Monday, January 23, 2012

School Choice; A Short History Lesson

"Freedom of Choice" That was the title of some of the original plans for school desegregation proposed by many school systems in Louisiana in the early stages of federally mandated school desegregation. Some school boards in Louisiana had originally proposed to desegregate schools by allowing students who had previously been "trapped" in racially segregated schools to transfer to a school with a majority of other race students. The purpose was also to guarantee equal opportunity to such students to receive their education in a school that was perceived to have better opportunities than their segregated school. This looks a lot like Governor Jindal's more recent proposal doesn't it? Although the Governor's proposal is not a racial desegregation plan, it is supposed to work in a similar way. Students would be allowed to transfer to another school that is perceived by parents to offer better opportunities. Another difference is that the Governor now assumes that the "superior" schools parents could choose would be private and parochial schools. These are schools that have never participated in the accountability program that has labeled some of our public schools as failing.

The "freedom of choice" desegregation proposals across the nation however, were struck down by the federal courts as not sufficient to reverse the many years of entrenched segregation. Instead the courts in most cases implemented a system of forced transfers of students to balance the ratios of black and white students in  schools. This plan was referred to by many opponents as "forced busing". After 50 years of desegregation efforts it is obvious from the numbers that many of these efforts to achieve desegregation failed. In cities such as Baton Rouge, many white parents either moved to neighboring parishes or enrolled their children in private schools. The East Baton Rouge school system over a period of 40 years therefore went from a black-white ratio of 40% black and 60% white to 81% black, 11% white, and 8% other.  Even so, the East Baton Rouge parish school system has now been declared by the federal courts as unitary or desegregated.

Soon the legislature will consider Governor Jindal's new "school choice" proposal. The two new criteria for "school choice" will be that a student be originally enrolled in a "C" or lower rated public school and that his/her parents have an income below a certain level. If the new choice legislation does not contain additional careful restrictions, it is quite possible that it will result in a new variety of segregation. Since private schools by their nature can choose which students they are willing to enroll, and since most such schools have only limited slots available for new students, it makes sense that they will choose to enroll mainly the students with the highest potential for achievement. So it turns out that most of the "choice" will be in the hands of private school administrators rather than with parents. Incoming State Superintendent John White seemed to endorse this idea when he stated recently that parents of "promising" students who are presently enrolled in low performing public schools should be able to choose another school where the parents believe their child will be more successful.

This new segregation could occur when students who "show promise" are "chosen" to attend private schools and some of the new charter schools that will spring up under the Governor's plan, leaving the low achievers, discipline problem students, and special needs students in the public schools. Such student transfers would result in a decline of average student achievement in many public schools. This trend would be the exact opposite of what the No Child Left Behind law and Louisiana's accountability system were intended to rectify.

The idea that creating "competition" for low performing schools (that in fact are serving high poverty communities) will somehow force improvement is wrong. It has not been shown to work anywhere in this country! Such a scheme is based on the assumption that low performance is caused by lazy or incompetent teachers and administrators.  The real reason for low performance is, to paraphrase Carville; "It's the poverty stupid!" To chastise such schools with D or F ratings and to encourage some selected students to transfer out is destructive. What Louisiana needs to do is to work hard to provide quality education to students in their communities by encouraging positive parental involvement and by providing incentives for teachers and administrators who have demonstrated an ability and willingness to work effectively with high poverty students.  The Jindal "choice" plan will only set education back.