While flawed, a new effort shines light on the demand for school choice

The Brookings Institution’s ranking of school choice met with mixed results today, and properly so. But one conclusion that may escape attention should have profound implications for choice and school governance in the years to come: One of every two households engages in some form of school choice, and more would do so if given the chance.

The report is limited to an examination of quality and competition in the nation’s 25 largest school districts, but this hides the sweep of the enterprise. The Brown Center on Education Policy didn’t just look at public school choice within each individual system. It surveyed private options in each district’s boundaries, factoring in publicly funded alternatives such as vouchers or tax credit scholarships and paying attention to how performance is assessed. And it considered whether and how districts have embraced virtual education.

Thus, author and center director Russ Whitehurst writes:

… more than 50 percent of parents of school-aged children have engaged in some form of school choice, albeit primarily in the form of residential choice and private school tuition: two socially inequitable means of determining where a child attends school. There is little doubt based on the long waiting lists for popular public schools of choice that many more parents wish to exercise choice than are currently able to do so, and schools of choice consistently generate more positive evaluations from parents than assigned schools.

Each district was given a letter grade determined by factors as varied as the enrollment at “alternatively available schools” — which included charter and voucher enrollments — and student assignment systems where “preferences are maximized.” But, honest intentions notwithstanding, the methodology may be misleading. For instance, seven Florida counties make the list, with Duval County (Jacksonville) getting the highest overall ranking within the state. With apologies to Rick Hess, Duval has done little to actively enhance school choice.

While the Duval County school board has begun to authorize more charter schools in the Jacksonville area in just the last year, Duval is near last among Florida districts on the Brookings index in density of charter schools, according to 2010-11 data from the Florida Department of Education. Just 2.7 percent of the public school population in Duval is enrolled in charter schools. By comparison, Miami-Dade County’s charter school enrollment is at 10.2 percent of the county’s total public school population, but is ranked just 20th of 25 districts overall at Brookings.

The State of Florida has done more to create the conditions for choice that Dade has embraced, just as it has created and enhanced the means-tested tax credit scholarships to private schools that have penetrated nearly 5 percent of the eligible population in Duval County. The growth of, and prospect for more, publicly funded private school options led Duval County school board chairman W.C. Gentry to tell a radio interviewer one year ago, “Fundamentally, [school choice] is very bothersome. The notion that we would effectively dismantle a system of public education and give students and parents choice and go do whatever they choose to do is anathema to the basic underpinnings of our society.”

This is no attempt to discredit a report that was intended to celebrate “a fundamental rationale … in creating a vibrant marketplace for better schools.” In identifying an expanded definition of public education and a demand for more and better school options, Whitehurst brings sunlight to the differences between school systems in how they meet the needs of parents, and those differences often disappoint. Still, if the intent of the index is to create public awareness, a deeper dive is necessary.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit