The Devil in the Details

My wife and I huddled over our spreadsheet listing 50 schools down the left column. Systematically, we calculated data for each kindergarten we were considering for our oldest daughter – distance from home, academic performance index decile ranges, similar schools rankings, racial/ethnic demographic composition.  Most of the data is publicly available, but you have to know where to look.  Of course each school had a website that listed its programs and traditions, but as an educator myself, I wanted to get beyond the superficial offerings.  Every school offers programs.  Not every school offers strong classroom instruction.

This was our experience as parents trying to choose a school in San Francisco Unified.  Ultimately, our daughter’s kindergarten request form included 38 different elementary schools, ranked from first to last priority.  This complex process has its genesis in school desegregation orders, evolving more recently during the school choice craze that’s now in its second decade. We’re increasingly told that the neighborhood school is not what is best for families and communities, especially when the school down the street is struggling to get academic results.

Tread carefully.  First, I must admit that I am both a proponent and a beneficiary of school choice. I was the principal of a spectacular little charter high school in San Francisco.  As parents, my wife and I have gone to some lengths to ensure our kids are enrolled in Spanish Dual Immersion programs – often not the closest school to home.  There is little doubt now that in districts across the country, the arrival of choice options has injected urgency into our discussions about what is best for our kids.  For some families and students, choice has delivered on its promise of providing a better option.

Yet despite its deceptively simple logic, school choice is not simple in practice.  Here are three aspects of school choice that should give us all pause for reflection.

1 – Public vs. Private Governance

This challenge is not a technical one, but an ideological one that probably has no resolution.  I can attest to the fact that charter school staff bristle when they are not referred to as a “public school.”  If your “publicness” is determined by whether you take taxpayer money in lieu of tuition, then charter schools are clearly public schools.  Charter schools pass a similar public litmus test when it comes to rules of open enrollment and accountability measures.  However, charter schools are not governed by publicly elected boards, and this sometimes bothered me about my own experience as a charter principal.  You could argue, as many do, that publicly elected boards introduce unnecessary politics and tension and take decision-making authority away from professional educators.  Yet local school boards are in our democratic DNA.  They ensure that local community members call the shots, as opposed to board members recruited for their fund-raising capacity or fiduciary expertise.  Yes politics can be messy, and local politics especially so.  I still happen to have an ideological streak in me that still believes that local school boards are an important part of the fabric of our democracy.

2 – Segregation

This is a fraught topic of policy that we cannot avoid, no matter how uncomfortable some people may be when topics of race and segregation surface.  School choice as a policy has always had implications for issues of segregation.  In many urban districts, the desegregation orders that followed Brown vs. Board and extended across subsequent decades drove white families out of the public schools (and often out of our cities).  Many urban districts utilized aspects of school choice as part of their desegregation plans.  Magnet schools, pilot schools, and community schools were often used as forms of choice and reform that figured predominately in desegregation plans that sought to integrate and improve schools without having to revert to direct busing.

School choice initiatives led by districts were often successful in terms of integrating schools because districts were under direct judicial order to do so.  One of the primary data points of interest for matters of accountability, therefore, was the racial makeup of the school.  Where schools and districts weren’t successful, the program had to be adjusted, by legal mandate.

More current charter school legislation, beginning in the late 90’s and extending into what we have today, was never terribly concerned about issues of segregation.  In practice, there is growing evidence to suggest that charter schools on the whole have actually contributed to segregating our schools.  Simply stated, when given an unrestricted choice, some parents will choose schools where the majority of students share the same racial and ethnic makeup.  This was my anecdotal experience in San Francisco, where charter schools, including my own, struggled to maintain a diverse student body compared to the general population of the city.  If having integrated schools is a priority, we need to rethink some of the policy mechanisms of school choice.

3 – Lack of transparency

For me, this is the most challenging and troubling aspect of school choice.   School choice has done little to open up the black box to see what really happens in schools.  In the context of competition, schools are less transparent – we want to broadcast what we do well and hide our warts.  In my own school, we were very proud of our college-going outcomes.  Our Hispanic and African American students outscored their counterparts in virtually all of the district schools nearby. We had some powerful and compelling data that we were very proud of.  We also had a much higher suspension rate, and parents had less recourse to argue with our decisions about discipline.

Funding is driven by enrollment.  Enrollment is driven by the perception of success.  There are powerful incentives for schools to promote their own success.  Of course I believe schools can and should promote themselves and celebrate success.  The challenge comes when schools start using single data points to sell themselves at the expense of nearby schools.  These data points are rarely transparent about important corollary data.  How does the level of parent education compare across schools?  How does student suspension data compare – or how about cohort graduation rates?  Charters are rarely forthcoming about this type of data as there is absolutely zero upside to sharing it.  Even when asked directly, if the data is unfavorable, it’s hard to get a straight answer.

This lack of transparency strikes at the heart of charter schools as a reform movement.  In order for parents to “vote with their feet,” they need access to high quality, honest data.  That’s not what they typically get.  They’ll get advertising and marketing.

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