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The pros and cons of school choice: A better education at the expense of public schools?

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Google Maps screen capture
The gates of Normandy High School, one of the institutions in the Normandy School District.

The debate over school choice touches on complex questions of individual merit, public responsibility, and the oft-cited ‘right’ to a good education. It also touches close to home.

St. Louis County’s Normandy School District has gained infamy in recent years thanks to financial crises and its on-again, off-again accreditation status. Recently, a highly-cited episode of “This American Life” detailed Normandy’s downward spiral through the eyes of students who, after the district lost its accreditation, transferred to the largely white, far better-performing Francis Howell School District on Normandy’s dime. Normandy is now beginning its third unaccredited school year, and it is still struggling to provide students with high-quality education. At the same time, the show reported, students who transferred to Francis Howell have been able to flourish.

Those results beget tough questions. If certain schools are chronically low-performing, should they be shut down, displacing students but guiding them into better schools? Or is improvement more a question of reallocating resources, changing practices, or retaining good teachers?

Otto Fajen of the Missouri National Educators Association and Michael McShane of the Show-Me Institute joined “St. Louis on the Air” to discuss school choice policy in Missouri and nationwide.

“Many schools in Missouri and across the country are residentially assigned,” said McShane. And because neighborhoods are often segregated by race and by income, residential assignment tends to concentrate low-income and minority students into particular schools.

“And we’ve known for decades that those schools have struggled mightily to meet the needs of those students,” McShane continued. “So what school choice tries to do is break down that barrier between where students live, and where students go to school,” and the quality of the education they receive.

Although segregation is a fact of life in many areas, Fajen emphasized that school choice may not be a sustainable solution for students who live in low-income areas. “We’re committed to the success of every child, so we need solutions that are going to work for all students, not just something that’s specifically targeted to a few students, perhaps at the expense of others.”

Fajen said that school boards can balance student populations themselves, and have done so in the past. St. Louis currently hosts some charter schools and magnet school programs, as well as open-enrollment school districts. In districts such as Columbia and Springfield, Fajen said, students reserve the right to attend the school closest to their home but may also choose to enroll in better-performing schools.

Traditionally, however, open-enrollment programs only enable students to transfer to schools within their district, McShane noted. That is not very helpful when the district as a whole is unaccredited, or if it only holds one middle school or high school—like Normandy. Then, the choice is not a choice at all.

On the other hand, McShane said, a voucher system would provide students access to all kinds of schools, anywhere in their region. “All the voucher does is say, ‘you can take some fraction of the money that would normally go to your school, and take it to a private school.’”

In many voucher programs, however, that money does not cover transportation to the new school, leaving it up to families to shuttle their children back and forth. Because of the time and money parents would spend on transportation, students of low-income families may be unable to make full use of their educational choices.

McShane acknowledged that the lack of transportation funding is a significant challenge to school choice; he pointed out that federal dollars are largely reserved for public schools, and that “It would be great if students could take more money with them in transportation dollars.”

But Fajen maintained that focusing on choice can pull policy focus away from what is “really important:” improving public schools.

“We frankly know a number of things that really work,” Fajen said. Extended class time puts emphasis on enrichment for students and continued improvement for teachers by getting rid of the traditional three-month summer vacation that so often causes students to backtrack in learning. Course access programs allow students in schools without the ability to offer higher-level or more specialized courses to take such classes online and earn credit.

Those kinds of reforms, Fajen argued, “should have been at the top of the list” when the state took a hard look at Normandy.

But McShane said that the solution can go beyond public schools. Charter schools, parochial schools, educational nonprofits—all try to alleviate the inadequacies of American public education, he said. And if they present a better option for students in public schools, those students should be able to make that choice.

“Oftentimes, school choice is this lightning-rod issue; it’s something that can really kind of divide people in education,” McShane said. “But fundamentally, what we’re talking about here, number one, is trying to give students more options; and two, is trying to include more people in this process.”

At the end of the day, the public’s responsibility to students is to provide them with a better educational experience, McShane said. “It’s not clear to me why we should trap another year’s worth of students, another generation’s worth of students, in [low-performing] schools. I think they need an escape hatch, they need an opportunity to try and get something better, because it doesn’t appear to me that they have that opportunity now.”

Ultimately, Fajen and McShane agreed that the fundamental problem in education was student segregation—based on race, based on housing, or based on income. Would providing students with more choices tend to desegregate schools?

Fajen said the record is mixed, but leans toward ‘no.’ “I think it might depend, but the experience we’ve seen so far, both in Missouri and across the country, is ‘absolutely not,’ and actually quite the opposite.”

School segregation is an unfortunate reality, Fajen said, and school choice may not be the way to solve it. “If we are going to be okay with maintaining a society with segregated communities, we will always be having a challenge and a discussion about the difficulties of education in those areas.” And those difficulties stem, he said, from a lack of investment in the public schools that need it most.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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