Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Real Equity Through School Choice

In our April work session, I proposed that we officially make our district an Open Enrollment District, allowing and encouraging any student in the district to choose any in-district school to attend if they are dissatisfied with their local school.   (This is separate from the inter-district Open Enrollment policy, controlled by the state, where students can freely transfer out of our district.)    Currently we do allow in-district transfers if people apply through a district-defined process, and a surprisingly large number of students do jump through these hoops.   However, I see this as a fundamental equity issue for several reasons, most notably that high-poverty minority students concentrated in our lowest performing schools do not seem to be taking advantage.   Is it really the case that they and their parents are happy with their schools, or are requirements such as the cumbersome transfer process , communication problems, or transportation issues forming a major obstacle?   Equity should not be just about staff trainings-- it should be about actually providing the same opportunities to all students in the district.

We need to keep in mind that every school will not be right for every student.   Some schools will have different programs, such as STEM, STEAM, or dual/non-dual language, that may work better for some kids than others.   In the discussion it was suggested that all schools should offer all options.   But do we really believe one-size-fits-all is the best way to deliver education?   Every school has a finite amount of resources, and cannot focus on everything-- why not let each concentrate on certain programs, enabling us to better reach students with different personalities, interests, and learning styles?   And even if we could get precise parity of options, there will always be issues of some students simply not meshing with particular teachers or teaching styles, or problems such as bullying issues motivating a student to seek another school.    Parents should always have the option to seek a different education for their child, and not have to convince a bureaucrat of the validity of their reason (as required by the current policy) in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

I was surprised at the vehemence of the objections to this proposal, which was informally (not an official vote, since just a work session) voted down 4-3.   I saw two main objections come up in the discussion:
  • Cost.   This is the one that did actually have some validity, since providing transportation to a potentially unknown additional number of students outside their neighborhood could be a cost issue, especially in these times of tight finances.   I don't see this as insurmountable though:  for example, perhaps we could charge transportation fees that are waiveable based on need, using the better-off students to subsidize the poorer ones.  And maybe we should compare this to the cost of the thousands of staff hours spent in (and paying an Equity Director to organize) politically correct employee trainings of marginal benefit, which I will not flog further (for now) in this blog.    Wouldn't providing alternative options to our poorest students do a lot more for Equity in the long run than staff trainings?
  • "People should be invested in their neighborhood schools".   This is a nice ideal, and there would be nothing stopping anyone from continuing to attend their local school.   I suspect that even under full Open Enrollment, the majority would make this choice.   But should we be forcing people who want to leave to remain in the local school, just to improve the neighborhood?   This makes me very uncomfortable-- in effect, we are saying that certain students (the ones who want to leave) should be conscripted by the government to remain in their local school in order to improve neighborhood investment.    How would you feel if your child were forced to remain in a school that wasn't working for them, just so their presence could "benefit the neighborhood"?
Anyway, ultimately the conclusion of the discussion was that parents who really want to transfer can avail themselves of the current process, and there was no need to change anything right now.   Superintendent Scott also stated that transfer procedures have been liberalized in recent years, and internal transfers are almost never denied in our district, except due to a school being at its capacity.     As a community, we need to make sure we are holding the district to this promise-- the written policy  still leaves the ultimate decision to the district staff.     I'll be interested to hear about your experiences, good and bad, with the transfer process-- please send me an email if you have dealt with this recently, and tell me how it went!