As many thoughtful education reform advocates now admit, public school choice has created new possibilities for families desperate for better options. But it can also create significant access challenges for disadvantaged families. In cities where many state and local agencies oversee district and charter schools, fragmented governance makes solving those challenges especially difficult.
This is evident in cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where parents now have many school choices and districts must compete for students. While good new options exist in the form of charter and private schools, many families can't get access to them. District officials and charter authorizers protect their own schools from closure, so that weak schools stumble along and overall educational quality stagnates. Recognizing that the best schools have little advantage over weaker ones, the best educators and charter providers go elsewhere.
Recent research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education holds good and bad news for school choice advocates: we found that many parents in "high-choice" cities, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, are today actively choosing their children's schools and getting access to their first or second choice. Yet our research also shows that too many parents face barriers to finding good schools, including difficulty in obtaining reliable information to inform their choices, navigating different eligibility and application requirements, and finding adequate transportation. Parents with the least education and those who have children with special needs report the most significant barriers.
A recent Detroit Free Press series looked at these and other problems in Detroit's charter schools. Charter school advocates in that city take pride in the fact that local charter schools outperform district schools in general, yet charters offer only marginal improvement over the single-digit proficiency rates that prevail in Detroit Public Schools. Indeed, there are whole swaths of neighborhoods in Detroit with not a single high-performing district-run or chartered public school, leaving the education "marketplace" oversaturated with ineffective schools that are rarely closed and to which parents continue to send their children because of transportation and information issues like those reported in our survey.
What's more, while enrollment in the Detroit public school system has been in precipitous decline since 2009, the district's special education enrollment is climbing rapidly due to the fact many charter schools don't offer the services those students need. In short, while there are many different charter authorizers in Detroit, none of them is accountable for ensuring that every school it sponsors is performing to expectations or that the education marketplace in the city is functioning for all families.
While Detroit is an extreme example, we are seeing these issues arise — to some degree — in other cities where choice has been introduced. Charter and district officials are often locked in a battle that hurts families, while too many students are falling through the cracks because advocates and policy makers are more focused on "winning" than on making choice work for families.
For example, when asked whether there should be a common enrollment system to ease the application process for families that have a choice in the schools their children attend, one charter advocate in Washington, D.C., said we should simply "let the chips fall where they may." District officials can be just as self-interested, protecting their turf and refusing to share facilities and other public assets with high-performing charter schools that might serve a neighborhood better than the district school in that neighborhood.
Addressing the systemic problems that cut across district and charter school systems won't be easy. In our analysis, we found that many high-choice city school systems today comprise a patchwork of district schools, charters and charter management organizations, special purpose agencies, and private schools. The reality of fractured governance makes it very difficult for city leaders to address cross-cutting issues that affect everyone but are no one single entity's responsibility.
This needn't be the case. Philanthropists in many cities are supporting nonprofit- and government-led initiatives to ensure that:
- Every neighborhood has great public school options;
- Children have safe passage and free or affordable transportation to and from school;
- Families have access to information about all the schools in their community so they can make well-informed choices;
- Enrollment decisions are fair and transparent;
- Children and families facing the most challenges receive extra support and equitable access to good schools; and
- Low-performing schools are made better or replaced with better options.
Philanthropy has played a crucial role in education reform in places like Cleveland, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Baltimore, and even Detroit, where government and nonprofit leaders have been able to make progress toward these goals. In Detroit, for example, the Skillman Foundation has supported local efforts to help families choose the best school options; create new high-quality options; improve weak and failing schools; and close the lowest-performing schools.
In some cases, state officials, mayors, and others are changing state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly and that families do not face needlessly high barriers to school choice. In other cases, formal changes in governance may be necessary to create a statewide entity that oversees the performance of charter networks and has the authority to revoke their charters. And some cities need specialized agencies or interagency agreements to oversee and administer citywide systems that facilitate choice. In Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation helped create the Cleveland Plan, a coordinated effort between the local school district, the mayor's office, and charter and civic leaders to create a citywide portfolio of high-quality schools. The foundations also supported legislative action to give the Cleveland Metropolitan School District the authority to close low-performing schools and allow district schools to share facilities with high-performing charter schools.
In all of the cities we studied, public school choice has empowered parents, created new opportunities for better schools, and put pressure on the entire school system to improve. But the promise of choice won't be realized as long as we continue to segment school choice options in ways that mean nothing to students and their families. We need to elevate the nation's vision of urban public education to include all public schools, charter and district-run alike. And we need to be more aggressive about solving the problems of quality, equity, access, and protecting the disadvantaged. These are the core responsibilities of public education, and philanthropy has a critical role to play in helping the education community meet those responsibilities.
Robin Lake is the director of the University of Washington Bothell's Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research and policy center. She is a co-author of the recent report "Making School Choice Work," which is available at crpe.org.