Open enrollment a bad idea for S.C.’s public schools

Open enrollment a bad idea for S.C.’s public schools

By PAUL THOMAS
From The State

While the voucher assault on public education looks like it is dissipating in South Carolina, we are now faced with an equally flawed proposal to improve our schools: open enrollment within the current public system. Open enrollment offers no real promise for improving schools, and it guarantees to create disasters for extracurricular activities.

First, open enrollment begins with the same flawed premise as other choice proposals: Our schools are failing because there is no competition for customers. I believe the primary lack of motivation in our schools that results in low achievement is not among teachers and administrators but among students and their parents who see no value in an education.

However, a lack of motivation is not close to the primary problem with our public schools. The single greatest reason our schools fail is that they are windows to the ills of our state. When poverty is high in a school, achievement is low. Teachers and schools will never overcome poverty’s debilitating effects through traditional schooling. If we want to improve schools, we should set aside fruitless proposals such as open enrollment and address the pockets of poverty that plague our state.

Next, offering open enrollment within our current public system is not going to be choice at all unless we also fully fund transportation for all students to attend any schools they choose. Without fully funded transportation, open enrollment will benefit only the affluent and fulfill the hidden agenda of choice advocates — assisting the affluent in fleeing certain schools.

Before looking at how open enrollment promises to fail us beyond academics, let’s consider what will happen if students are provided transportation and allowed to transfer to any school they choose. We might suppose that parents will choose to send their children to the best schools they can find (although research shows that academics are not why parents choose to move students when they are given choice; parents move students for social reasons far more often than to find a good academic setting).

I guarantee that if we allow open enrollment, when a new population of students fills our best schools, the next set of report cards will reflect that new demographic. If a top school sees an influx of high-poverty students, test scores will drop, the school report card will reflect that, and that school will no longer be attractive. We have ample evidence that test scores and school report card ratings directly reflect the poverty levels of our schools — not the talent or effort of the teachers or the administration.

Although the primary contribution of our schools is, of course, academic, our public school system offers much more as well in the form of extracurricular activities — notably sports.

Many in the Upstate watched this fall as a major high school wrestled with the S.C. High School League over the transfer of a top football player into a school with a repeat state championship team. We have fairly strict rules about athletes attending appropriate schools in order to keep schools from creating unfairly dominant programs. With open enrollment, how will we monitor the movement of students for purely athletic reasons?

Before anyone dismisses my skepticism, I would suggest that politicians look closely at the open enrollment proposal. We already have districts that practice open enrollment. Open enrollment is not improving schools where it exists, and coaches within these districts know that many students move solely for a chance to play on championship teams.

Before spending tax money and valuable educational time on a proposal driven by ideology and not evidence, we need to clarify what the specific problems with our schools are; we need to show evidence for the problems and explanations of how solutions match those problems.

Since we have had open enrollment in this state for a significant amount of time in certain districts, let’s gather data and explore fully how it is being abused in athletics before implementing the concept statewide.

Let’s not experiment further on our schools on mere ideology and politics; appeasing those who support choice and those who support public education through a hybrid proposal should not be the goal of educational reform.

Dr. Thomas, who teaches at Furman University, is the author of Numbers Games.

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