classified as “failing” the choice of moving them to another school or providing extra help, such as tutoring after school, on Saturday or with a private company.

The school choice option is being offered for the second year, but this is the first time the federal government has required school districts to provide transportation for students to get to their new schools.

So few spaces are available, according to Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones, because schools that the city designated to accept the students were nearly full. School officials also pointed out that only 22 students took advantage of the option last year. If more than 194 students apply for a transfer, the city school system will randomly select students Aug. 8 and parents will be notified Aug. 12.

Baltimore school officials limited the number of transfers, they said, because they designated only 11 elementary schools – and no middle schools – as schools that could receive transfers. Jones said the system decided that only schools that had improved over the past two years, had a combined score of 40 or above on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and had space for more students could accept transfers.

The full article is available here.

Similarly, in a recent Washington Post column, Richard Kahlenberg describes efforts to subvert public school choice in Maryland.

In May county school officials grudgingly announced a plan to implement the No Child Left Behind Act by paying transportation costs for as many as 800 elementary school students to transfer from low-performing, low-income schools to higher-performing public schools. Under Montgomery’s program, 10 schools that were failing to meet state standards were paired with 10 high-performing schools chosen because they have extra space and are located nearby. For example, students at Rosemont Elementary in Gaithersburg (which ranked 591st out of 834 elementary schools in the state on standardized tests) could transfer to Cold Spring Elementary in Potomac (which ranked 10th). To prevent “creaming,” federal guidelines required that low-income and low-performing students be given priority to transfer.

When the program first was announced, some middle class parents in receiving schools appeared nervous about the prospect of their children rubbing shoulders with low-income children, but school officials put on the full court press to discourage student transfers. During the application period, school spokesman Brian Porter told the Potomac Gazette, “If we had our druthers, we would not be doing this program. We’re doing everything possible to keep the families at their home schools.” In school literature on the transfer program, officials emphasized that students who stay in their “home school” receive extra benefits, such as full day kindergarten and smaller class size in the early grades, which are not available in higher-performing schools.

These examples mirror public school-choice restrictions nationwide. Restrictions include claims that all schools are too crowded, short windows of opportunity for parents to exercise choice (1-3 weeks per year), and outright restrictions on which schools can participate in public school-choice programs.

Restricting school choice to only higher-performing schools may also be detrimental to the point of public school choice. Real public choice would allow the poor-performing schools to compete with better performing schools. For example, perhaps parents in higher-performing schools might like to take advantage of all-day kindergarten programs in the lower-performing schools. The only way to give parents true public school choice is to actually open up all public schools in a geographic region until the point they are filled to capacity. If there are waiting lists at the individual school level-these can be decided by lottery for that particular school-just like is common with waiting lists for charter schools.

And by limiting school choice to higher-performing schools, districts will take away the primary incentive for poor performing schools to change their behavior. If these schools are going to lose the students anyway-there is less of a reason to work towards better school-level performance.

Michigan’s “Schools of Choice,” program offers a useful example of how poorer-performing schools change their behavior when they are faced with competition from higher-performing schools. Low-performing schools in Detroit have been forced to rethink their programs and curriculum in order to retain students and attract new students. If the low-performing schools were barred from Michigan’s open-enrollment program, they would have had less of an incentive to improve their schools. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has extensive coverage of Michigan’s schools-of-choice program:

The bottom line is that for public school choice to be meaningful, school districts must offer parents the most public school choices possible. Unfortunately, recent school district behavior make this interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act’s school choice provision seem unlikely.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.