New report ranks the districts that cater to school choice…and the ones that don’t

choice-school-districtAccording to a new report, there is little information available on what makes a school district not only suitable for school choice, but what differentiates the districts that are exceptional at catering to parental desires versus those that are simply mediocre. However, thanks to new data, districts across the country have been ranked in how well they cater to choosy parents.

Whether you support or oppose school choice—programs offering students and their families alternatives to publicly provided schools, to which students are generally assigned by the location of their family residence—the movement exists, and thanks to new data provided by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, parents and students now have a much clearer idea of which districts support school choice and which don’t.

According to the authors of the report, the data compiled on districts and school choice was needed, since support among parents, and states, for school choice is growing.

(Next page: The school choice index)

Grover Whitehurst, a senior fellow in Governance Studies and director of the Brown Center, and Sarah Whitfield, Center coordinator, argue that increased support can be seen through the:

  • Growth of public charter schools, which did not exist 25 years ago and presently enroll about 5 percent of public school students in the 42 states that allow the formation of charter schools).
  • Expansion and technical refinement of open enrollment systems involving traditional public schools whereby parents actively choose the school their child will attend within their district.
  • Emergence of statewide voucher programs (12 states have such programs).
  • Continued increases in the availability of online and blended learning alternatives.
  • Passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that allows economically disadvantaged families to take Title I dollars to any public school of their choice, including charters.

However, even Whitehurst and Whitfield acknowledge that the debate on school choice is “not empirically well-grounded,” as much of the “collection of information about the status and consequences of school choice has lagged far behind the pendulum’s swing toward choice and competition.”

To fill the void on information about school choice at the district level, and to provide a resource to policy makers and the public, the Brown Center developed the Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI), which is based on scoring rubrics within 13 categories of policy and practice.

The school choice index

The formal scoring guide includes characteristics such as availability of alternative schools, virtual schools, popularity of schools reflected in funding, restructure or close under-subscribed schools, assignment mechanism, application, and more. For the full scoring guide, go here.

In general, a high score on the ECCI requires that the “geographical area served by a school district provides parents of school-aged children with:” maximum choice, a choice process that maximizes the match between parental preference and school assignment, funding and management processes that favor the growth of popular schools at the expense of unpopular schools, and subsidies for the costs of choice for poor families. For a more detailed explanation of these characteristics, read the report.

(Next page: The best and worst districts)

Best and worst districts for school choice

According to the ECCI data, compiled from the U.S. government’s National Center for Education Statistics, school district websites, and interviews with district staff, both the Recovery School District in New Orleans and New York City are the top scoring districts for school choice.

Denver also revealed a tremendous jump in support for school choice, as the district moved from 24th place on the ECCI in 2012 to 5th place in 2013.

Some of the worst districts for school choice included Loudoun County, VA; Mobile County, Ala., and Brownsville ISD, TX.

The report’s authors explain that the Recovery District is exemplary due to their high availability of choice, with nearly 80 percent of schools being charters, a good supply of affordable private schools, vouchers for private school attendance available from the state, and virtual education provided through the Louisiana Virtual School.

NYC scores high as well due to its “exceptional” use of a centralized computer-based algorithm to assign public high school students to schools in such a way as to “maximize the match between student preferences and school assignment, conditional on any admission requirements exercised by the school.”

Students apply once and receive one offer, assuming they can match with one of the schools they have listed among their choice.

Denver recently moved up in ranking, notes the report, due to the district’s new unified choice system in which parents exercising school choice complete only one form on one timeline for all public schools, including every charter school in the district.

For example, in Denver in 2012, 83 percent of parents got a school assignment for their child that was their first, second, or third choice, and fewer than 400 families failed to get a school assignment for their child that was in their top five list (with the majority of these failures to match occurring at the pre-K level).

This unified choice system, explains the report, is very similar to the Recovery District in New Orleans.

However, the report also notes that even these ‘A’-rated districts still need improvements.

For instance, in the Recovery District, parents “would benefit from additional information on school performance, which presently lacks data on teachers and principals, does not present school gains calculated from individual student test scores, does not reveal the popularity of schools based on their rankings in parental preference, and does not enable side-by-side school comparisons.”

NYC has room for “substantial improvement” in the availability of alternative schools, since only 14 percent of NYC students attend a charter, magnet, or affordable private schools—a much lower proportion than in other large districts, such as Washington D.C.

For a full list of district rankings, click here.

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