Monday, January 7, 2008

When School "Choice" Offers No Good Choices

Browsing the archives over at "The Quick and the Ed", I came across a link to an interesting NPR story on the school choice program in Mapleton, CO. About half of Mapleton's students are from low-income families, and nearly 2/3 are Hispanic. Faced with a high drop-out rate and low standardized test scores, Mapleton embarked on an ambitious overhaul plan. The district created 17 very different school programs, from International Baccalaureate to a high-tech project-based program to a progressive arts one. The school district adopted as its motto:

"Give parents the maximum choice, and let them choose the style that's best for their kids."

Sounds wonderful in theory, but the problem is that the schools still stink. Despite all the promising rhetoric and the $2.6 million donation made by the Gates Foundation, student achievement has not made any significant improvement.

This reminds me of one of the districts in my area. They offer 8 magnet elementary schools and 3 magnet middle schools. These run the gamut from Montessori to IB to project-based to visual & performing arts. Sounds promising until one starts to look at the academic achievement level of their students. 7 out of the 8 schools have below-average test scores when compared to schools across the state with similar demographic profiles. 4 of those are in the bottom 20% compared to similar schools. The one school that did about average compared to similar schools got fewer than half its students to the "proficient" or "advanced" levels on the English and math tests.

As a parent, I want to be able to choose the type of program that best suits my child's individual needs. I strongly believe that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to education. However, school choice doesn't amount to diddley squat if there are no good options from which to choose!

Affluent parents have real school choice in this country. If they want a Montessori or a progressive school for their child, they don't have to settle for a government-run one with a lousy track record. They also have options not available in the government system such as religious schools.

It's high time that poor and middle-class families were allowed the same freedom to choose the right school for their children as the wealthy. The current system is contributing to the "two Americas" that John Edwards is always talking about. The "haves" can afford to opt-out of the failing government-run school system while the "have nots" are trapped.

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