Solving the problems facing public school systems is oddly complex. The vast majority of public schools perform well; some of them perform exceedingly well; a minority of schools consistently underperform – chances are good if you are poor, black or latino you attend one of those schools. The notion of “school choice” originated with Milton Friedman and has found favor among a wide array of people, but most especially social conservatives who seek to move resources out of public school systems and into private schools. These same social conservatives tout the benefits of private schools as if they are the solution for troubled public schools – often acting as if the public school system is beyond repair, ignoring its successes while deliberately inflating the viability of voucher programs.
In response, many public school systems have created school choice programs within cities or districts (Salt Lake School District has a “choice” program).
Fixing underperforming schools involves a wide array of questions, including but not limited to questions of funding. Our system of funding schools through property taxes is paradoxical – both good and bad. There are questions of information and to whom it is available as well as realistic access to alternatives to local public schools. None of the actual solutions to the problem of underperforming schools can or will be solved by failing to focus on those schools. “Solutions” that simply move students to other schools won’t actually solve any problems since the analysis behind them asserts that students are in the “wrong’ schools rather than asking “What attitudinal and behavioral changes are necessary to improve this school?”
The fight over the division of Jordan School district into two districts provides a text book example of how these discussions seem to go wrong so very quickly. This week, a school funding equalization bill failed in the lege. What we saw in this fight is an exemplary example of the “Somebody Else’s Problem” mindset that characterizes too many public school fights:
The west-siders from Jordan claimed the Canyons kids get more money per child thanks to higher property values. HB 292 would even things out, they say, giving children in both districts even funds until their district can get on its feet.
“Jordan District needs this bill to allow us time to build up enough of a tax base to provide for our children,” another Jordan District supporter said.
But the east-siders argued their taxes have been sent West for far too long, toward new schools their children will never benefit from. They say they already pay a form of “child support” from a bond issue and their east-side schools are outdated and unsafe.
For east side parents, the attitude seems to be “Only in my back yard” – i.e. our tax dollars need to go to the school building I can see from my house. The idea that a strong, well funded public school system benefits all of us failed to persuade east side parents. This is a problem of our mechanisms for funding schools.
There is a problem, one that is more difficult to define. For lack of a better term, I call it an “opt-out” problem. Essentially, a child is enrolled by default in a public school according to where they live. Such a system requires parents to opt their child out of that school and enroll them elsewhere if they are not happy with the local school. Such a system is simpler for parents and administrators, rather than using a ranking system or some other archane method to define enrollment, you do it by address. A lot of parents will tend to simply go with the assigned school rather than buck the system. Even ridiculously bad public schools will find a majority of students are simply re-enrolled. People who study choice architecture refer to this as a default setting and faced with choices, huge numbers of people simply accept the default setting.
Perhaps the easiest difficult to solve problem concerns information. Well-educated, upper middle class parents will, generally, have better access to the kind of information necessary to assess school performance (they will get it through both formal means and informal social networks). Less educated, working class families will, generally, not have access to that information. School districts can and should prepare an easy to read assessment for their schools; such a document should show test scores, graduation rates, college acceptance rates; I would also want to see some trend information – for instance I might look at a school with only 30% of their students going to college and be worried but if the five year change was from 11% to 30%, then I’d realize this is a school that is improving. Providing that information in easy to read format would empower parents equally.
Another problem of course concerns the reasons for moving. Many students who attend parochial schools do so because their families value the faith formation aspects of Catholic school. Many students who attend a variety of religious schools do so that for reason – the quality of public school in their area is irrelevant to their decision; in some cases, private Christian academies are academically inferior (teaching creationism and the Bible as history, for instance) to the public school options. Some families choose to send their kids to private school because it is a family tradition (I had more than a few peers whose families had been attending Judge since it was founded). In many cases, there is a sentimental attachment to public schools as wells, especially in small towns and rural areas where many a dad is still weaing his faded letter jacket at his son’s football games.
A great many school districts across the nation have created “choice” systems within the district – parents can move kids from one school to another. One of the most noted choice systems was created and used in Boston; under this system, students were given a choice of which school to attend in certain grades (1st, 6th and 9th IIRC); in between, they could move if they wanted. The Boston system used a priority ranking system to assign students to schools in which they tried to match up student preferences with availble seats in schools.
The Boston system was very interesting. Students were given priority based on a set of categories; i.e. if they were already attending or attended a feeder school, if they if they had a sibling in the school and if they lived near the school, and if they had a sibling but didn’t live near the school, or if they lived near the school. Students and their families also ranked their choice of schools 1 through 5. The system then assigned students to their first choice schools until there were no spaces available, then assigned students according to priorty. Where the system gets interesting is that if you chose the local school as your second choice, didn’t get into your first choice, you might not get into your local school since all the open spaces were taken by students who ranked it first. The school district made available to parents information about which schools were most requested – in essence creating an incentive to misrepresent their preferences by ranking less popular schools first. The combination of the priority and the ranking system (which at first sounds like it should work well) created incentives for families to try to game the system; it also worked to the disadvantage of working class families who were less likely to be given insights into how to game the system through social networks and less likely to know how to access the more formal information about school preferences. (What would happen is that a working class family would try to get their child into a high profile school but be kept out by the priority system, then not get their second or third choice schools because the system allocated spaces to people who picked those as first choices and so on down.) The result was a school choice system that ended up privileging the people who didn’t need and not helping the people it was intended to help.
Education is a limited commodity; available in highly specific times and places, and often to specific persons.
All of the above factors complicate school reform efforts. Diagnosing failing schools is complicated – we know low test scores, poor graduation rates and so on tell us that a school is failing but not why. The “why” is the hardest part. Certainly lack of adequate resources can be part of the problem, but parents who don’t care about education can undermine even the most well-funded school. Even apparently well designed programs – the Boston program was very carefully designed – can create unintended incentives and consequences and create pressures to “game” the system.