New Orleans tops school choice index

SCHOOL CHOICE: Some districts provide more options than others, and the Brookings Institute ranked 107 of them -- giving three As and 34 Fs.
Part 47 of 47 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Denver School District led the country in school-choice improvements, going from 24th last year to fifth place this year, the most recent Education Choice and Competition Index says.

The Brookings Institute released the study earlier this week.

SCHOOL CHOICE: Some districts provide more options than others, and the Brookings Institute ranked 107 of them — giving three As and 35 Fs.

The increase is due, in part, to a new common application. Instead of assigning students to schools based on their location, parents complete an application listing preferred schools — traditional, charter, magnet — and school assignments are made based on the preferences.

“A lot of districts are using mechanisms for choice that are primarily built around … a process in which you get a default assignment and you have to complain and jump through hoops to get your child assigned to a different school,” said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institute.

Closing unpopular schools contributed to the increase. A reform-minded majority on the school board probably helped the district implement choice-friendly policies such as the common application, said Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at Colorado’s Independence Institute.

The report examines 107 districts — many of them large districts, others smaller but innovative — and gives them a letter grade based on how choice-friendly they are.

“It’s a thermometer of school choice in the nation,” Whitehurst said.

Factors included the availability of alternative schools, quality of district schools, how relevant and understandable performance data are and the mechanism for assigning students to schools. A complete description of factors can be found here.

Three school districts scored in the A range: Recovery District in Orleans Parish, La., with an A, and New York City and Orleans Parish, which each got an A-.

Thirty-five districts got Fs.

“Some of these districts might be quite proud that they got an F,” Whitehurst said. “If you want a Big Mac, there’s no need to go across town to buy one if there’s a McDonald’s right around the block. If you want a good education and the district is providing it everywhere … if that’s your model, you should be happy with an F.”

Forty districts scored in the C range, and most of those middle-range districts recognize parents’ desire for choice but don’t have a good system in place, Whitehurst said. There may be few options available, or perhaps it’s difficult for parents to find accurate information about the schools, thus hampering efforts to make an informed decision.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org

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