The evolution of school choice

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.

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9 responses to “The evolution of school choice

  1. One commentor said that schools where parents that raise private funds should get commensurately less from the district. If you want to put the kabosh on fundraising that is a good tactic. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that one.

  2. isnt there some success putting immersion programs in under-performing schools? IF so, why doesnt the board focus on making more high profile options for schools to get people to go more towards the south or east. Languages, Science Magnets, etc.

  3. Caila Menefee

    If, “In general, 70 percent of all K-5 students who live in the Bayview choose schools outside of their home neighborhood.” Then it seems the challenge would be to change people’s opinions about the schools in their neighborhood.

    I am a native San Franciscan who grew up in the Southeast Corridor. I never attended a public school in my neighborhood because my mother did not beleive they were “good” schools.

    I worked with school suppport programs, working with teachers in Bayview and Visitacion Valley and some schools in the Fillmore. And I have never heard a teacher – and I have met some REALLY good teachers who were committed to working in those neighborhoods complain about the kids or even the parents – no matter how difficult. Time and time again, their complaint was that they felt unsupported and under-funded by the district to do what they needed to do.

    I think it is healthy and fair for schools who perform well to receive higher enrollment and extra parent support. I beleive in parent choice and parents should send their kids to the place they beleive they will be best educated. Perhaps because of life circumstances those less engaged parents honestly beleive their kids will get a better education at the lower performing school. Perhaps they believe given their life circumstance that they can do a better job at getting the child to the school up the street, instead of moving them across town?

    If it is indeed “less challenging” to teach at high performing schools. Why not develop a dollar for dollar formula for the extra parent support highly enrolled “good” schools get – and deduct that amount from the high performing schools budget and move it to the underperforming schools to get them to raise their performance and perhaps build something “so fabulous” that all parents would want for their children?
    Why not pay teachers more who work in “challenging” situations? Or who have shown commitment in working in such “challenging” situations? Why not have them feel more supported or have incentives to stay despite the challenges?

  4. Thanks for the post, Rachel. As a super-frustrated parent who waited 9 months to get none of our Kindergarten “choices”, I want to understand the upside of this insane system. I’ll keep reading.

    And mostly, I just want to know that I can send my kid to a great school in my neighborhood. I imagine that in neighborhoods all across the city, all us parents, regardless of our difference, want that for our kids.

  5. Yes, transportation is one way to boost diversity – IF you offer it as a choice and not as a must (e.g., families from the West side flee public schools if they’re told they HAVE to get on a bus). The thing we haven’t cracked is how to get AA, Latino and Samoan families from the east side to CHOOSE schools on the west side. Or, aside from language immersion, how to get White or Chinese families from the West side to CHOOSE schools on the east side.

    Remember, transportation is VERY expensive. So it doesn’t make sense to offer it by itself unless it truly supports your goals. Right now, we’re offering transportation OUT of the SE neighborhoods, which hurts schools in the SE. What if we offered transportation IN to SE neighborhoods? For that to make sense, we have to build something that is so fabulous and wonderful that people are willing to take a bus to get to it. But to build it, you’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to figure out what the market wants in order to build the right thing. We built Gloria R. Davis without such a plan, and the result was failure, and ultimately a closed school building that is now used for district training. I believe we can build something that will attract students, but we’ve got to put some thought and planning into it. It can’t just be on the backs of parents who would rather be somewhere else.

  6. “if anyone claims “kids from the Bayview” are taking up all the spots in elementary schools in the Richmond, Sunset, Marina, or Parkside, they are misinformed”

    They aren’t taking ENOUGH spots in westside schools … Alamo Elementray has what, 4 African American children, out of 550 students? If transportation was provided from BVHP to Alamo, and several other Westside schools — those schools would be less segregated.
    (Look at Lilienthal and Rooftop … they have bus service, their diversity is much more reflective of the SFUSD student population.)
    I don’t get why everyone is so busy trying to change the assignment system, when a truly simple way to solve much of the problem would be to provide ACCESS to the schools. Provide transportation, and work harder to get families who don’t enter the first round to start entering the first round. Until most families enter the first round, the system will continue to not be fair or equitable.

  7. It’s actually more interesting than that – the numbers break down very sharply by race. In general, 70 percent of all K-5 students who live in the Bayview choose schools outside of their home neighborhood. Of 737 students — the remaining 30 percent — who choose to attend schools in the Bayview, 648 are African American, Latino or Samoan; 89 are Chinese, Filipino, White/Other, or Decline to State.

    Most of the K-5 Bayview students who attend schools outside their neighborhood attend school in either the Excelsior, Bernal Heights, the Mission, Outer Mission, Potrero Hill or Visitacion Valley (those six neighborhoods make up almost 45% of students who live in the Bayview; the remaining 25% are evenly spread out among all other neighborhoods in San Francisco–if anyone claims “kids from the Bayview” are taking up all the spots in elementary schools in the Richmond, Sunset, Marina, or Parkside, they are misinformed).

  8. I don’t have the numbers at hand, but didn’t something like 79% of BVHP dwellers who filed a first-round application pick a school 5 miles (or more) away from their homes?

  9. i wish we had the money to tear down and rebuild every school facility every 20 years. they do this in some european countries. i wish we could fund every institution to it’s fullest degree and get a new school within 1 walkable mile of every child. busing or driving or muni’ing our kids around town is not a good solution, in my opinion. we need to rethink the urban/school zone design from scratch. we need to compete with private. we need a new generation of teachers that are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the unreachable kids.