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The Excellent School-choice Movement Accidently Leaves Vulnerable Children Behind

By June 9, 2011April 14th, 20222 Comments

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Shopping is the American way.  So where it’s available, the new freedom to choose among public-school options – charters, magnets, cross-district programs – has been a huge relief to some low-income families.  All families should educate themselves about schools and decide which is right for each child.  To boot, making informed decisions for their children has gotten lots of parents more involved with their kids’ education.

The “school-choice” movement is promising for schools and families alike.

Mind you, research shows that apart from a few truly great schools, the choice movement hasn’t boosted academic performance overall.  Charter schools, for example, have roughly the same range of good, bad and indifferent as regular district schools.

But for now, it’s fabulous that more lucky parents are as satisfied and engaged in their child’s learning as the private-school and affluent parents are.

The movie Waiting for Superman shows us two kinds of low-income families.  With great excitement we see the hopefuls whose kids are chosen by lottery and have our hearts broken by those who aren’t.

But a third group of kids desperately needs our attention.  They are growing up with adult caretakers who will not or can not manage even the simplest application process, not even filling out a preference sheet among district schools.  School choice is way down on their priority list, trumped by poverty, unmet health or mental health needs, and so on.

So an unintended consequence of the otherwise-terrific choice movement is that some of the toughest kids to educate are left behind in certain regular public schools – in increasingly high concentrations.

Take Denny’s family, for example.  When Denny was little, and already his mother’s fourth child, he went to live with his father’s family in another country.  When Dad disappeared – not even Denny knows what happened to him – his family sent the boy back to his biological mother.  At that point, Denny was an early adolescent whose schooling to date has been intermittent at best.  In the interim, Mom had several more children and resents adding a surly stranger to her stressed household.  Mom and Denny fight ferociously.

Denny has no use for Algebra 1, never mind the Lewis and Clark expedition.  He’s a pain to have in school.  The staff spends tons of time figuring out how to keep his disruptive behavior from wrecking his own learning and the learning of other students from similarly chaotic backgrounds.  Many students have Moms – or grandmothers, aunts, caretakers – who have no idea what school options are available and would only sign an application if you filled it out for them and maybe paid the electric bill.

Denny’s school is in a low-income area with a number of charters schools available.  Charter staff will tell you their kids’ families have no shortage of problems, which is true.  But let’s call those families at least “application-ready.”  To a scary extent, Denny’s district school is increasingly concentrated with application-challenged families.  I know the school is knocking itself out to serve its students, but the application-ready families want their kids away from this concentration of tough kids.

District schools are the default for families on the move.  Charters, magnets and cross-district programs have long waiting lists determined by lotteries held one day a year.  If a student leaves a choice school, their coveted spot goes to the next kid on the long list.  Even if they wanted to, choice schools can’t take the family recently arrived from Puerto Rico.  They can’t take the children of a newly-divorced mom or those forced to move to cheaper housing because the breadwinner got laid off.

Those kids are absorbed into district schools, mid-year, as strangers to the other kids.  The teachers must keep the class going at the same time as catching up the newbies.

Federal and state accountability systems do not adjust for concentrations of application-challenged families.  No matter how heroic the district staff might be, odds are that they will be sucker-punched with a negative rating of their school, publicly broadcast for all to see.  But these schools are being scapegoated for social problems made worse by the unintended consequences of an otherwise-good idea, school choice.

You can’t blame teachers for trying to find jobs in schools where the kids are not radioactive with challenge.

One day, in a happier future, let’s hope that all families have so many good school options that every one of them makes active choices.  Outreach programs help them choose. And then, if a family fails to fill out an application or preference sheet, a red flag goes up, indicating possible domestic distress.  Social services goes out to visit the home and gently offers help.

But in the meantime, states need to look long and hard at their reform strategies.  Hard-to-reach families must be integrated into the benefits of the choice movement.

Or if we’re going to concentrate the Dennys of this world into certain schools, they should be showered with help for what is essentially a special special-needs population, made more difficult by segregation.

But at the end of the day, we can’t be bananas about holding schools accountable for academic success without also helping families so we can hold them accountable too.  I believe all parents want to be good parents, but millions of them don’t know how.  Why are we talking so much about schools and so little about them?  Shouldn’t we be helping all families to become healthy, independent, and good school shoppers?

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years.  She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such , RI’s school-accountability site and , an innovative data-analysis tool.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative.  She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at .