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Unintended Consequences of School Choice

In theory, parental choice of schools is supposed to assure educational equity. But in practice, the strategy has not always worked out that way. Reports from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City, for example, illustrate why the devil is always in the details.

For starters, the system is terribly confusing to even the most sophisticated parents. In an attempt to provide all parents with the opportunity to enroll their children in schools that best meet their needs and interests, officials have created rules worthy of a Solomon to decipher. Los Angeles uses a points system for parents who don't want to enroll their children in neighborhood schools. But separate programs have different application forms, processes and deadlines that are maddening.

Disaffection with rules is also seen in Philadelphia, where parents younger than 30 are among the district's "most dissatisfied customers," according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that was released in June. But parents of all ages charged that the sea of choices was bewildering. Despite spending days studying the regulations, they often wind up no closer to a satisfactory answer. This frustration first leads to anger and then to cynicism.

For another, school districts continue to be under enormous pressure to diversify their student enrollment. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that assigning students to schools based primarily on race was unconstitutional, districts began moving toward the use of socioeconomic status. The trouble is that it has resulted in many children of middle-class families being rejected by the schools in their neighborhoods because they constituted a disproportionate presence. Rather than remain on waiting lists in the hope that the next time they apply will mean acceptance, parents have enrolled their children in private and religious schools. In San Francisco, the district is losing 1,000 students a year, according to a 2008 report from the Mayor's Policy Council for Children, Youth and Families.

In New York City, living in a particular neighborhood once was a sure ticket to enrollment in a school in the same neighborhood. In fact, real estate agents routinely advertised the existence of good neighborhood schools as a powerful selling point, and parents willingly paid a premium. But since the high court's ruling, they've been shocked to find out that their decision either to buy or rent apartments in pricey areas offered them no assured entry whatsoever. Instead, they too have been placed on waiting lists. As in San Francisco, parents have bit the bullet and enrolled their children in private or religious schools.

What is so troubling in the entire scenario is that middle-class parents of all races constitute the ballast public schools desperately need. If these parents are barred from enrolling their children in the public schools they want for one reason or another, they will continue to flee the system. That is their right, of course, but it defeats the purpose of integration.

In an attempt to make admissions fair, some districts use a lottery when demand exceeds supply. Since it relies strictly on chance, it favors no one. But it is not without its problems. Children living next to a coveted school could be denied admission simply because their number was not randomly chosen. By the same token, siblings could be separated. In short, critics make a strong case that a lottery involves the kind of uncertainty and lack of control that parental choice is supposed to eliminate.

So what is the solution? In the final analysis, fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. What satisfies one family unavoidably will fail to satisfy another. That's why some reformers have insisted from the start that the only solution is to improve all neighborhood schools. If that goal were ever achieved, it would provide a strong disincentive for parents to look elsewhere. That would indeed be cause to celebrate.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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