Tonight the Board unanimously approved the feeder plan recommended by the Superintendent. Up until a day ago I was expecting a dissenting vote or two, but I think in the end the staff’s decision to modify the proposal to be a “tiebreaker” system until 2016-17 was the change that convinced Commissioner Wynns (notably the strongest doubter in her public comments previous to tonight’s vote) to support the plan.
I know that in the end it was the decision to refrain from an initial assignment and instead use a tiebreaker process that helped to convince me. I heard a lot of the doubts about equity and access from parents who would receive preference into less-chosen schools; the PAC and PPS’s original recommendation to dump the feeder plan altogether was very compelling. But in considering all of the factors, the unknowns and the overarching policy objectives, I finally came down on the side of the feeders. Specifically:
- The new elementary-to-MS feeder patterns will allow us to plan more rationally for MS improvements. That’s why the MS principals unanimously supported the plan, because they knew they would have more stable and robust enrollments at their schools AND because they knew the plan would help them build academic and social support bridges between their schools and the elementary schools that would provide their target enrollments.
- Choice in school assignment isn’t, by itself, a school improvement strategy. Our experience with a full choice-based assignment system has had some unintended consequences: schools that aren’t chosen have fewer resources and fewer ways to attract those resources, creating a vicious cycle; and choice creates a strong backlash among those who feel entitled to a nearby school but do not get it because it is competitive citywide. And even though our previous choice system did allow some families to “discover” previously overlooked schools, it’s clear that over time it also supported starker segregation patterns and disadvantaged vulnerable school communities. In other words, choice is great if you get one of your choices; not so much if you don’t. And since we are forecasting a coming bulge in middle school enrollment, finding a way to offer everyone a more equitable experience — and still allow people at least some ability to choose where their child will attend school–is becoming more urgent.
- The “tiebreaker” phasing-in of the feeder plan allows some time for families to kick the tires of proposed schools before they are involuntarily “fed” into them through an initial assignment offer. I believe schools like Denman, Martin Luther King and Visitacion Valley MS will benefit from families who are willing to take a second or third look if their first choices don’t pan out. One of the benefits we’ve seen with choice over the years is the incredible effect of critical mass — once parents see that families they regard as peers are happy at a particular school, they are much more willing to consider it as an option for their own children.
There was some discussion at last night’s Student Assignment committee and again at tonight’s meeting about whether to change the order of tiebreakers for middle school assignment while they are in effect (2012-13 through 2015-16). The PAC and PPS recommended that the Board move CTIP or some other “equity mechanism” above the feeder patterns as a tiebreaker, which in the end only Commissioner Wynns supported. I can’t speak for other Board members, but the reason I opposed giving CTIP higher priority in MS assignments is that I am not convinced yet that it does what we think it does; I have concerns that it is simply advantaging a subset of families who happen to live in those zones but don’t otherwise fit the racial and socioeconomic profiles we are hoping to advantage. I would like to see the effect of the strong CTIP preference on K applicant pools and school composition before I agree to “double-down” for MS enrollment.
I do recognize that some people will be deeply upset and angered by the Board’s decision tonight. I don’t think the Superintendent and staff have done a good job explaining HOW they are going to improve some of our middle schools; nor have they acknowledged the areas where we should be doing a better job. They actually haven’t even defined very well what a “quality” middle school is. I plan to continue bringing these and related topics to the Board’s Curriculum Committee to help guide the staff in developing an improvement plan for each of our MS.
Tonight the Board also heard about a little thing called the 2011-12 budget, which was introduced for first reading. It was almost 10:30 p.m. by the time the budget item came up (another item ate up more than an hour of the Board’s time before that) so there wasn’t really any discussion. The Board will hold an augmented Budget and Business Services Committee meeting on June 21 where the budget will be discussed in greater detail.