School Choice Can Help Poor Parents Quickly Improve the Education of their Kids

by James C. Sherlock

The excellent education reporter Laura Meckler has written a terrific article in The Washington Post titled “Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions“. Indeed.

Test scores are down, and violence is up. Parents are screaming at school boards, and children are crying on the couches of social workers. Anger is rising. Patience is falling.

For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers. Each phase of the pandemic brings new logistics to manage, and Republicans are planning political campaigns this year aimed squarely at failings of public schools.

Public education is facing a crisis unlike anything in decades, and it reaches into almost everything that educators do: from teaching math, to counseling anxious children, to managing the building.

She wrote about the nation as a whole, but the same crises plague public education in Virginia.

Virginia, led by its Governor and General Assembly, must deal with it.

While we must improve every school over time, the most immediate approach for poor kids stuck in an underperforming school is school choice. Parents understandably don’t want to wait.

Most of the worst schools have a chicken and egg issue — bad classroom discipline and bad learning. Read Ms. Meckler’s column in which she describes an utter breakdown of classroom discipline. We must ensure discipline in every underperforming school while we work on better instruction and learning.

The Governor ran on both improving every school and on school choice.

School choice is a very attractive option to parents, thus voters, precisely because it can be both effective and immediate. School choice offers access to a known quantity, to a school that provides both classroom discipline and SOL scores that demonstrate good learning happens there.

Parents of every economic level, race and ethnicity want a school like that for their kids. There are no exceptions.

Some get it in their neighborhood school, or district. Some don’t. No parent wants their kid to wait for next year, or next decade.

School Choice as a Means of Improvement in Public Education

The Governor believes in competition as a change agent. Open enrollment, charter schools, vouchers, tax credits and deductions, and virtual public schools are forms of school choice — competition.

We will need a balance of school choice options to offer better public education quickly. The potential combinations and permutations are endless, but we need to get started and pick a Virginia way to do it.

I will offer some proven approaches.

School Choice – Open Enrollment.

Forty-seven states plus the District of Columbia have state policies addressing open enrollment in some way.

State open enrollment laws specify either voluntary or mandatory and intra-district or inter-district school choice.

Virginia’s law permits voluntary intra-district open enrollment. Local school boards may establish open enrollment policies allowing students to attend another school within the district.

For example, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) has intra-district open enrollment. That means parents can sign their children up for any RPS school they can transport their kids to. Seat offers are determined via a random lottery that is run each spring.

Virginia can consider broadening its open enrollment law to mandatory inter-district to improve school choice. Other states have been successful with that option.

Arkansas has laws I find potentially attractive for Virginia. It has chosen mandatory inter-district, with some limitations. Students may apply to transfer to a school in any school district.

In that state, in each school year “sending” school districts are subject to a limit on the number of school choice transfers they may allow. Three percent maximum. But there is no maximum for transfers of students from a failing school district.

Pick a favorite state policy of your own, or none of them. But a change to Virginia law will need to provide instructions on the designation of a school district as failing. A clear, concise definition. No waivers.

School Choice – Charter Schools

If we are to increase charter schools as a mechanism for competition and choice, we should do it right. I have recommended increasing the number of charter schools,  but also targeting such schools to help poor and minority children.

Charter management organizations (CMOs), non-profits who operate two or more charter schools, focus on educating (poor and minority children). The best, like New York’s Success Academy, have produced spectacular results with the very kids whom many Virginia schools are failing. But they will not locate in Virginia right now due to our laws. They would not be able to operate here in the manner that has made them successful.

Virginia is rated by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) as sixth worst state of 44 in the friendliness of our charter laws to charter school establishment and operation. NAPCS publishes a model law that can guide the necessary revisions.

So change Virginia law. Do charter schools right. Target charter schools for poor and minority kids.

School Choice – Vouchers

The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a state-by-state comparison of voucher laws. Indiana’s voucher system, its Choice Scholarship Program, is the largest in the country. They have experience with it. Start there.

School Choice – Tax Credits and Deductions

The Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), which has a dim view of such policies, nonetheless keeps track of State Tax Subsidies for Private K-12 Education and shares them with us.  

From that article:

ITEP describes such policies as “back-door vouchers.” I personally prefer a more straightforward approach than the tax code.

School Choice – Virtual Public Schools

Thousands of Virginians for a variety of reasons choose every year to educate their children in full time virtual public schools. The status quo in Virginia is indefensible. I published an eight-part series on the problems.

I listed five strategic issues.

  1. Conflicts of Interests at VDOE;
  2. Virginia’s various laws, regulations and funding streams create a “system” that is no system at all;
  3. Costs to the taxpayers of the state-run virtual school are undefined;
  4. Reporting is utterly inadequate;
  5. The current contracting system supports neither parents, school divisions nor providers.

The series exposed those issues in considerable depth. My recommendations were quite specific.

Next. Choice is a place to start, but not nearly all of the issues in Virginia public schools will be addressed fully in that way, even if we do it.

I will address the issues and other options in future posts.

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19 responses to “School Choice Can Help Poor Parents Quickly Improve the Education of their Kids”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    It is imperative to find good charter management companies, not the Board of Education, to run charter schools for those who need it the most, the gap kids not served well in public schools. Contract with a good CMO and let them open 20 schools. Way better idea then to let the state board choose yet another state run board. Too much possibility of limited competition.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    The easiest thing in politics is creating the 51-49 divide, but then you can’t do anything with it.

  3. I can’t see how Youngkin’s proposal to partner with higher-ed institutions to create charter schools fits in your schema. What do you think of that plan?

    I haven’t delved into details so I cannot speak with any authority, but my gut reaction is that it’s a terrible idea. Youngkin wants to get wokeness out of public schools. But that’s exactly what he’ll get if he turns charters over to higher-ed.

    1. VaNavVet Avatar

      There is no wokeness in public schools in MHO so you must be concerned that it will somehow be introduced. That is your opinion but not fact. Looks like the Republican campaigns attacking failing schools with mis-information are now underway.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        The universities and businesses proposed as sponsors for charter schools would do kids, especially poor kids, a huge favor if they would band together and hire one of the top charter management organizations to run the schools.

      2. tmtfairfax Avatar

        I guess you haven’t read the internal emails among Fairfax County school board members where they talk about using race as a key decisionmaker and their awareness of the anti-Asian policies and rhetoric generated by the school board and top administrators.

        1. VaNavVet Avatar

          Stupidity is not wokeness. BTW woke means aware and since when is awareness such a bad thing.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I don’t understand that except that it can be done perhaps more quickly than other options. It is attempting to piggy-back on an existing program, College partnership laboratory schools.

      Lab schools can now only be established by universities with a teacher education program.

      Delegate Glenn Davis, a Republican from Virginia Beach, is sponsoring legislation to allow any higher-ed program, or private business, to apply to start a lab school.

      My focus is improving educational opportunities for poor kids.

      To the extent that lab schools will be politicized and reflect the values of academia, they will be problematic to me.

      It is also unrealistic to expect schools unexperienced in K-12 education to take on this task. I recommend proven charter management organizations rather than universities.

      That is why lab schools are not mentioned in my post.

      But because the universities, Glenn Davis and the Governor are for them, I expect the bill and the $150 million mark (thus the university support) in the budget to pass both houses. We’ll see.

  4. VaNavVet Avatar

    Republican campaigns attacking failing public schools will contain political posturing, pointing blame, mis-information, and will do little to improve the situation. Governor Youngkin should act on his pledge of unity and should seek a cooperative approach.

  5. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Unfortunately, elected officials apply far too little critical thinking to proposals to enhance publica or private education. Charter schools simply siphon public funds away from the principle and purpose of public education. Other notions, such as vouchers, tend to cross the separation of church and state principle. Political campaigns rarely emphasize these founding principles; instead, campaign planks are offered to entice votes. More critical thinking (w.o apologies) is required of leadership to avoid the slippery slopes of political favoritism.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      “Charter schools simply siphon public funds away from the principle and purpose of public education.”

      You have no earthly idea what you are talking about.

      First, charter schools are public schools.

      Second, if you had studied the subject, you would know that a large groups of public charter schools in New York run by Success Academies, a charter management organization, educate nearly exclusively poor minority children. They achieve test results that exceed those of an public school district in the state.

      Speaking of critical thinking, you need to abandon that talking point.

  6. Bacon’s Rebellion has been blogging for years about the issues raised by Laura Meckler — the collapse in discipline, the teacher burnout, the falling achievement scores, the widening racial achievement gap, etc. — long before everything began boiling over in the past two years. We have long described Virginia’s public school system as in the midst of a meltdown. We warned last fall that things continued to deteriorate, even after students returned to in-person learning. I have to say we were ahead of the curve on EVERYTHING.

    Now that Meckler has confirmed in the Washington Post the things that we’ve been warning about for years, perhaps the ankle-biters on this blog will gain a little humility.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Whip me, beat me, make me write bad checks. Enough?

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        Strange, but to each his own.

    2. VaNavVet Avatar

      Name calling does not facilitate meaningful discussion!

  7. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I have long thought that allowing inter-district choice would be a great benefit to students in districts with poor schools. It would give those students access to better schools and it would be an incentive to the “mother” district to improve its schools.

    I strongly suspect that the reason it is not generally allowed in Virginia goes back to race. After all, many of those white parents moved out of the city to the surrounding county many years so that their kids would not have to go to school with Black kids. That also was a primary factor in many of the county to city conversions in Hampton Roads in the early 1960s–the folks in the counties were afraid of being annexed by adjoining Norfolk and Portsmouth.

    Another factor weighing against inter-district choice is transportation. Even if were allowed, schools would not be under any obligation to provide transportation to students from outside their boundaries. Except for Northern Virginia, the public transportation systems in this state are largely confined to the cities. For example, in the Richmond area, Chesterfield County for many years did not allow GRTC buses to operate within its boundaries. Service to Henrico was limited. Service has expaned into both counties now, but primarily to commercial areas. If any schools are on those routes, it is purely by coincidence.

    By the way, transportation might be a factor limiting the access to charter schools. In New York City, with its extensive subway system, that is not a problem. If the Success Academy were to establish two charter schools in Chesterfield County, for example, would the company running the academy be responsible for providing transportation in the areas served by each school?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Your point is a good one. Transportation can be provided, but it is expensive. Car pools have done that job for 100 years. Churches can coordinate if necessary. Those two options are how several thousand kids in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, a mandatory inter-district state, get to better school districts.

  8. Ruckweiler Avatar

    Have said for years, close ALL the public schools, fire ALL the teachers and administrators, and give parents an education-only voucher to allow them to find the best private or parochial school possible. The public system is irremediable.

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