The Public Policy

Better Choices

Punishing desperate parents who want better schools for their children.

By 2.2.11

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If there is a reason why more radical forms of school choice are critical to the reform of America's education crisis, it can be seen in the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a student teacher in Akron, Ohio, convicted of using her father's address in order to help her kids avoid the city's dropout factories and attend better-performing schools in the Copley-Fairlawn district.

Williams-Bolar's case garnered national attention from civil rights leaders and school reformers alike. While Copley-Fairlawn took the time to make her an example, she was just one of 48 families who have committed such residency frauds in the district; in most cases, the kids end up being removed from the schools while the parents may be forced to pay back tuition (which is funny given that the parents already foot part of the tab through their own state tax dollars). While the statistical evidence is spotty at best, the reality is that low-income families elsewhere throughout the country are doing the same thing.

All this in turn shows the reality that parents -- especially poor white, black, and Latino families in the nation's urban centers -- struggle mightily to get high quality education for their children within the confines of traditional public schools. And traditional districts, in turn, are doing what they can not to make this a reality.

In December, parents of students attending McKinley Elementary School in Compton, California, have used the state's Parent Trigger law -- which allows a majority of parents to petition for the overhaul of a school -- to convert the school into a charter school and remove it from control of the Compton Unified School District. Since then, the district has attempted to toss out the petition and its allies have leveled allegations of deceptive tactics against the parents and Parent Revolution, the organization helping the families in their effort.

Meanwhile in most districts, the range of intra-district choice options available to families of all economic backgrounds is limited at best. Most traditional school districts continue to restrict students to schools within particular geographic areas. The few instances when districts allow for intra-district choice -- in the form of so-called magnet schools -- are still limited; students often can't attend magnets without the blessing of teachers and guidance counselors. Poor and first generation middle class families, who usually don't know the game or how to play it, still lose. A smattering of states, including California and New Jersey, allow for students in the worst of the worst schools to transfer to districts outside of their home communities. This still means that many families are still stuck sending their kids to failure mills and mediocre schools.

Public charter schools have proven to the be the most-successful form of school choice -- and one embraced by urban parents, centrist and conservative activists, school reform-minded governors and the Obama administration alike. Thanks to the Race to the Top reform initiative, states such as California and New York have either lifted or eliminated artificial caps on the number of charter schools that can be started. But charters still serve just three percent of all students and mostly in the nation's urban communities. Thanks to state laws that require charter school petitions to be approved by school districts, few suburban districts willingly bring competition into their backyards. So middle class and poor families in the suburbs dissatisfied with traditional schools have few options.

The continuing obstinacy among defenders of traditional public education -- including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- to the idea of letting parents make real education decisions is part of the problem (as is the opposition of suburban families). But the biggest problem lies with the nature of school funding itself.

State governments provide the plurality of all school revenues (picking up 48 percent of the total tab); if they picked up the full tab, school choice-minded governors and legislatures can then open up the full range of choice, either through vouchers or weighted student formulas. But the fact that districts continue to depend on local property tax dollars gives them leverage to oppose even small-scale choice options; they can argue that choice will cost them money (even as they ignore requests from families within their districts, who are funding the tab).

States could pull off the trick of fully funding schools, expanding choice and even lowering overall tax loads by increasing taxes they already charge while forcing districts to quash their property tax levies; that has been the approach taken since the 1970s as part of property tax relief efforts and in response to earlier generations of school funding lawsuits.

But even with that, another aspect of the choice problem must be solved: Expanding the array of private and parochial options available for kids to attend.

For decades, Catholic diocesan schools -- which emerged in the 1850s to help Catholic children escape the heavy-handed Protestantism in an earlier generation of public schools -- have been the destination of choice for poor and middle class families alike. They have also proven to do a better job in improving student achievement than traditional public schools. But the number of Catholic schools in the United States has declined by 13 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 school years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Last month, the Archdiocese of New York announced it would close 27 of its schools. Other private schools are also closing down, leaving fewer private schools to take up the slack.

Vouchers may stall some of the decline of Catholic and other parochial schools. But it is going to take other groups to start new ones. In urban communities, black churches are already housing charter schools on their grounds; they could easily take on the role of providing academic instruction, either on their own or in collaboration with other churches or online education providers to provide so-called blended (or online instruction with some physical classroom time). Churches in suburban areas, along with Rotary Clubs, other community organizations or even homeschooling parents working together, could also do the same.

Kids and their parents shouldn't be stuck with the worst America's public schools can offer.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.