When your list of top districts with school choice options leaves off Milwaukee, an epicenter of the school choice movement and home to the nation’s oldest school voucher program, it has a problem. When the list leaves off several of the top five cities in charter school concentration — including New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Detroit — the initial flaws in the study become even more prominent. And this is certainly the case with the Brookings Institution’s newly-released Educational Choice and Competition Index ranking of school choice quality and quantity.
Certainly part of the issue lies with the fact that Brookings is merely looking at the nation’s 25-largest school districts, including New York City, Los Angeles Unified, and Fairfax County, Va. outside of Washington, D.C. So the study leaves out smaller districts such as New Orleans, where charters now account for 70 percent of enrollment, D.C. (where charters now account for four out of every ten kids attending school, and the revived Opportunity voucher program serves another 1,615 kids from low-income backgrounds), and even Albany, N.Y. (where a larger percentage of kids exercise some form of school choice — by a factor of six — than much-larger New York City ). As a result, the index leaves out a lot of smaller municipalities, where the real development of school choice has been happening.
Brookings will need to expand its index to the nation’s other 100 major school districts in order to provide a more-comprehensive picture of the quality and quantity of school choices. It should even create a special index that just looks at cities such as Indianapolis, Dallas, and San Antonio, which have a multitude of traditional school districts (as well as some charter school, private school, and other alternative school offerings).
The Brookings index also needs to do a better job of revealing the quality of choice. It matters. Many of the districts that score high on the index do so because they have magnet school programs, not because of any presence of vouchers or charters. Because magnets have largely been geared towards desegregation instead of offering families high-quality school options, those forms of choice have done little to improve student achievement. Given that magnet offerings often end up skewing in favor of wealthier households (who can use their political clout within districts in their favor) at the expense of poor and minority families (who cannot), magnets aren’t exactly a high-quality form of choice. Adding a Parent Power category such as ability of families to overhaul an existing school in their community would also make sense; this could be done simply by looking at which states and cities have Parent Trigger laws already in place.
But the Brookings Index isn’t all bad. Not at all. For one, it offers a sobering picture of the quality and quantity of school choice options for families living in the nation’s largest cities. And it is quite sobering. As this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast points out, the reality remains that far too many families and their children have far too few choices of any kind, much less those of high quality.
Only Duval County, Fla., garnered the index’s top score for providing families and their children with a wide array of school choice options; but given that only 2.7 percent of Duval’s students are attending the district’s 18 charter schools and another 17 percent are allowed to attend its 62 magnet school program (, it is questionable whether one can say school choice in that district is widespread. The top district overall on the list, New York City, definitely deserves credit for supporting the expansion of charter schools and the development of the laudable School of One virtual learning program. But the fact that charters are available to only four percent of its students — and that it still does plenty of zoned schooling — means that school choice and Parent Power for Big Apple families is still more aspirational than reality.
The Brookings Index also makes clear that expanding school choice alone isn’t enough. As Dropout Nation has made clear for the past couple of years, families need high-quality, understandable, and easily accessible information about schools and their performance in order to make smart choices for the children they love. Just 12 of the districts surveyed in the index did a good job of making information easily accessible (or at least more-easily accessible than their counterparts on the list); only 11 scored high in making school performance data easy to understand and allowing families to do side-by-side comparisons of schools. And just 13 districts provided relevant data on schools and school choice options.
The Brookings ECCI index is at least a decent first start at providing a picture of what school choice looks like throughout the nation. And it shows clearly that expanding high-quality choices must be as much a part of the school reform agenda as overhauling the training and compensation of teachers.