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Report Ranks Districts on Promoting School Choice, Competition

Which school districts offer the friendliest environments for school choice and competition? A new report attempts to answer that question, and it puts New York, Chicago, and Duval County, Fla., among others, at the top of the list.

The first two of those districts earn a B grade, while the third takes a B-minus on the Education Choice and Competition Index, released today in a report by the Brookings Institution, in Washington. Orange County, Fla., Philadelphia, and Dallas show up at or near the bottom.

While past measures of school choice have sought to measure the quantity of school choice and competition, the ECCI focuses on the quality of choice—as judged by a number of factors.

The index "provides an informative and consumer-relevant measure" of the degree of choice and competition within large school systems, the report asserts.

Are alternative education choices, such as charters, magnets, and reasonably priced private schools, available to families? Do choice systems offer consistent and fair application processes and deadlines? Are public and private schools of choice, to the greatest extent possible, required to take part in comparable assessments, and report their results, so that parents can judge their quality? Are students provided with transportation to their schools of choice?

Those criteria, and others, form the basis for the scoring rubric developed by Brookings. The author of the report and creator of the index is Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

The scoring rubric, perhaps not suprisingly, places particularly heavy weight on the assignment policies used in districts—basically, the extent to which parents can choose schools based on their preferences, as opposed to being restricted to schools in their neighborhoods.

The index is designed to score the quality of choice and competition within the boundaries of public school districts, Whitehurst explained in an e-mail. In other words, if you were the parent of a school-aged child in Chicago, New York, or Orange County, Fla., the report tries to examine "how much choice would be available to you?" he said. Even districts in which students don't have access to private-school vouchers, Whitehurst noted, could receive strong scores on the index if there is substantial choice in the form of affordable private institutions, such as Catholic schools.

In addition to the criteria described above, districts are also judged by the extent to which they allow for the closing or restructuring of an unpopular school; whether they provide information on gains in student achievement at various schools; and the accessibility of online information that allows parents to make school-to-school comparisons.

While some policies on school choice are set at the state level—such as restrictions on charter and virtual schools—many others, most notably school assignment and application processes, are controlled locally, Whitehurst said.

The index seems likely to provoke strong reactions, particularly among districts that see themselves as bastions of choice—yet which, according to the rankings, aren't as open to competition as they think.

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