School Choice For All, One Step At A Time

School Choice For All, One Step At A Time
Using an earthquake simulation table, students at Excel Public Charter School in Kent, Washington, began a lesson in how to design structures resist seismic risk hazards. Image: Excel Public Charter School.

For years, Seattle-area parents with enough money have been able to send their children to private and parochial schools, paying anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 in yearly tuition. Yet for lower income households, the choices are constrained to mostly under-performing public schools.

That has started to change, on a small scale, with the operation of eight charter schools in Washington. Their student populations are 67 percent minority, compared to 43 percent in non-charter Washington public schools. Up to 40 charter schools are allowed statewide under a voter initiative approved in 2012.

Early state test data suggest students of color are benefitingThe political waters are choppy, though.

Students, Parents Join Legal Defense

Washington charters are now enduring a second legal challenge in as many years. In response, 12 parents and 15 students at Washington charter schools have intervened to challenge the latest lawsuit by the state teachers labor union, the Washington Education Association (WEA).

The motion to intervene by the families was filed by former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna. He asked, “why are we spending our time and energy trying to keep these kids out of schools they really want to attend?”

The actions of WEA and its co-plaintiffs, writes Alice B. Lloyd in The Weekly Standard this week, “…again reveals the priorities of a political class removed from the interests of families whose kids they consign to comradely mediocrity.”

Pathway To College And Career Readiness

Meanwhile, evidence continues to suggest that well-run charter schools can provide a pathway to college and career readiness for students, particularly those from lower-income families.

In Dayton, reports the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the college-prep charter high school Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) has significantly higher graduation rates than the public schools. DECA also has dramatically higher average reading and math scores on state tests. All DECA graduates enrolled in college within two years, versus 54.2 percent in public schools.

Choice, Not Just Charters

In Denver, parents and students can choose from a wide variety of schools including charters. Yet the big take-away is the importance of choice, not charters alone.

The Atlantic notes, “..the district did something relatively radical: It opened enrollment. Families could choose between traditional public schools, charters, magnets, and hybrids. Schools that did well would be studied and scaled, while others would be closed…just shy of 65 percent of Denver Public Schools students graduated last year, up more than 25 points in just a decade. During that time, more than 70 new schools, many of them charters, have opened, and more than 40 schools have closed.”

U.S. News and World Report writes, “Some of the most dramatic gains in urban education have come from school districts using a ‘portfolio strategy’: negotiating performance agreements with some mix of traditional, charter and hybrid public schools, allowing them great autonomy, letting them handcraft their schools to fit the needs of their students, giving parents their choice of schools, replicating successful schools and replacing failing schools.”

‘Portfolio Strategy’ Gaining Traction

A central thrust of The Center For Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington – Bothell, is studying and promoting the portfolio strategy.

At the CRPE blog, Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation explains that “portfolio district” strategies should include starting new district or charter schools or replicating a successful ones; expanding grade levels or capacity at successful charter or district schools; and consolidating struggling district schools into successful ones.

Siedlecki recommends one focus be on “high-performing district schools with more protected freedoms and opportunities to innovate on their model,” such as Project RESTORE in Indianapolis and Denver’s Luminary Network.

Bill Gates Gets Schooled

Trying new approaches appeals to Bill Gates. In a recent blog post based on a visit to the Seattle charter school Summit Sierra, he highlighted the importance of students working at their own pace with individualized instruction.

Gates also accented the use at Summit Sierra of personalized learning plans developed by students, and tracked by them and teachers using software that the parent company of the school developed in cooperation with programmers at Facebook.

It allows students to set far-reaching goals, like being accepted to the University of Washington, and then reverse-engineer everything they have to do to meet their goals, Gates wrote.

Gates added, “It’s amazing how little the typical classroom has changed over the years. The kids all learn at different paces and in different ways, so some are bored while others feel hopelessly behind. This system was designed decades ago and it doesn’t reflect what educators have learned about helping students and teachers do their best work…it’s one reason why so many students show up for college unprepared for rigorous work.”

Toward A Better K-12 Marketplace

The end result of the freedom to innovate, which observers such as Sidelecki and Gates encourage? It might look something like Indiana.

According to State Impact, an education-focused reporting project, K-12 education in Indiana has become highly competitive and traditional public schools must now battle for market share. Families “can more easily shop around” among schools in different districts, and charters. They can even use vouchers to help pay for private schools.

Peter Balonen-Rosen of State Impact writes, “The aim behind providing this choice? Proponents say it will force all schools to better themselves.”

It is a matter of some urgency, writes commentator Juan Williams in the Wall Street Journal:

“…For black and Hispanic students falling behind at an early age, their best hope is for every state, no matter its minority-student poverty rate, to take full responsibility for all students who aren’t making the grade – and get those students help now…it requires cities and states to push past any union rules that protect under-performing schools and bad teachers. Urgency also means increasing options for parents, from magnet to charter schools. Embracing competition among schools is essential to heading off complacency…”


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