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Hotchalk Global

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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Choice as a Magic Bullet?

I previously lauded a Slate article by Richard Kahlenberg that pointed out problems with Michelle Rhee’s credo and its lack of emphasis on inequality. However, his latest Edweek article makes some specious claims about the ability of school choice to improve equity in education.

I continue to agree with the validity of Kahlenberg’s argument that schools serving students from diverse socioeconomic status can alleviate many problems tied to poverty. But his proposal for effecting this outcome by expanding the options for students from “failing” schools to go outside their district sounds problematic. Specifically, Kahlenberg suggests doing this by expanding the choice clause in No Child Left Behind to allow interdistrict, as well as intradistrict, transfers out of schools that fail to make AYP for multiple years. He cites research by the Century Foundation that makes this argument.

In contrast, some education groups (including some LFA members) want to entirely get rid of the choice provision in NCLB, for several  reasons.

First, the cost issue. Though Kahlenberg and Century Foundation researchers call for federal funding to cover transportation and administrative costs, history shows that schools and districts seldom receive adequate funding for initiatives like these.

A subset of this problem is the fact that this NCLB provision of choice applies to all students means one struggling subgroup can throw school resources for all students. For example, if a school fails to make AYP for two years because English language learners are struggling on standardized tests, the school still has to pay for services for black native-English speakers to transfer or get tutoring, despite the fact that the school is fine in educating this group.

Second, currently very few students take advantage of school choice, and it seems unlikely to me that this would change if the option was expanded to schools farther away. The Century authors suggest, in Kahlenberg’s words, that “parents of students in low-performing schools may fail to utilize transfer rights not because they are necessarily satisfied with their local schools, but because other schools within the district are not much better.” The report is vague on the evidence for this claim, I suspect because there is little of it. The annual PDK Gallup poll reports that most people (including parents in particular) are satisfied with the performance of their local schools, and it’s important to recognize that unlike the federal government, parents do not decide on a school’s worthiness solely based on test scores – they factor things like convenience, whether they like teachers, the role of the local school in connecting them to their community and friends, and other issues.  

Further, the students who do switch schools—both currently and I would predict in this inter-district scenario—are likely to be the highest achievers, and/or the students with the best support network. As Kahlenberg has previously pointed out, high performing students have positive effects on their peers, so in the likely event that the highest achievers all leave a struggling school, the neediest children are left without this influence. This is the phenomenon that can occur when charter schools are introduced to a district (see this Washington Post blog for more), and it would likely occur in this situation as well.

Finally, Kahlenburg assumes that receiving schools would remain high-performing after taking on these students. However, parents of high-performing students already at those schools might remove their children to place them in a more privileged environment, and away from new, more socioeconomically-disadvantaged students. Likewise, sometimes teachers transfer out of these schools to avoid dealing with the issues of poverty, making it harder for those schools to retain excellent teachers.

I want to emphasize again that I agree with Kahlenburg that creating more economically- and racially-diverse schools are key to addressing many education problems; it’s simply that choice has not created this outcome in the past (information on this here), and I don’t see why it suddenly would in the future. We need more commitment to equitable education from the public and from elected officials so that less segregated districting and funded transportation can become more feasible.

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