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School Choice: The Good, the Bad, and the Untested

While school choice is no one-size-fits-all endeavor, recent trends and successes underscore the value of these few lessons learned

Schools, like politics, are a seriously local issue today.

At first glance, school choice initiatives in communities around the country—which determine how children choose and are assigned to schools—seem like part of a monolithic national movement called school choice. On closer inspection, however, they display tremendous diversity, for good and for bad.

This was not always so: Neighborhood schooling was once the American norm for assigning children to elementary schools. It was seen as the modern, progressive way to provide universal, free, accessible, efficient and equal schooling to all children.

By the second half of the 20th century, however, the idea of universal provision of infrastructure—including schools, electricity and telephone wires—was under attack by many as inefficient, unequal and constraining. The resulting school-choice movement created odd bedfellows of economic neoliberals, cultural conservatives, pedagogical experimenters, and civil rights activists.

As a result, there's no single school choice paradigm. On top of the contrasting viewpoints, a number of intractable local issues have caused an explosion of offshoots in handling school choice and school assignment.

In the last few years alone, major cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Raleigh, Boston and Louisville have rewritten school assignment policies with remarkably contrasting approaches. They range from a return to the classic neighborhood school zones to carefully calibrated "controlled choice" methods meant to increase diversity and access to quality schools. Also in the mix are "open enrollments" with assignments made by lottery.

The entire genre, by the way, is untested. After a generation of school choice in many forms, including charter schools, vouchers and different assignment policies, nobody can explain how school choice relates to quality of education.

But we are learning a few things. Most of all, we know that the way parents feel about local school assignment policies can have a dramatic effect on the fate of our cities. As cities continue to be the drivers of our economy and popular places to live—and as affordability becomes an increasing challenge—school assignment policies can be tipping points in terms of how public-minded, inclusive, fair, and diverse our cities and neighborhoods are.

For example, many middle-class parents choose to stay in their city—or in public schools—based on the predictability of how their children will be assigned to public schools. If they know with certainty what school they’ll get, they tend to stay put in the public system. Seattle’s recent return to neighborhood schooling, for example, has been met with a doubling of enrollment into kindergarten.

Another lesson is that neighborhood-zoned systems can lead to a rise in resegregation—a fact documented by The New York Times in several articles published over the last year.

Lower-income areas described as "food deserts" can often be school-quality deserts, too. Frequently the response is to provide a wider choice of schools farther from home rather than enhancing the quality of local schools. New York City, while not overhauling its neighborhood schooling, has two of its districts shifting to open enrollment, so children will choose from any school within their district. The consequence of choice options in some cities can mean that they spend 10 percent of their school budgets simply busing children around.

For parents of all incomes, access to quality schools trumps any approach to choice. Choice through open enrollment is increasingly seen for what it is—a lottery, but with better-informed parents often benefitting from greater knowledge of their options. Local schools, which allows kids to go to school with friends and parents to rely on neighbors for school pick-ups, also trump choice as long as the options are satisfactory.

While "controlled choice" policies may win the battle to improve school socioeconomic and racial diversity, they may also lose the war as middle-class parents flee their cities—or opt out of the public schools—leaving school systems with less diversity as a whole. Boston, for example, has seen its school district enrollment drop by half throughout its forced busing and controlled-choice policies of the last 40 years, while its student population is now 85 percent non-white.

As cities across the country consider new policies, two basic questions should be asked. First, has the public school system’s student population declined recently at a different rate than that of the general population? Second, has there been an increase in racial and income disparities, and performance indicators, among schools within the city?

If the answer to either question is yes, the school assignment policy may be a culprit.

Since school choice is such a local issue, cities need robust local processes to help officials navigate school choice optics—and the experimental algorithms that well-meaning economists and scientists have tried recently to make school assignment work fairly. Here are a few pointers from our experience:

  • Understand the demographic and geographic drivers. Given the variety of every city’s history, demographics and geography, assignment policies need to grapple with the nuances of each place.

  • Consult with parents to learn what they care aboutand rank their beliefs. Targeted surveys alongside community meetings can provide clarity regarding what drives decision-making. The key criterion is often school quality; surveys help establish a more nuanced understanding of what parents mean when they say “quality.” Surveys can also help understand how “predictability” plays a critical role in parents’ behavior.

  • Establish options for addressing those concerns. Parents (and potential parents) plan ahead, so it helps to show them a range of options. This allows parents to understand not just the various opportunities they have within different school assignment policies but also the level of predictability they can expect one or two years down the road.

  • Understand the limitations of math. There are great tools available now to map and forecast changes to assignment policies. This year’s Nobel Prize winner for economics, Alvin Roth, developed a complex algorithm for school assignment in Boston. But solving the mathematical problem didn’t resolve all the city’s school assignment issues. In fact, the high-level algorithms can obscure basic criteria and issues even as they optimize the numerical calculations.

  • Address students with the poorest access first. Though school quality criteria will vary from year to year, there are ways to identify students with the poorest access to quality schooling and create policies that give them greater access.At the same time, we can help those school-quality deserts by helping get them targeted funding—in some cases through savings from reduced transportation costs—and opening new local annexes of already successful schools.

  • Don’t leave the issue to school leaders alone. When assessing current policy and making changes, the questions need to be broad enough so that policymakers and citizens understand that they have an opportunity to fundamentally affect decisions as to where families live, who parents and children interact with, and all the related impacts that will shape our neighborhoods and cities.
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While school choice is no one-size-fits-all endeavor, recent trends and successes underscore the value of these few lessons learned.

Illustration by Fatim Hana

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