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Schools of Last Resort

Whether the country is ready or not, parental choice of schools is here to stay. As readers of this column know, I support the policy because I believe that ultimately only parents know what is best for their children's education.

But at the same time, it's important to realize the limitations of the strategy. The fate of children whose parents are not involved in their education unfortunately is given short shrift in the debate. If they are considered unavoidable collateral damage, then there's nothing further to discuss. However, I don't think most people will accept that outcome.

New Zealand serves as a case study. In the early 1990s, New Zealand implemented the most dramatic transformation of a state system of compulsory education ever undertaken by an industrialized nation. Under an ambitious program known as Tomorrow's Schools, the government allowed parents to apply to any school they wanted. The equivalent of a voucher followed children once they were admitted.

The trouble was that the most involved parents immediately took advantage of the opportunities. The best schools rapidly filled up and began turning away hard-to-teach children, disproportionately poor minorities. Those rejected were forced to return by default to their schools of origin, which became significantly more polarized along socioeconomic and ethnic lines than before. Realizing that its grand experiment was not working as intended, New Zealand began to pull back.

What is also overlooked is that when students in their schools of choice do not measure up for one reason or another, they are often pushed out. This can happen in a very subtle way. When this occurs, they return to their original schools, which become the schools of last resort. I use that term because traditional public schools cannot by law also push out underperforming students. Only if they are found guilty of stipulated acts of violence or other egregious conduct can they be expelled.

Chicago is an example of how counseling-out works. Parental choice supporters like to point to the 11,000 students on waiting lists for admission to charter schools in the city as evidence of their popularity. But they don't talk about the other side of the story. According to an investigative report published on WBEZ, more than 2,500 students left charter schools in Chicago last year - or about 11 percent of the total charter enrollment. Some of the most coveted charters lose upwards of 25 percent in a year ("Chicago charter schools struggle to hold onto weakest students"). By getting low-performing students to leave, charter schools boost their test scores, attendance figures and graduation rates. The overwhelming majority return to the neighborhood schools they originally fled.

It's impossible to know the exact details of the choice movement in the years ahead. But whatever develops, it's unfair to expect traditional public schools to be able to compete with schools that play by different rules. Yet critics with their own agendas ignore this issue, instead preferring to harp on what they call the intrinsic inferiority of traditional schools. This double standard does a disservice to all stakeholders.

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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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