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How School Choice Affects School Finance

The growing popularity of parental choice is having unintended consequences for school finances. The situation in Inglewood, California is a case in point. The school district there has experienced a 20 percent overall decline in enrollment since 2006, creating a fiscal emergency ("Jerry Brown's School Bailout," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2). But school districts by law cannot declare bankruptcy. Instead, they are taken over by a state-appointed receiver who operates the schools while attempting to balance the books. (I wrote about the subject in "When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale," Education Week, Jun. 12, 2007.)

The reasons for the Inglewood Unified School District's dire situation have special relevance today. Once a middle-class city, Inglewood is now in transition. Part of the exodus is due to disaffection with the schools, which by any account are deplorable. Only 30 percent of seventh graders are proficient in math, and 25 percent are proficient in English. Realizing that 10 percent of its students were fleeing to nearby charter schools, the district opened La Tijera School, with a state-of-the-art technology lab and a fitness center ("In Inglewood, a sparkling new campus and looming bankruptcy," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 18). Officials hoped the $24-million campus would act as a magnet. But that has not happened.

The combination of declining enrollment and state funding cuts prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to give the district a $55-million bailout, which the district has up to 20 years to repay. Whether the loan was wise is a matter of controversy. Critics have charged that the district has lost the support of parents and therefore doesn't deserve the loan. Others argue that socioeconomic changes in the city are responsible for the undeniable appalling performance of schools on state standardized tests. Although scores have steadily improved, I don't think that enough students can be wooed back to put the district in the black, particularly when Sacramento faces a cash crunch. If conditions were different, perhaps I would be more sanguine.

Some have suggested that new charter school applications should be denied in order to retain students. I strongly disagree. Such a step would be tantamount to holding students hostage. If parents believe that charter schools provide a better education for their children than traditional public schools, they deserve the right to enroll them there. I'm fully aware of the argument that charter schools attract students who come from homes where their parents are deeply involved in their education. This is true. In a perfect world, all children would have parents like that. But we're talking about reality. Asking parents to sacrifice their children on the altar of ideology is asking way too much.

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