Mapping Analysis Finds Interdistrict-Choice Options to Be Limited

August 26, 2008 3 min read

The use of interdistrict-choice programs is unlikely to increase most students’ educational opportunities significantly, a new report concludes, despite recent attention to the idea as a means of reducing economic and racial segregation and giving students in low-performing public schools a chance to find a better school.

“Only a limited number of students in a limited number of locations are likely to benefit from interdistrict choice—and even then, only if carefully crafted policies succeed where many past programs have failed,” says the report, issued this week by Education Sector, a Washington think tank that supports public school choice.

The study analyzes performance data and public school locations in California, Florida, and Texas, three of the most populous states. Using Geographic Information Systems mapping technology, it estimates the driving time from lower-performing schools to significantly higher-performing schools in the same geographic area.

Factors such as long distances to higher-achieving schools and limited capacity in those schools can severely constrain students’ ability to take advantage of interdistrict choice, the report concludes. Even under the best-designed interdistrict-choice programs, it says, 80 percent to 90 percent of students would remain in the same low-performing schools.

Some choice advocates have called for changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act to make it easier for students in low-performing public schools to transfer across district lines to higher-performing ones.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit public-policy-research institution, argues that the new report is “fatally flawed” because it assumes that higher-performing schools would increase capacity at most by 10 percent.

“The whole report is premised on this assumption about capacity,” said Mr. Kahlenberg, who has written in favor of interdistrict-choice programs and is a nonresident fellow at Education Sector. “I don’t have the ability to tell you the right number is 10 percent or 5 percent or 30 percent, but neither does Education Sector.”

Uncertainty on Capacity

But Erin M. Dillon, the report’s author and a policy analyst at the think tank, argues that the 10 percent figure, while not scientifically based, was reasonable.

“If we’re looking to do this on a large scale, what can we expect schools to handle?” she said. “We felt like 10 percent was a realistic number.”

Education Sector also assumed a top driving time of 20 minutes to other schools. And it assumed that the choice option would be limited to students in the bottom 40 percent of schools, based on test data, and that those students would be permitted to transfer to other schools with substantially better performance outcomes.

Using those criteria, across California, about 7 percent of students at schools serving grade 3 could transfer to higher-performing schools when choice was limited to schools within the students’ home district. That climbs to nearly 12 percent when choice was expanded to include schools in other districts.

At grade 7, intradistrict choice in California was available for just 4 percent of students within the same district, and rose to 9 percent with interdistrict choice.

In Texas, the report found suburban students to be most likely to benefit from interdistrict choice.

Across states, Ms. Dillon said, extending the driving time to one hour generally had little impact.

“If one student can travel an hour, then all students can travel an hour,” she said, “so it actually doesn’t tend to change the numbers too much.”

The report highlights a few places, such as Plano, Texas, where interdistrict choice may be especially promising based on the proximity of low- and high-performing schools and available capacity.

The report offers proposals to help make interdistrict choice more viable, such as providing free transportation and creating financial incentives for schools to accept students.

Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the report is beneficial in beginning to look at maps and performance data to better gauge alternatives for students.

“It’s an imperfect picture,” she said, “but it’s the beginning of a picture of the landscape of choice possibilities.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Mapping Analysis Finds Interdistrict-Choice Options to Be Limited

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