This commentary was originally published in Education Week on August 18, 2014.
It’s a truism in public policy that every solution breeds a new problem. School choice has created new possibilities for families desperate for better options, but it can also create serious access challenges for disadvantaged families. In localities where many state and local agencies can sponsor schools, fragmented governance makes solving those challenges difficult. This is evident in cities where parents now have many school choices and districts must compete for students.
New and promising schooling options exist via charter and private schools, but many families still can’t make them work for their children. Districts and charter authorizers protect their own schools from closure, so weak schools persist, and overall quality stagnates. Recognizing that the best schools have little advantage over weaker ones, the best educators and charter providers go elsewhere.
The Center for Reinventing Public Education, which I direct, recently conducted research in high-choice cities and unearthed both good and bad news for school choice advocates. We found that many parents, including many from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, are now actively choosing their children’s schools and getting access to their first or second choices.
Yet our research also shows that too many parents face serious barriers to finding good schools. They report having trouble getting high-quality information to inform their choices, navigating different eligibility and application requirements, and finding adequate transportation.Parents with the least education and those who have children with special needs report the most-significant barriers to the choice process.
A recent Detroit Free Press series exposed such problems in Detroit’s charter schools. Michigan’s choice system was designed to break up dysfunctional district monopolies as quickly as possible by creating many different statewide charter authorizers. But these entities, funded by fees from the schools they authorize, have little incentive to close low-performing schools. This has created a fragmented governance system in which no one agency has the incentive to care about all of the city’s students.