When it comes to efforts to expand charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice, reformers tend to focus on three matters. The first? Expanding the array of options children need and deserve in the first place, including the development of course choice opportunities within districts and through online education. Secondly, they evangelize about the importance and value of expanding school opportunities for all kids; particularly among school choice activists, there is a tendency to argue that choice is the silver bullet for addressing the nation’s education crisis (while curricula, standards, teacher quality, and accountability are given short shrift). And thirdly, they defend choice against the entreaties of traditionalists such as the Florida Education Association, the affiliate of both the National Education Association affiliates and the American Federation of Teachers that just filed suit this week against the Sunshine State’s expansion of vouchers for kids trapped in special ed ghettos.
Yet there is far more to making school choice work for all families — and it goes beyond expanding, promoting, and defending options. You have to build a strong infrastructure — from information on schools to providing high-quality data on their performance, to holding schools accountable, to providing transportation — to make choice work well. But few school choice activists and even fewer reformers give these infrastructural matters any shrift. Particularly for school choice activists of a conservative or libertarian bent (including University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation), thinking through these issues means challenging their own ideology — especially their misguided belief that choice alone will lead to improvements in school quality and serve as the best form of accountability — as well as their own financial concerns as members of a sector of American public education.
Which is why a report released last week by the Center for Reinventing Public Education on addressing the challenges of building robust infrastructures for advancing choice is so important. It is as important for reformers to deal with the complications of choice as it is to promote high-quality options for all children.
In the report (which focuses primarily on public-school choice options — but whose lessons also apply to vouchers and other choice regimes), a team led by Robin Lake surveyed how 4,000 families utilized choice in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where charter schools and other forms of school options have become the norm. The good news is that families in those cities, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are availing themselves of the school opportunities available to them; 49 percent of families whose parents are high school dropouts and graduates leveraged choice as did 59 percent of households with at least some form of higher education. The bad news? Thanks to the inattention given to the infrastructure of developing choice, using school options isn’t easy for families to do.
The problems these families mentioned are ones that complicate choice in nearly every part of the country. The first: That families, especially those whose parents were dropouts or possessed only a high school diploma, had little information on their options. This included lacking knowledge about whether their kids were eligible to even access any school choice options. Even in states and cities with robust school choice options, parents often get little information about what opportunities are even available to them. Traditional districts, in particular, do as little as possible to inform families about their options; the penchant of districts to inform families of kids in failing schools of their options in June — just as families were going on summer break — is one reason why the No Child Left Behind’s school choice provision has never worked as envisioned.
Families whose parents were poorly-educated by traditional public education (and thus, more-likely to be poor) especially struggled with getting the information they needed to know what options were available or even if their kids could access them. Forty percent of families whose parents were dropouts didn’t know if their kids were eligible for school choice, versus 24 percent of families whose parents were had baccalaureate degrees.
Even when families get information on their options, they don’t have the simple-yet-comprehensive data on school performance (and even the success or failure of teachers working in the schools) so they can make smart decisions. For families exercising public school choice — including charters and district-run magnet schools (which limit options through race- and socioeconomic quotas) — the reality that public school data remains a black box geared more toward compliance than toward providing useful information limits their ability to truly pick schools fit for their kids. A black family with two young sons, for example, may not be able to fully know if the schools they are scouring can actually improve student achievement for young black men.
This problem extends to families in the few states where they can use school vouchers and voucher-like tax credits to access private schools. They end up only having metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for determining school performance. Yet three decades of research have proven that there is no correlation between class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement, it has been shown long ago that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing, and levels of college acceptance doesn’t tell you much about whether kids have been provided the college-preparatory learning they need to actually graduate from college. Particularly for poor families, who are the primary users of voucher programs, there is a clear and present need for better performance data.
Then there’s the matter of transportation to and from school. This is a big problem. The high cost of sending kids outside of communities, both in terms of transportation and time, remains a challenge even for the most well-off of families. For the poorest families — especially single mothers who, as Dianne Piche of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights points out, must also deal with childcare issues — transportation can be the biggest obstacle of all. Less-educated families surveyed by Lake and her team were 72 percent more-likely than better-educated counterparts to citee transportation as their key obstacle to accessing choice.
Transportation has long been given short shrift by reformers in their advocacy for choice. While some cities such as Indianapolis require charter schools to provide school buses for the kids attending them, this hasn’t been the norm. Nor are private schools participating in voucher programs required to assist with transportation for the kids they serve. Even traditional districts do badly when it comes to transportation; a child attending a magnet school far across town may not be able to get a school bus to take them there; if a child in Naptown lives in a zone served by Indianapolis Public Schools, but attends a school operated by Washington Township in the city’s North Side, her parents have to figure out how to get her there.
All these barriers are problematic for all families. But it is especially difficult for the poorest families to overcome. Which brings up an inconvenient fact for choice advocates and the school reform movement as a whole. As much as we proclaim that school choice is especially important for our poorest children, we have not done enough to build the infrastructure needed so that it works for them and their families. While some private-sector outfits such as GreatSchools, nonprofits such as Data Quality Campaign, and Parent Power groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union have worked hard to address the information issues, the rest of the movement has given these matters no shrift.
Lake and her team deserve plenty of credit for shining light on these important challenges for fulfilling the promise of school choice. They have also pointed out some other flaws in the thinking of choice advocates. For example, school choice groups such as the Center for Education Reform tout multiple authorizers as a key to expanding the number of charters serving communities and a way to get around traditional districts who want to kibosh choice. But as Lake and her team points out in the case of Detroit (where the nine charter oversight groups — including Detroit Public Schools — have done little to provide kids with high-quality options), what likely ends up happening is that shoddy school operators end up engaging in shopping for lax authorizers who will let them off the hook for failure and won’t think through community needs . The solution may not be to get rid of multiple authorizers, but limit who can actually be allowed to oversee charters as well as restrict districts from doing such work in the first place.
At the same time, there is one other aspect of choice that Lake and her colleagues fail to address: Giving families real power in shaping education for their children beyond just choosing schools. This includes enacting and leveraging Parent Trigger laws that allow for parents and caregivers to take over and overhaul traditional district schools within their own communities, as well as requiring charter school operators to form parent-led advisory boards who can actively shape how their kids are served on a day-to-day basis.
As reformers, we must keep in mind that even if choice fully flourishes — and even if data and transportation issues are fully addressed — families are still going to want high-quality school options in their own neighborhoods. Families want to send their kids to schools that are closest to their homes because it is ideal. Particularly for single mothers, who may often have kids in early childhood education centers at the same time their older kids are in K-12, the need for high quality schools right in the neighborhood is critical.
Just as importantly, the existing traditional district schools in their neighborhoods are longstanding institutions in their communities in which they have heavily invested (especially through their tax dollars). It makes perfect sense for those families to want to charge of neighborhood schools from central bureaucracies and teachers’ union affiliates distant from their concerns for their children, or at the very least, use Parent Trigger laws to become lead decision-makers in the school with the district paying heed.
Meanwhile reformers have to keep in mind that there are many families who want to play more-prominent roles in shaping curricula, instruction, and school climates. That’s the reason why the nation’s homeschooling movement serves nearly as many children as the nation’s charter schools (if not more), and why online learning has become popular for others. Particularly in the case of black, Latino, Asian, American Indian and Native Hawaiian communities, they may want to transform climates in existing schools in order to provide both high-quality learning and environments in which their kids can strive for success alongside peers who look like them, their cultures are reinforced and respected, and . Parent Trigger laws can help advance systemic reform by addressing an aspect of education that many reformers, especially those from white households, don’t have to consider.
Gving families greater roles in the charter schools their kids attend is important because of their natural concern for the futures of their kids and communities. Especially for families in poor and minority communities who have seen generations of outsiders bearing gifts that do little to help them, the ability to help their kids choose their way to educational heaven (as legendary Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays would say) is expected and demanded. They don’t want to be passive players in education decision-making. More importantly, for school choice activists and other reformers, we can’t afford for them to be. Systemic reform and social change cannot be fully realized without the work of networks within communities that can make things happen.
It is all well and good to advance efforts to expand school choice. But all that work will be meaningless if reformers don’t also spend time on building up the infrastructure families need to help their kids reap the benefits.