NPT Reports: School Choice or Chance?


An increasing number of American students attend a school that is not down the street or in their neighborhoods. In Nashville, the array of public school options is so vast, it prompts an annual event called The First Choice Festival to help families make the decision.

“You get a lot of information, they give you walk-throughs, you pick your top 7 choices, send it in, cross your fingers and hope for the best!” explains Amy Rey, mother of 4 children in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).

Another parent, Robin Bennett, says “It’s good that we have a lot of options, but it’s also challenging to make a decision!”

The First Choice Festival is the beginning of months-long, anxiety-provoking and often stressful period for many MNPS students and families. It culminates in Selection Day, the annual event in mid-January when students learn where they’ve been accepted among their chosen schools.

According to the Brown Center on Educational Policy at Brookings, 51% of the nation’s one hundred largest school districts offer choice at the high school level. That National Center for Education Statistics reports that, in districts with public school choice, about 25% of students attend a chosen public school; 67% attend their assigned schools; the rest attend private school.

Dr. Sean Corcoran is an education economist at New York University Steinhardt School who studies school choice systems– primarily in New York City, which has an expansive and long-standing high school choice process.

“I think that there’s the hope that school choice will be a tide that lifts all boats, that if you have a market-type system where kids choose good schools, the bad schools will tend to go out of business in time.,” says Corcoran. “So if they lose enrollment… over time those schools will disappear. Whether or not it actually works that way in practice is another question.”

Corcoran says in New York City, graduation rates have improved dramatically, but he says it’s not clear that’s the result of school choice.

“There’s certainly research that shows that kids who gain access to their top choice school do better than kids who don’t get admitted to their top choice school. But for every kid that gets into one of those schools, there’s a kid who doesn’t get in to one of the schools.”

Many models for school choice have some degree of chance in how students are assigned. That can be frustrating and stressful for some parents.

“If I have Charter A that does things this way and Charter B that does things this way and I have the zoned school and then this magnet school and I can choose to send my child to one of them– well, in Nashville you can ask to send your child to one of them, but you’re not guaranteed to get any of them!” says Jai Sanders, of Nashville, who has 2 young daughters in their assigned public school.

Nashville school officials use a lottery system to determine which students will attend high-demand public schools. Maria Salas is exploring middle school options for her 4th grade daughter.

“There is that concept that if your child doesn’t get in to one of the academic magnets, it’s really not a good thing,” says Salas. “If you do, Hooray! We really have won the lottery. Give me that over Powerball!”

And much like playing the lottery, some families go to extreme measures to obtain their preferred school, often resulting in outcomes that school choice was initially intended to prevent and raising questions about whether it is the great equalizer for the achievement gap.

“Some families might just see this as too overwhelming throw their hands up in the air and go to the default school. And some other families might invest the energy into making this choice and sifting through all this material—so you might actually create greater segregation by those who have the means to sift through this information and those who do not,” says Dr. Ron Zimmer, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt Peabody College.

“Single parent homes, immigrant communities where parents are less likely to speak English as their first language, because of time, resources, inability to understand the choice process—they may be more likely to push that responsibility down to the child and let them decide what school is best for them,” explains Dr. Corcoran.

“I think everyone likes to have options, choice. But they also don’t want to be locked out of decent opportunities to attend schools in their own communities. Right now, it’s sort of a Wild West. Maybe kids get some priority at their local school, but it’s every child for themselves in a school choice system. It’s a hard balance.”

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