For public school choice, focus on reality—not rhetoric

Sixth-grade student Hames tries out her group's design for a cup that drops a marble on a target via a zip-line as Boeing employees mentor students at after-school Science Technology Engineering and Math academy, in Covington, Washington

School choice is probably the most controversial topic in public education today. The Trump administration’s support for private school vouchers has set off a rhetorical war in Washington that is increasingly playing out in states. Meanwhile, public school choices (magnet schools, innovation schools, charter schools, and the like), which have historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support, are increasingly implicated in partisan fights.

The center that I lead—the Center on Reinventing Public Education—has been studying the evolution of public school choice for more than two decades. We have always been optimistic about the promise of moving true decisionmaking authority to educators at the school level and creating more options for families. This comes from recognition of a truth that every parent understands: Kids learn in different ways. Under a public education system, students should have a right to rigorous academic preparation, but also the ability to find a good fit—whether that’s a safer environment, strong supports for social and emotional development, or other qualities that are meaningful to families.

We have also believed, however, that choice is not magic. It creates new possibilities but also new challenges. We have always been vigilant to problems in choice implementation and insistent that government is ultimately responsible for ensuring accountability and equitable access for public education.

Our new report, “Stepping Up: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice?” examines 18 cities offering public school choice and discusses the ways that school choice is playing out for families. The good news supports the view that public school choice is a valuable and necessary part of urban education systems—one that is, for the most part, working well, desired by families, and resulting in new opportunities for students.

In the cities we studied, choices have expanded because families are eager to enroll. Those opening new schools of choice—both district and charter—are increasingly offering a wide variety of programs to respond to that demand. Many are providing innovative new approaches to help families navigate their options effectively and are working hard to ensure that all families benefit.

In general, basic indicators of academic achievement are on the rise. In the school years 2011-12 to 2014-15, 11 of 17 of the cities in our study gained ground on their states in high school graduation rates. Over generally the same time frame, 36 percent of the cities for which we had data were making statistically significant improvement in school proficiency rates in math and reading. This is tentative, but real good news considering the challenge most urban districts face in overcoming the challenges of their student populations. In only a third of the cities did low-scoring schools remain low scoring for three or four consecutive years. Moreover, most cities have new or expanding strategies in place that support school quality, ranging from strong charter authorizing and replication strategies to autonomy policies for district schools. In all the cities, an array of organizations is engaged in and taking responsibility for the education strategy, bringing with them an infusion of ideas and solutions.

However, cities still have much to do, especially in ensuring equitable access to education opportunities. Most cities lag 10 percentage points or more behind state averages in proficiency rates and graduation rates, and most cities still show unequal access to advanced educational opportunities across racial and ethnic subgroups. Failing to attend to school quality and parent concerns can undermine confidence in a city’s overall improvement efforts.

The authors of our report call for a more strategic approach to supporting citywide public school choice:

  • Improving how families are informed, so they have real choices;
  • Being more strategic about the city’s school portfolio, so models meet children’s needs and family preference for schools in their neighborhoods;
  • Involving community members, so they can be part of building a sustainable, responsive education strategy.

Our research also reinforces a critical issue others have consistently raised: The low-income families who could benefit most from choice still face significant barriers to accessing new school options. While this has been a common finding in past research, the lack of progress only increases the urgency for cities to find ways to eliminate barriers for all students. Choice requires ongoing attention from both government oversight agencies and community education advocates to ensure that all families can access high-quality options. This is something too many public and private school choice advocates have underestimated. We see in our research that failing to attend to quality and access issues can exacerbate inequality and community discontent. Public school choice is not something that cities can “dip their toes” into, it requires constant attention and commitment to problem-solving.

Debate and skepticism over the benefits of school choice are healthy, but not when that debate is out of touch with what is happening on the ground. Public school choice is the new normal in these 18 cities, and in many others around the country. In fact, when we talk about how high-choice systems work, we’re increasingly talking about what today’s urban school systems look like. That’s because families want to find a better fit, educators see value in schools having more flexibility to meet student needs, and government agencies know that dramatically better results in our cities will not come without opening new pathways for innovation and improvement. The debate over “choice,” in reality, masks the shift in the public education landscape that has already taken place in much of the country. Let’s ground the conversation in evidence to help refocus attention and work on that reality.