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School Choice in Mississippi: Limited Interdistrict Options

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Last week I wrote about Education Week's latest Quality Counts report that gave my home state of Mississippi an "F" ranking in student achievement and a "D" when it came to potential for student success. This week is National School Choice Week, when over 5,500 individual events are planned to (according to planners) "celebrate school choice where it exists and demand it where it does not." It got me thinking about if and how these two things provide answers for each other -- failing schools in Mississippi and the idea of school choice.

 I am a product of the public school system in Mississippi and I've always been proud of that. It is the reason my life's work became to study and analyze public schools and to train the next generation of educators. I'm what you would call a public school supporter - but I'm also a realist. I recently read an article regarding School Choice Week titled "Thank God for Mississippi" that was actually written about California schools. The basic message behind the title was that no matter how bad things looked in California schools, Mississippi was worse. While it feels like a sucker punch, I can't say that I disagree.

 So what will it take to pull Mississippi schools off the list of headline punch lines - and more importantly, provide the best education for this generation of K-12 students in the state? Does that answer lie in wider school choice options? I will explore that question in this and my next two posts. Today I want to look specifically at public school choice in the state through interdistrict options.

 Interdistrict public school choice means that any student can transfer to a school outside his or her zoned area if both school boards consent. This is an especially smart choice if there are physical barriers that prevent a student from getting to a particular school and can also be used in cases where behavior is an issue. The problem with the law as it stands is that approval is needed - meaning that the decision is not really in the hands of the parents at all. Districts that want to hang on to students to maintain higher numbers, or receiving districts that do not want to take on another student for one reason or another, can block parents from making this "choice" for their kids.

 The basics of the law itself are cloudy too. In 2011, Mark and Laura Fails appealed a case on behalf of their daughter Courtney to the state level when she was asked to leave a school out of her district after the rules changed in 2007. Courtney had already been approved to attend the school outside her zoned district and was a full-fledged student there. When a state of emergency regarding the public schools in the state was issued, the interim conservator for Courtney's new district said that all students needed to head back to their zoned districts and that no new students could transfer outside theirs. The choice that the Fails made was not just denied, it was revoked. The state court of appeals upheld the decision of the conservator.

Logistically, allowing parents full power to choose schools outside of their districts for their kids would be a headache. There is also a fear that low-performing schools would see abandonment by students if another public school option with a higher ranking were available. While a hit against herd mentality, shouldn't individual students have the option of a better school if it exists and is close enough for them to attend? Therein lies one of the major debates in school choice - who knows what is best? Trained educators/administrators - or individual parents?

 Have you seen interdistrict school choice work in your state?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.

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