"For US education to thrive, charters must go.
by Jim Watson, (referred by Diane Ravitch)
“Some Win, Some Lose with Open Enrollment”. The headline in the Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard may seem like an occasion for joy to the winning school districts but, really, it is just terribly sad for all of us. Open enrollment across district lines is the latest and most extreme version of a school choice movement that is on a trajectory to split public education in two – one set of schools for the haves and the other for those left behind.
School choice is probably the most popular of the signature elements of the current school reform movement – and is there any reason why alternative and charter schools shouldn’t be popular? They house some of the best teachers and some of the most innovative programs; they have more opportunities for enrichment because they are exempt from many of the requirements faced by regular schools; and the parents are more involved and more able to donate time and money – the last not because they care more about their kids. Rather it is because the parents need to be able to provide transportation and often are required to agree to levels of involvement not possible for families without a car and a stay-at-home parent.
The result: one set of schools with wealthier, less diverse students and fewer kids with special needs; the other serving children more diverse in ethnicity, income and educational needs (with fewer resources and more requirements). Public education was supposed to be the great equalizer, an inclusive, welcoming place that gives all kids a chance to climb the ladder of success. But current trends create a de facto tracking system based on socioeconomic status.
Of course we’ve always had school choice. Through the 1960s the choice was public or private. Over the last few decades, however, public school districts created alternative and charter schools and encouraged them to draw their students from the surrounding neighborhood schools. In a Darwinian battle the schools would compete for students with the best schools thriving and good riddance to the losers. It is really hard to believe that school “reformers” didn’t foresee the result: the non-charters left with the most needy kids, fewer resources and, inevitably, failure.
The fact that public alternatives and charters have many good teachers and leaders and involved parents is, itself, the strongest argument against public charters and alternatives. Those are the very resources needed by neighborhood schools to make them what they need to be. And it isn’t even a zero-sum game – it’s negative-sum. Services are duplicated and shifting enrollments make long-range planning impossible.
The parents of students who choose schools outside their neighborhoods are not the problem – good parents will always look for the best available school for their children. The teachers and administrators in those schools are not the problem – many of them are among the best. The problem is the system that sends parents school shopping in the first place.
It is a system that takes advantage of the parental instinct to provide our children with the best possible education. You don’t have to be a public school hater to participate; school shopping has become a mark of good parenting for parents of all persuasions. “I can’t send my daughter to the neighborhood school,” said one mom recently. “Those parents aren’t involved.” And, sadly, what used to be a myth is creating a reality as parents like her opt out of their neighborhood schools.
If, as I suggest, we are to end most school choice, it is important to be sure that we are sending our kids to excellent neighborhood schools. To be honest, part of the reason parents have been so willing to drive their kids across town (or now to a different town) is that some neighborhood schools had become rigid, take-it-or-leave-it, hostile-to-change institutions. Parents with concerns or questions were considered pests. Though they can’t be all things to all people, our neighborhood schools need to be what many already are; nimble, responsive, welcoming neighborhood centers providing an outstanding education to all kids.
The successful innovations that charter and alternative schools have devised wouldn’t be wasted. They – including language immersion – can and should be applied in the neighborhood schools. And charters and alternatives that step up to meet the needs of high school students when regular high schools are unable to do so should be allowed to keep working with, rather than competing against, the mainstream schools.
It is a cliché that if you are attacked from both sides of an issue, you are probably correct. But school “reform” seems to call for a corollary: if there is agreement on an issue from both sides of the aisle, it must be wrong. It is truly mind-boggling that free-market educational policies – so obviously counterproductive, ineffective and unsustainable – are supported by both Democrats and Republicans. The deck may be stacked against us but if we are truly committed to equity, diversity and efficiency in our public schools we’ll need keep working to convince officials, parents and educators that it is essential that we stop this suicidal intra- and inter-district competition, phase out school shopping and bring back new and improved versions of the centers of our neighborhoods – our schools.
Jim Watson, Eugene, Oregon
Some win, some lose with open enrollment
Eugene appears to gain the most, while Springfield loses the most
Eugene appears to gain the most, while Springfield loses the most
Appeared in print: Saturday, April 21, 2012, page A1
Lane County’s two largest school districts — Eugene and Springfield — may be the big winner and the big loser, respectively, under a new state law that lets students cross district boundaries to attend school.
Eugene could see a net gain of 163 students while Springfield could experience a net loss of 68 next fall. That’s the tentative picture following the April 1 deadline for parents to apply to send their students to a different school district than the one where they live.
The state Legislature passed the so-called “open enrollment” law last year as a way to give parents more education choices. It represents a significant change — one legislator said it would upend 50 years of education practice and policy in Oregon. Now families don’t have to get permission from the district they are in to move their children to a different district.
School districts — especially those that share boundaries with several districts — face the prospect of competing for students.
The financial impacts are potentially significant. State school funding follows the students, with roughly $6,000 going to the district for each student who attends school there. The Eugene School District, for example, could see nearly $1 million more in state funding, if all the out-of-district students expressing interest were to actually attend its schools.
Based on a Register-Guard review of the application request figures from each district, Springfield could gain 33 new students from communities as far-flung as Harrisburg and Cottage Grove, but could lose 101 students, mostly to Eugene and Pleasant Hill.
Eugene could lose 51 students, mostly to Bethel and Springfield, but gain 214 new students — one from as far away as Corvallis — for a net increase of 163.
There’s nothing new about students transferring between school districts, but under the old rules, both districts have to agree. Most did so on a roughly one-to-one basis, eliminating the financial impact.
Many of the smaller school districts won’t see much change at all under the new law.
The initial count is no guarantee of what will actually happen, district administrators say. Some parents who wanted to keep their options open applied to more than one district, and some students may decide to stay where they are if they don’t get into the specific school that prompted them to apply in the first place.
Districts must let parents know whether their students have been accepted by May 1.
But parents are under no obligation to inform districts where their kids will go until they show up for class in the fall.
A vote of confidence
While a bump in enrollment will be welcome in Eugene, which has seen declining enrollment for the past decade, the potential influx of new students from other districts isn’t larger than the 300 or so that the district annually loses because of Eugene’s changing demographics. This school year, for example, the district has 17,100 students, down from 17,400 the previous year.
Still, the influx of applications represents a vote of confidence in the quality of Eugene schools, Superintendent Sheldon Berman said.
“Obviously I’m pleased that so many are interested,” he said. But it’s much too soon to try and tease out what the long-term impacts of the law will be, he said.
Critics have warned that giving parents the freedom to choose a different school district than the one where they live could benefit larger districts that have more classes and options at the expense of smaller ones.
Others have argued that small districts with smaller class sizes and a more close-knit community might lure students away from urban centers.
Lane County may show evidence of both.
Pleasant Hill School District, home to fewer than 900 students, had 72 new students apply and could lose just 14, while Bethel in west Eugene, with almost 6,000 students, had 51 new applicants but 91 students considering leaving the district.
Pleasant Hill school officials actively courted out-of-district students in an advertising campaign. Geography also may be playing a role in Pleasant Hill’s attraction, with 25 students expressing interest from Lowell School District on its east flank, and 29 from Springfield to its north.
Most of those Springfield students live in the Goshen area, where the district closed an elementary school last year, said Matt Coleman, the Springfield district’s director of instruction.
That left families with either a five-minute drive to Pleasant Hill or a 40-minute bus ride for their students to Centennial Elementary or Hamlin Middle schools, Coleman said.
Springfield estimates that of the 101 students who may leave the district, more than 40 are kindergartners and may represent parents who aren’t familiar with the city’s schools, Coleman said.
Those families with kids actually in Springfield schools are less likely to leave, he said.
“People who are in our system are staying,” he said.
Nevertheless, the number of students leaving, regardless of the reason, is worrisome, he said.
“We’re just not sure what the impact will be and we won’t truly know until the fall,” he said.
12 to 14 more teachers
In the Eugene district, the 163 additional students it could gain represents just 1 percent of the total number of students — but it still adds up to nearly $1 million in additional state funding.
Since district maintenance and building costs won’t increase much with the addition of the students, that money could have a direct impact on class size, paying for somewhere between 12 and 14 teachers, the district has estimated.
Because of the way the state distributes school funding, the Eugene district wouldn’t get that money until 2013, and will have to rely on contingency funds to pay for the extra teachers in the first year, administrators say.
For tiny Pleasant Hill, 58 new students would mean an additional $348,000. That’s almost 6 percent of the $5.9 million the district expects to get from the state next year under enrollment estimates that don’t include out-of-district students.
While Pleasant Hill would be getting some of that money at the expense of Springfield, some students applying outside their district are currently being home-schooled or are attending private schools, Pleasant Hill Superintendent Tony Scurto noted.
Home districts receive no money for those students, so their departure won’t represent a financial loss to those districts, he said.
But the fact is the state isn’t expected to have any more money for school spending, so if open enrollment attracts more students to public education, there will be less money to spend per pupil statewide.
What open enrollment means over the long term is just as uncertain as exactly how many students next fall will actually commit to the switches they requested this spring.
But Berman, Eugene’s superintendent, doesn’t see districts walking away from open enrollment now that it’s here.
“Once one district opens, everybody around it really has to open,” he said. “It’s not an individual decision.”