Tuesday, October 4, 2016

School choice not the right choice for our kids

School choice not the right choice for our kids:

School choice not the right choice for our kids

Five years ago, the state Legislature considered forcing all schools to play by the same rules when it comes to allowing students from outside their districts to enroll.
It didn't get very far, due, in part, to stringent opposition from districts like Grosse Pointe Schools, where the Grosse Pointe city councils passed resolutions opposing the proposal.
The council, which has no control over the schools, voiced concerns that its district-specific millage not be spent on nonresident students. But the panel also worried that becoming a schools of choice district — accepting kids who don't live in the Grosse Pointes — would require the schools to adopt lower curriculum standards to maintain the district's graduation rate. Becoming a schools of choice district, said Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Robert Novitke, would negatively impact both the city's property values and quality of life.
It's a blatant vocalization of the objections of a lot of high-performing suburban schools, when asked to open their doors to kids from outside the district — particularly when it comes to kids from Detroit, where the schools have struggled for decades, and about 14,000 students go to schools of choice outside the city.
And it's one reason why schools of choice don't work.
In theory, schools of choice are an escape route for students trapped in failing districts, a way to offer those kids higher-quality education. That's the premise on which nearly all free-market education reforms are based: If you just offer parents more options — charters, vouchers, schools of choice — competition will sort everything out. Enrollment at good schools will swell, and the bad schools will improve or close, as parents and students vote with their feet.
It's a great theory.
But in practice, districts have opened their borders when declining enrollment has left them with few other options to boost revenue — because school funding in Michigan is tied, almost exclusively, to the state's per-pupil allotment, schools lose funds when they lose students. So the districts most likely to open their doors to outside pupils are those that have already experienced significant declines in enrollment and funding — in other words, the districts in which parents have already voted with their feet.
So Detroit kids go to Rouge River, Rouge River kids go to Wyandotte and Wyandotte kids go to Riverview, taking their per-pupil funding with them — about 13% of students statewide, in 496 participating districts. Kids may get a marginally better, or at least safer, education. But in the main, a policy that's supposed to improve education becomes a budget fix for struggling districts.
It's a tantalizing prospect for parents looking for better schools — and for parents who live in failing districts, schools that offer even marginal improvement are, well, an improvement.
Michigan is wrapping up its 22nd year of nearly unfettered school choice, and there is absolutely no indication that the state is preparing to modify, much less reverse course on, the policies that have landed us near the bottom on every reasonable measure of educational achievement.
All of which raises serious questions about what exactly we're doing, and why we're doing it. At minimum, free-market reforms offer a naive approach to a complex problem, premised on the idea that ideology is more important than outcomes. At worst, the way such policies are constructed raise a serious question: Why has an ideologically driven movement invested billions of dollars in the name of improving education, but with the net effect of weakening traditional public schools?
Many of the state's top-performing districts — districts like Grosse Pointe, Birmingham, Northville or Novi — don't participate in schools of choice. The state doesn't compel their participation, or offer an incentive for them to do so. For a few years, Gov. Rick Snyder's administration included schools of choice participation as a "best practice" that could earn districts a small increase — one year, about $52 per pupil — in the state's per-pupil funding. But even that financial incentive is no longer in place.
There's something else that makes schools of choice a counterproductive policy, says Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University professor who studies the policy: Kids who switch districts through the program tend to keep moving.
"The majority of kids who begin in schools of choice in our data don’t stay in for all of elementary school," he says. "It's something like 45% of these kids overall stay, whereas 55% exit sometime between kindergarten and fifth grade."
For African-American kids, and kids who are eligible for free and reduced lunch — a metric that often stands in for poverty rates — the numbers are worse, Cowen says: "Revolving door is an apt metaphor. That, in and of itself, is a problem. ... There’s a lot of debate among positive and negative attributes of school choice. But it's unambiguous that school mobility is a bad thing. And it's not only detrimental to those who go, but those who stay."
But, he says, there's something to the concept of choice the policy is premised on.
"Parents who can afford to leave districts they don’t like, do. They move homes," he said. "The parents that don’t, stay, but use schools of choice to transfer. The bigger structural problem is related to race and income, as are all of our problems. Schools of choice are not a panacea, but it’s also not the root of all evil."

Flawed policy, skewed benefits

But even requiring districts like Grosse Pointe and others to open their doors to outside students is unlikely to elicit the promised results.
"There would never be enough seats in the good districts to accept all of the districts potentially that parents would want to leave," says Novi Community Schools District Superintendent Steve Matthews. "While it sounds good in theory, I don’t believe it’s an accurate gauge of where schools really are at. If we opened our borders would we have people who wanted to come? Surely, but we wouldn’t have room for 2,000 kids to come to Novi. We’d have room for 50 or 60."
Districts can become schools of choice by allowing students from within the same intermediate school district to enroll, or from the same ISD and ISDs that are contiguous. And districts can decide in which grades they'll accept outside students.
Novi doesn't participate in schools of choice, Matthews says, in part because the district has no financial incentive to do so — its enrollment is stable.
Then there's transportation: Families living in poverty often lack vehicles, and metro Detroit's public transit is notoriously dysfunctional. For a family without a car, getting to schools outside the city is a significant challenge.
Further, Matthews says, the premise that competition is all it takes to boost school performance is wrong.
"To presume that schools have to be forced to be concerned about quality, I believe is a false assumption," he said. "The people I've worked with over my career believe that we are in this field because we want to do the best thing we can for kids. In my experience, people who go into education want to do best thing for kids but (sometimes) are fighting a losing battle because of high poverty, lack of parental support for kids — it’s not because we don’t care, to assume we have to have outside pressure to do the best we can for kids diminishes the heart and soul of education."
Novi's schools benefit from the affluence of the community, Matthews says — educating kids who come to school showered with necessities and advantages makes education an easier prospect.
"My job is easier than other superintendents because they're struggling with things I don’t have to struggle with," he said. "I have to worry about a new fitness center, not that kids are coming to school without the right clothes for winter, or coming to school hungry or not having been read to the night before. There's no simple answer to how to make schools better but I'm not convinced schools of choice is one of those answers, because it doesn’t address problems that make schools struggle."
Kids in Novi, he says, have parents willing and able to pay higher taxes to support the community's schools; folks in that affluent community have leisure time and disposable income.
"Our parents take our kids to museums and libraries and plays and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and that kind of thing," he said. "We benefit from our community."
I point out to him that of the four cultural amenities he's just named, three are in Detroit. So kids in Novi benefit from Detroit amenities, but Detroit kids can't benefit from Novi's schools.
"That's kind of ironic," he says. "Isn't it?"
Contact Nancy Kaffer: nkaffer@freepress.com.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Robert Novitke. He is the current mayor of Grosse Pointe Woods. School choice not the right choice for our kids:



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