House bill further undermines public-school choice

The House of Representatives passed H-6021, a bill professing “to level the playing field” between the charter schools and the district schools.  First, note that the conflict is between two teams of adult players, while the students themselves are just the ball rolling off the court, again. 

The bill’s concern is that charters enroll more “engaged” families whose kids are presumably easier to educate.  While not entirely wrong, the disproportionality is not big.  It comes about because getting into a charter requires that someone submit an application on behalf of the student.  That someone can be a struggling parent, guardian, mentor, relative, neighbor, teacher, or the kid herself.  So yes, someone’s personal agency does play a part. 

By default, the rest of the kids go to district schools.  The bill assumes, without hard evidence, that “the rest” of those children have a higher proportion of disengaged families.  Critically, the legislation is not a strategy to engage or help struggling families, but instead cements their status as liabilities that should be redistributed more evenly. 

Remember that huge numbers of “the rest of the kids” are either already on the charters’ enormous waiting lists or their families have given up trying. 

The surprisingly destructive fix to this is to revert to a centralized school-assignment system — just like the olden days before charters. Big Bureaucracy would enroll all public-school students in charter lotteries, thereby ditching the whole concept of school choice.  Forget encouraging families to shop among their options or fill out an application.  Forget putting a little power into the hands of low-income families.  Just hand the ability to choose back to the System from which the charter-school participants were trying to escape.  The remaining vestige of choice permits families to refuse whatever school Big Bureaucracy chose for them and accept whatever it offers next. 

Here’s a more constructive fix:  Create what’s known as a “universal application.”  During the narrow, easy-to-miss charter-school application window, send all enrolled public-school students’ families a notice of their current school assignment along with clear information about their other options.  Include guidance as to where they can explore those schools’ characteristics, constraints and eligibility requirements — charter or district. Spread the offerings before all customers. Make it easier for those presumed disengaged families. Ask them what they want. Politely. Support them.

Many households will be okay with their kid’s assigned school, but others, with the application already in hand, can rank order their preferences and complete any extra materials for the specialty schools.  When the computer-generated lotteries are complete for those families exercising their choice, send the new assignment or an indication as to where they are on the waiting lists if their preferences didn’t work out. 

Internet access to the information about individual schools would be online and thus a potential problem.  Okay, so solve that, instead of abandoning school choice.  COVID certainly taught us that improving internet access for low-income families deserves serious attention for many reasons.  Beware of cementing real problems into faux solutions, as this bill does. 

A universal application to all K-12 public schools encourages all families to express what they want, what they value.  Perhaps district schools would study and implement those practices that make charters attractive — great school climate, parental involvement, longer school days, etc.  Lift all boats instead of trying to shift a minor burden. 

Centralized assignment is a total throwback. To pass the sniff test, educational legislation must realistically support students. This does not. It’s one more SOP to the status quo.

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