The American School Board Journal is often a good source of education policy information, and this month’s cover story, “The Evolution of School Choice,” is no exception. The article focuses on the charter schools vs. traditional schools debate, but has some truths that I find applicable to our efforts to redesign the assignment system:
The truly important factor that will remain unclear for a time is whether school choice really lives up to its promise. If history is any guide, students with engaged parents and affluent backgrounds will have no difficulty making the most of the educational opportunities made available.
If policymakers aren’t careful with future policy decisions, however, they might find that school choice simply will perpetuate that reality, say Jonah Liebert, assistant executive director for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Those that can abandon low-performing schools will, and those already trapped in poor-performing schools will remain there.“Unless you find a way to mix affluent and suburban school systems with poor school systems,” he says, “you’re not going to do anything other than reshuffle the deck.”
In San Francisco, our lowest-performing schools are concentrated in the southeast corner of the City, which also happens to be an area where more children live. The pattern we have seen in our all-choice enrollment process is that some families from those southeast neighborhoods are opting out of the schools nearest to them, in favor of higher-performing schools in other parts of the City. Less-advantaged families, however, stay put — perpetuating the problem of high-poverty, high-need children being concentrated in a few schools.
The whole idea behind school choice in our district was to level the playing field — to give families good choices no matter where they lived. The hope was that decoupling school assignment from home address would combat segregated housing patterns; the irony was that our system was lauded by Libertarians as being a model of free-market ideals. In the sense that our choice system helped some parents realize that there were good school choices out there, the Libertarians were right — over the past decade a number of schools have shot up in popularity and API scores, and the perception of the district as a whole has improved .
However, segregation has increased markedly, which is bad enough. But what has also happened is that there are a handful of schools that serve large concentrations of high poverty, high need students — and those schools, no matter what we do, are failing. They’re failing because their teachers leave every year to work in less challenging situations. They’re failing because their students come to school with emotional and physical needs that the schools were never set up to address. They’re failing because their families are either under so much stress or so dysfunctional that they aren’t involved in the school. They’re failing because they are under-enrolled. And they’re failing because our system provides all sorts of inducements (busing and open enrollment) for families who want to opt out to attend schools in other neighborhoods (and who have the werewithall and awareness to do so).
Getting rid of choice seems like the easiest answer, and indeed there seems to be a consensus on the Board that choice will need to be more limited under a new system than it is now if we are serious about narrowing the opportunity gap for all students. But what do you tell the families in the southeastern neighborhoods who have taken advantage of choice? For the most part, these families are not middle-class — the Bayview, Visitacion Valley and the Mission have among the lowest median household incomes, the highest participation in free/reduced price lunch, and the largest number of public housing units. Being able to choose higher-performing schools in other areas has, in the view of families living in these neighborhoods, leveled the playing field and offered their children opportunity.
If limiting choice is the truly the best way to fulfill our goal of diversifying schools and offering every student better academic opportunities, then we’d better be sure we can follow through in coming up with those better academic opportunities (past efforts are not encouraging). Otherwise, we’re just closing off one more avenue of opportunity for families in the Bayview and Visitacion Valley.