By far the most commonly used school choice options exist within our public school systems. Families in rural areas have access to career education, charter schools, online schools, and open enrollment. Families in urban areas have those same options – just swap open enrollment (which is not an option for most urban students) with magnet/lottery schools (which are primarily located in urban districts).
While the scale of public school choice is not tracked on a national scale, district-by-district studies in Ohio show that a substantial portion of families choose a school other than their assigned neighborhood school.
As families have more options, more students are finding schools that are a good fit for them. More students are earning college credit for free during high school. And more students are entering post-secondary education with a better developed sense of their life path.
More and more public school leaders recognize school choice as an important driver of change, introducing an external “customer service” factor into school systems by allowing families to vote with their feet. (Of course, weighted-student funding systems would ramp up families’ influence since the dollars would actually follow students to the school they choose, which is not always the case, but that is a topic for another day.)
In any case, giving parents a choice not only recognizes a basic human right but also introduces an important mechanism to improve quality. Competition drives quality, monopolies stagnate.
For more than a decade, the US Department of Education has been encouraging public school choice with the (recently de-funded) Voluntary Public School Choice grants to districts that pursue broad choice within their district. And national organizations like the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) work with a growing network of public districts across the country that are committed to embracing, rather than shunning, school choice. These districts, called “portfolio districts” are seeing huge successes:
- In New York, changing the adults is changing the system. They brought in new teachers from nontraditional pipelines using recruiting blitzes seeking new talent. They reworked teacher and union contracts. The results? Dramatic improvement in value-added gains and teacher quality and much improved graduation rates.
- In Denver, they have focused on making the school choice process user-friendly for parents. They have a single application system for parents to use. They are cracking the code on successful school turnarounds. They have charter schools that house high-needs special education programs. They have opened communication channels and sustained thoughtful exchange with charter schools – to the benefit of ALL Denver students.
These districts are just a couple of examples of a growing number of districts that are embracing school choice. Could Cleveland be next up?