For the January edition of Delaware Today magazine, I wrote a package of three articles detailing the ins and outs of public school choice in Delaware. I followed that up with an interview in the last segment of First, the WHYY-TV news show, on Jan. 5.
As thorough as I tried to make the articles, WHYY interviewer Shirley Min tossed a good question my way. Has choice made Delaware’s public schools any better, she asked.
Her question gave me the opportunity to express some opinions — to be more argumentative than I might be in a magazine article. And I can use this space to dive more deeply into the topic. So, here goes.
I’m not aware of any studies that would have analyzed that issue, but I feel comfortable is saying that there’s no evidence that the choice program has improved the quality of education in the state.
The choice program, if you’re not familiar with it, essentially lets families choose the school they want their child to attend, not matter how school districts draw attendance zones. Without getting into all the details, if there’s space available, your child will be admitted; if there are more applicants than seats, students are chosen by lottery.
The choice program dates back 20-plus years, having been instituted about the same time as Delaware implemented legislation allowing the creation of charter schools. Both measures took effect shortly after the lifting of a court order that mandated busing Wilmington students to suburban schools, and suburban students to city schools, as a remedy to unconstitutional racial segregation in schools in northern New Castle County.
The practical effect of the choice and charter laws was this: school districts didn’t have to reassign white students back into suburban schools (which might have seemed like a resegregating action) because the new laws let the parents (or the kids) make their own decisions about where they would go to school. Either way, over time the outcome was predictable — hardly any suburban kids are attending public schools in Wilmington, and the demographic in most Wilmington schools is largely black and low-income.
Scores on the state’s student assessments (they change every couple of years, but the current one is called Smarter Balanced) closely track school demographics. In brief, the fewer low-income or minority students a school has, the higher the percentage of its students who will score proficient or above proficient on the state tests.
Now, to get back to school choice.
The fact that the more white, more affluent suburban schools have higher proficiency rates doesn’t make them better schools. Rather, their population makes it more likely that more of their students will score well on the standardized tests. Choicing your child into a high-performing school isn’t going to magically transform your above-average child (everyone’s child is above average, right?) into a genius, but it will give you a chance to boast that your kid is going to a school where the average test scores are higher than in the school he was in before.
My point is this: Do not make a school’s test scores (or its percentage of minority or low-income students) your primary criterion for choosing where you want to send your child.
There are good things going on in virtually every school in Delaware. The best school for your child might very well be the one closest to your home. Choice provides families with options, and parents should use those options to place their children in a school that is both a good fit for them and easily accessible.
While choice hasn’t necessarily made schools better, it has given families a way to migrate from schools that they don’t consider good.
So, parents, do your homework. Visit the schools you’re considering for your child. Talk to the principal, and to the teachers. Talk to your child’s current teacher, and ask whether they know of a school where your child might excel. As you prepare for middle school and high school, doing your homework becomes more important. At those levels, schools do begin to specialize, with career pathways, International Baccalaureate, dual enrollment, project-based learning, focus on STEM or the arts, and so on.
Whatever you do, make your decisions for positive reasons. Don’t run away from something you don’t like unless you’re sure you’re moving to something better. And, if you feel that you’re in a situation you don’t like, step up and do your part to make it better. Not working to fix an unfavorable situation is the worst choice of all.