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Why Are Parents Satisfied With Underperforming Schools?

It's widely believed that parents choose schools solely because of their academic reputation. Many do, but many don't. This division was on display recently in Brooklyn, New York. It's a reminder not to make assumptions about the choices that parents make when their children's education is on the line.

Before a raucous crowd of nearly 2,000 people, the New York City Department of Education's 13-member Panel for Educational Policy voted to shutter 10 city high schools that have failed to make satisfactory improvement. Despite emotional pleas by 300 speakers, including parents, teachers and students, the panel refused to budge. The earmarked schools, which serve more than 3,100 students, follow the same fate as 90 schools closed since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the New York City system in 2002.

If the schools slated for closing are as bad as reputed, then why did so many parents demand that they remain open? It's more than a theoretical question because it has real implications for public schools in other cities across the nation. Ostensibly, the primary reason for parental choice is to allow students to escape execrable neighborhood schools.

Yet research has shown that parents do not always base their decision on academic considerations. They often opt for schools as a result of logistic, social, holistic and administrative factors. That is their absolute right, of course, but it calls into question the rationale for the entire parental choice movement.

In the case of the 10 schools, the decision was a foregone conclusion. Eight of the 13 members of the panel are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, and he wanted the schools closed. As a result, the entire hearing was really a sham designed to avoid violating state law. Yet it also reveals the hypocrisy about support for parental choice. If most parents wanted the schools in question to remain open, then why not accede to their wishes? Reformers can't have it both ways.

New York City is not alone in the disconnect between a school's academic performance and parental satisfaction. According to an article in the Boston Globe ("Troubled school systems getting high marks from many voters," Jan. 26), a majority of residents in 11 Massachusetts cities - eight of which rank in the bottom 20 of per-capita income - believe that their public schools are doing well. These voters dismiss the lackluster MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) scores and low attendance rates. It's fair to say that if given the choice to send their children to other schools, they would in almost all certainty not do so.

But let's go back to New York City. What is taking place there is a conflict between democracy and plutocracy. When a billionaire who is accustomed to having his wishes obeyed in business is put in charge of a public school system, he is not going to change his autocratic ways. The losers are children and their parents. That's a lesson to be learned as philanthropists become increasingly involved in public education.

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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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