Wonk & Roll: How school choice can change schools

On October 16th, the Boston Globe ran a front page story about school choice.  The Globe reported that enrollment in the program has increased by 60 percent over the last decade.

However, in total, just under 12,000 students participate in the program, not a significant amount.  Few remember this, but the debate over school choice almost blew up the 1993 education reform law.  The House bill included a moratorium on school choice while the Senate’s approved mandatory school choice.  Not much room for compromise there!  After all the other issues were finally settled, the House and Senate (Speaker Flaherty, Mark Roosevelt, President Bulger, and Tom Birmingham) agreed that school choice would indeed be mandatory—as long as districts could opt out of the program every year. 

It should be no surprise that the Globe reports that five of the top ten sending districts are Gateway Cities (Springfield, Pittsfield, Worcester, Fitchburg, and Holyoke).  As a homeowner and parent living in one of the Gateway Cities, having some choice about where my daughter was going to go to public school was a factor in deciding whether or not we stayed in Lowell.  For us, it worked out.  She got into a regional charter school and will be graduating next June.  Meanwhile, we plan on staying in Lowell for another 15 years or so, paying our taxes to support the city’s public schools long after our daughter has moved on.

It always bothered me that nobody from the city—not the principal, the superintendent, or any one from the school committee, all people we knew, some well—ever asked us why we left the Lowell Public Schools.  I thought the choice we made, as well as those of other parents who opted out of the Lowell schools, was an opportunity for the city to learn something from us.  Leominster, however, has taken a different approach. The Globe reports:

school officials in Leominster, which also saw 181 students come to its schools from out of town, view the high number of families leaving the system as a referendum on its performance and see the competition as keen motivation to improve.  Last week, the school board agreed to survey parents who decided to enroll their children elsewhere. The board’s goal is pinpointing areas of weakness.

We’ve been using data to drive change in the classroom since the early 1990s and so it is good to see that Leominster’s school committee will use the survey results to take a hard look at why it’s losing students to other districts.  It seems that using “Competition as a keen motivator to improve” may not be such a bad thing after all.  However, given the highly volatile nature of school reform politics and the often exaggerated claims by proponents of school choice that it “works” (as Frederick Hess points out in National Affairs), that will not be an easy thing to do.  Can we leverage deregulation, flexible funding, and innovation to promote more school choice options for families while improving our schools even more?  Now that’s a debate we ought to be having.

A shout-out to a friend and colleague: Congratulations to Mark Roosevelt who was named today the new President of Antioch College.  For the past five years Mark has been the superintendent of the Pittsburgh public schools.  Never shy of a challenge, Antioch closed in 2008 and plans to re-open in the fall of 2011.  Famous Antioch alumni—Rod Sterling and Ray Benson, lead man for Asleep at the Wheel, one of my favorite bands. 

Our sponsors