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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Problems With Public School Choice

One of the many transformations happening in public education today (brought about by a corporate approach to running schools) is the increased "necessity" of marketing public schools. While also disturbing, I'm not talking about the use of public schools as places to market to children; I am referring to the practice of using public relations tactics and advertising campaigns to encourage students to attend a school/district other than their "home" school/district.
Most states now have some version of public school choice or "open enrollment." While this program existed before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the language around it was very similar to ideas later reflected in NCLB. "Why should a student have to stay with a failing school?" "If a private school can provide a better education, why shouldn't it be an option?" NCLB made it a requirement that public schools notify parents of public school choice as part of the consequences for not meeting growth requirements for two years in a row. Most of the choice programs states have adopted make “open enrollment” possible even when a school hasn't demonstrated a history of “poor performance.”

From the point of view of citizens, choice programs have taken on several different roles over recent history. While voucher and choice programs might have initially been about allowing parents to choose a school that is the best fit for their child's abilities or that is more in line with their religious beliefs, NCLB made choice programs punishment for “failing” schools. Now, the near universal adoption of choice programs have made public schools develop bumper sticker slogans and take part in advertising competitions. Look at almost any Wisconsin school district website in the months of January and February and you will find open enrollment pitches prominently displayed. It is unfortunate but easy to understand why.
According to the frequently asked questions about open enrollment listed at the Wisconsin DPI website (http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/psctoc.html) the following is what a student was/is worth to a school for a given school year:

1998-99 $4,543
1999-00 $4,703
2000-01 $4,828
2001-02 $5,059
2002-03 $5,241
2003-04 $5,446
2004-05 $5,496
2005-06 $5,682
2006-07 $5,845
2007-08 $6,007
2008-09 $6,225
2009-10 $6,498
2010-11 $6,796 (estimate)

In times like these, when local school budgets are so constrained, that “income” per student is undeniably attractive to administrators trying to make ends meet. At $6,796 per student, approximately every seven students who enter a district will pay for a teacher (approximately 22 students will pay for a district administrator and about 13 will pay for a building level administrator). While open enrollment (and districts' focus on it) might be argued to be a good thing, the negative consequences of this program need to be considered.

There are bad teachers. There are even bad schools. Open enrollment, however, encourages people to look for these two situations in too many places where it doesn't exist. Running away becomes an option when confronting the actual problems would be much more beneficial to the student. Not only is the grass rarely greener on the other side of the fence, sometimes your grass looks worse because you are neglecting it. Growing up is difficult and filled with hardships; learning from those hardships comes by confronting them not by running away.

Yes, maybe you have a terrible teacher. How can you learn from them anyway? Yes, maybe your school is struggling. How can you make sure that you learn from it anyway? Can you maybe even be part of making it better? Are there other people dealing with the same issues? Maybe you can work together to bring about changes. This might sound idealistic; it is, however, much more realistic than thinking a system that puts a price on each student's head will fix the problem.

Another problem with this system is the time it takes away from the true goal of public education. Administrators taking time to develop advertising campaigns and carry out public relations work lose time to lead curriculum development, maintain school environment, encourage professional skills in teachers, and maintain relationships with parents and community. Securing funding should not be the primary concern of people in these positions. With educational leadership receiving lower priority, teachers and students cannot be as successful as they should be.

If you look at the problem of school funding from a distance greater than the local school's balance sheet, you can observe the greatest insanity of the system. School funding is a zero sum game; there is a limited number of students to go around. More importantly there is a limited amount of money provisioned for funding education. The problem is not how many students attend your school; the problem is how much money the district is given for each resident student You can get a series of reports that show how the dollars and cents of open enrollment works in the state of Wisconsin from the DPI website (http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/oedatrpt.html). This kind of spread sheet number crunching is great in the corporate world and it appeals to some school administrators as well. There are clear winners and losers. The problem with this approach is that we are not talking about producing widgets. What is a well educated person worth? How much should a K-12 education cost?

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Parents need to stop pulling their children out of a school unless there is an extreme circumstance. Schools need to stop chasing after the carrots that the politicians are dangling in front of them. The teachers' unions need to move beyond holding hands with the politicians and start having the difficult conversations with them about the consequences of what they are doing. Politicians need to find a new way to fund education that allows for local control and adequate funding while taking away the purse-strings control the federal government has over education. Okay, maybe these solutions aren't that simple; maybe they just makes sense.
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