Former Providence School Board Member Says: School Choice for All

The refreshingly straightforward column is after the jump.

School choice would open floodgate to parental involvement

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, May 6, 2007

I mentor five girls who are currently in the eighth grade. In the course of exploring high-school options, some of us went to the Times² Academy’s winter open house for prospective students.

We arrived in plenty of time, but the charter school’s bleachers were already filling up. I tried to save a seat for a slowpoke, but had to let it go. Whole families walked in the door, with babes in arms: dad, grandma, aunt, or whoever gave them a ride.

The school’s administrators delayed the presentation so the parents could get settled. But the stream never stopped.

Finally, the director of admissions stood at a podium and explained apologetically that they really only had open seats for kindergarten and a few in the sixth grade. Everyone else would be applying for the waiting list.

And the families kept coming.

Even as the presenter spoke, the school’s personnel were wide-eyed at the growing crowd. This open house was for secondary students; another was still coming up for elementary students. Families were pushing through the front door even as the admission director wound down her talk. Then the families lined up for applications.

That was a lot of potentially committed parental energy going to waste. Rhode Island is nuts not to tap this vast resource by offering them choices of where to send their children to school.

Parents are far more invested in schools they choose. Visit the charters to see examples of the enthusiasm that is unleashed when parents go shopping and then commit to a school of their choice. When they choose among options, families rich and poor tend to back the wisdom of their choices by getting involved with the school.

Rhode Island is uniquely positioned, at the moment, to give all parents many choices among viable public-school options.

The state has some really good schools, and many are improving. But most have empty seats. According the state’s education data in Information Works!, Rhode Island has 2,000 fewer children in public schools than in 1999.

Also 12 new “schools of choice,” including 11 charters and the Met, divert another 3,000-plus students from regular district schools. A couple of suburbs are burgeoning, but otherwise, districts all over the state are closing schools for lack of enrollment. Let the families decide which ones should go. Let them support the strong programs by beefing up their enrollment. Add major value to schools generally by motivating all schools to be attractive to parents.

The way to use this opportunity is for the General Assembly to legalize a practice called “cross-district” choice in its current budget bill. Such budget amendments are not unusual.

Cross-district choice would function exactly as charter choice does. The money follows the kid without regard to district boundaries. Children would be chosen by lottery, as are the charter-school students. Receiving schools would have to accept students so their population mirrors the demographics of the state within 10 percent. Rhode Island’s public-school population is 70 percent white.

Other states have implemented similar programs with excellent results. Massachusetts greatly expanded its options for parents, including cross-district choice.

Vermont allows students to attend any school the family wants, but outside of a certain geographical boundary, the family has to provide transportation.

Wake County, N.C., pulled up the walls of its internal districts and became a system rich with unique and appealing programs, in a county not a great deal smaller than our entire state. In each case, academic achievement improved, most dramatically among the low-income students.

I understand that some folks, in districts where parents paid top dollar for their homes, don’t want their children rubbing elbows with urban, low-income students. Urban kids have challenges certainly, but a good school ought to be able to handle well a proportionally small group of such children. As a state we tolerate a school-district system that segregates minority children and those in poverty, which is an obnoxious thing to do anyway, to say the least.

Districts hate competition from the charters, but in part that’s because they can not themselves effectively compete. A school with declining enrollment could develop a unique engineering or oceanography program that could attract students from surrounding district. In time, Rhode Island could have a wider variety of school options.

Also, the need to attract students would motivate those who are negotiating collective bargaining agreements to get rid of labor-contract provisions that dull the district’s competitive edge.

Certainly cross-district choice would shock the system at first. But then we would all get used to having parents who actively engage with finding the right school for their child — a fabulous benefit to everyone involved. Republicans should appreciate the expansion of choice, and Democrats should cheer the empowering of disenfranchised families.

In fact, nothing would improve public education faster or more effectively than to give all parents access to viable choices. Nothing.

Pull up the walls between the districts. Get more parents involved and surely more would be satisfied.

It would be far better to allow district schools to compete with one another than with private and home schools, which are now soaking up fully 16 percent of Rhode Island’s student population.

Obviously some families get to choose. Let’s offer choice to them all.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at juliasteiny@cox.net or c/o EdWatch, Education and Employment, Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.

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