Equity & Diversity Opinion

School Choice Week: Are We Leaving Children Behind by Design?

By Anthony Cody — January 27, 2013 4 min read
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Advocates of public funding for private, parochial and charter schools have declared this School Choice Week, and that means we will be getting a heavy dose of advertising and advocacy promoting market-based reforms of our education system. Choice and competition between schools will spur innovation, we are told. Students will find their ways to the school that is just right for them.

But the marketplace and the drive for profits are proving to be very poor at delivering equitable outcomes for many of our students. Why is this? Perhaps the very design of these school choice systems allows - even promotes - the systematic abandonment of students most affected by poverty and lacking parental support.

The marketplace that has been created in education is far from a level playing field. It is systematically flawed in ways that hamper public schools and provide advantages to many charter and private schools. Some charter schools screen out students who lack parental support or are otherwise not “a good fit.” Research has repeatedly shown that charter schools tend to enroll fewer special ed students and English learners. Charter schools in some areas such as Washington, DC, have been found to have significantly higher expulsion rates than neighboring public schools.

This sort of zero tolerance approach to discipline contributes to high attrition rates at many of the charter schools. And the students rejected or “counseled out” of these charter schools naturally fall back in the laps of the public schools, who are obliged by law to enroll them, even mid-year.

A recent essay by Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute suggests this is just fine. This month, Mr. Petrilli posted an essay entitled “The Charter Expulsion Flap: Who Speaks for the Strivers?” He refers to recent reports that charter schools in Washington, DC, are expelling students at far higher rates than public schools. While many civil rights advocates might regard this pattern with alarm, Mr. Petrilli disagrees.

In my view, we should admit--even celebrate--this phenomenon and be proud of the charter schools that are identifying and serving high-potential low-income students--kids who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by supportive parents.

Mr. Petrilli makes it clear that for him, at least, it is just a minor concern if the life boats offered to the strivers leave behind many students who are unwilling or unable to climb aboard.

Public schools cannot reject more difficult or expensive students - they must accept all. Public school districts face sharp oversight regarding expulsions and suspensions - in fact Oakland Unified last fall entered into a five-year agreement with the Department of Education aimed at reducing the number of suspensions, especially of African American boys. And the proportion of special ed students is rising in many public schools, as non-special ed students shift into charters. In fact, if they cannot serve them properly, the public schools are obliged to PAY for even more expensive placements in special schools.

As I pointed out last November, not all charter schools take advantage of these opportunities for efficiency. Some, like the ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, recruit students who have dropped out, or are at risk. But this does not appear to be typical of the sector.

It is useful to recall why we HAVE public schools in the first place. Growing up in Berkeley, a university town, I attended a neighborhood school only three blocks from my home. When I was in the fourth grade, in 1967, citizens responded to the call for desegregation by coming up with a plan that sent all students in grades 4 to 6 to schools in the less affluent west side of town, and sent kindergarten to third graders up to schools on the eastern side. There was an extensive community discussion before this decision was reached, and though there were a few bumps, the plan worked.

There is significant research that shows that the best achievement for students is accomplished when we break down racial and economic isolation. And we are concerned as citizens not only with narrow measures of student learning, but broader ones as well. Students who are in more integrated schools are learning through their experiences working with classmates to work and live with others in society.

Choice has been sold on the basis that competition will yield better performance from all the schools in a community. However, our public schools are being left with an unsustainable burden, which is causing harm to many students. We are seeing increased levels of economic and racial segregation, even though this has been found to harm student achievement. The best answer is a return to the values that led to the development of our community schools decades ago.

Chicago teacher Katie Osgood points out::

The great irony of "choice" is that in their efforts to end the achievement gap, to assert that "poverty is not destiny," 'No Excuses' Reformers actually re-create the conditions of inequality and unequal distributions of resources anew. They never touch upon the root causes of poor achievement, namely poverty, but rather concentrate the kids that are less poor in certain charters and claim these schools have proven that "poverty doesn't matter". In reality, all they have proven is how very much poverty, and degrees of poverty matter. The poorer the child, the more likely they will struggle in school. And "choice" punishes children for living in deep poverty. The practice of "counseling out" disruptive and difficult-to-educate students is a hallmark of choice. The entire point of having options is that not every school will be a good fit for every student. And what we see is many charters refusing to serve the students suffering the worst effects of poverty: the kids who have learning and behavior problems often as a DIRECT RESULT of the extreme poverty they live in. These charters reinforce that poverty is in fact, destiny in our society.

Katie Osgood goes on to challenge us to live up to the name, if not the actual spirit, of No Child Left Behind:

... is it possible to fight for a system that leaves no children behind, which promotes equity and equal opportunity for ALL? Can we commit to spending the MOST resources on the neediest children to address safety and learning issues? Can we commit to addressing the underlying poverty which creates so many of the behavior, learning, and safety issues in schools? Can we commit to ensuring that no matter where you live, you will have a well-kept, EQUITABLY-resourced (more resources for needier schools), properly-staffed school, complete with access to libraries and librarians, up-to-date technology, social workers, counselors, and foreign language, arts, and music?

This is the counterpoint to those who suggest we should offer lifeboats to the few. For our communities, the best choice is not to load our favored children onto lifeboats - it is to ensure that our public schools get the support they need to carry all of our precious ones into their future.

Update: Reuters reported on Feb. 15 that many charter schools are using extensive applications and other techniques to screen incoming students, supporting the observation that many of them are not, in fact, accepting all students, or serving populations similar to neighborhood public schools. See their report here.

What do you think? Is school choice “serving strivers” and ditching the rest? Is there a better way?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.