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The Limits of School Choice

By Walt Gardner — July 06, 2011 4 min read
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Summer vacation has a way of making the fall opening of schools seem years away. Yet for parents who are disaffected for one reason or another with the education their children are receiving from neighborhood schools, it’s a time to make some hard decisions. Should they keep their children where they are or should they seek alternatives?

In its lead editorial on Jul. 5, The Wall Street Journal addressed the dilemma (“The Year of School Choice”). It pointed to the growth of school choice legislation in 13 states - with 28 more states considering the same - as hopeful signs. But the WSJ warned that choice by itself is not enough. It has to be accompanied by the elimination of teacher tenure and the measurement of teachers against student performance (presumably on standardized tests).

Let’s take a closer look at school choice alone in order to avoid confusing matters by introducing other factors.

What is immediately apparent is the emotional appeal of the issue. Consider the story of a young mother in Connecticut who was charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy for using her baby sitter’s address to enroll her son in a school in suburban Norwalk in the fall when he actually lived in urban Bridgeport. The case has attracted widespread attention because it illustrates the desperation of many parents. The fact that its venue is Connecticut is not at all surprising because the state has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the nation.

Connecticut, however, is not alone in the lengths to which parents will go to get a quality education for their children. In the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, N.Y., parents have been using utility bill receipts of friends as proof of residence in order to get their children in P.S. 107’s vaunted kindergarten.

The problem is expected to get worse because there are 42 percent more kindergarten applicants on waiting lists across the district for the fall than last year, according to the New York City Department of Education. Some 3,195 children are on wait lists for their zoned schools or are from out of the zone but have siblings who attend the schools.

For 8,239 eighth graders in New York City, the frustration is more acute. They were denied admission to any of their choices for high school in the fall (“Lost in the School Choice Maze,” The New York Times, May 7). The process consists of students applying up to 12 high schools in order of preference and then high schools ranking applicants.

What can be done in these cases? In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder wants to make empty seats in every school district available to any student in the state. At present, districts selectively open the doors to non-residents. Some permit only residents of the same county, while others are completely closed to non-residents.

The governor’s plan would require all schools with space for non-resident students to accept those students. If demand exceeded supply, a lottery would be held. The state would pay the district the per-student allowance, regardless of where the students reside.

But lotteries are not what they initially seem. Winners are not drawn from the community at large but only from those parents who apply for admission. As a result, any conclusions about the effectiveness of a lottery school are tainted by selection bias. Moreover, once a child is chosen by a lottery, there are almost always additional conditions before the child is offered a seat. These can include completing multiple sets of forms by a certain date and attending a lengthy enrollment meeting on a stipulated evening or weekend. For poor and non-speaking English parents, these requirements are often overwhelming.

Even if these factors were addressed, however, it would not mollify all parents. That’s because districts also factor in diversity in their policies. The result is a maddening system. Some districts consider whether children went to preschool and what a family’s income is before allowing them to enroll. Even preschool is no sure thing because many school buildings are running out of space. As a result, many middle class parents finally lose patience and enroll their children in private and religious schools.

There’s another consideration that is given short shrift in the debate. Do homeowners have the right to maintain the academic standards of neighborhood schools that their high taxes support? The reputation of schools looms large in the decision of where to purchase a home. Real estate agents stress this factor in their ads, and many families respond by paying a premium.

Readers of this column know that I’ve long supported parental choice. I continue to do so. However, it’s important to remember that choice is not a panacea. It doesn’t always deliver on its promises. That’s why improving underperforming schools through better curriculums, teacher quality and wraparound services is far more likely to produce the outcomes everyone wants.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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