Make Every School a Charter?

Mary Beth Hertz (a.k.a. mbteach on Twitter) over on the Philly Teacher blog recently posted a very thought provoking article–A New Model for School Reform: Could it Work?. With all the talk of Charters and Renaissance schools lately, it was great to read such a well thought out and well articulated model of school reform. Her idea in a nutshell–do away with catchments and let every student/parent rank the schools that they would like to attend, and award all spaces based on a lottery system, similar to how seats in charter schools are awarded today. This system would be superior, because, in her words,

  • Giving students and families a choice helps keep them engaged in a child’s education.
  • Choice fosters competition among schools to attract the best students, no matter what neighborhood they are in.
  • Services are more evenly distributed throughout the district since no one school is overwhelmed with high-needs students and families.

I like the sentiment and how Hertz is thinking outside the box.  I liked this idea a lot at first.  However, after further consideration, I don’t think that this idea would work for Philadelphia.  Why?  Several reasons.

1.) The families in the desirable catchments now will fight this tooth and nail–many of them paid a premium on their homes ($100K or more over similar homes across the street) in order to be within a specific school catchment.  To counteract this resistance, a plan like this would have to have a long time horizon to allow for grandfathering families who want to be sure that they have a guaranteed spot.  Even then, families with houses passed through generations would not be happy.

2.) I believe that one of the factors in the success of a school is parent involvement.  Creating a free-choice system where students from any neighborhood can go to any school creates a disconnect between the children, communities, and parents with specific schools.  How easy will it be for a North Philly family to be involved in a South Philly high school?  That family may legitimately want that school and that student might thrive there, but the family most likely not be a positive influence on the school.  Ultimately, that will result in the decline of school quality.

3.) Hertz advocates competition between schools.  Competition is the American capitalist way, right?  Well, I’m not entirely convinced that it applies to schools.  As a technology professional, I have seen first hand how competitive forces can spawn better products and efficient processes, but also unhappy employees, unmet customer needs, and general turmoil.  Diane Ravitch, the former Assistant Secretary of Education under the Bush Administration, and former advocate of No Child Left Behind, now is a critic of NCLB and believes otherwise,

“There should not be an education marketplace, there should not be competition,” Ravitch says. “Schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what’s [been successful] for them. They’re not supposed to hide their trade secrets and have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block.”

4.) I can’t even imagine the logistical nightmare involved in enabling any student from any neighborhood to theoretically attend any school in the city.  Imagine the nightmare busing scenarios!

Despite these criticisms, I like the direction that Ms. Hertz is going.  I think that it will be continuing this ‘out of the box’ conversation that will yield ideas that can work.  Personally, I think that the best solution is probably less radical.  Boost educators salaries to attract the best and brightest to education, and address the poverty problem that inhibits educational achievement outside of school.  A parent that doesn’t have to work 4 minimum wage jobs to put food on the table will be more involved in their child’s education at home and at school.  Both ideas are easier said than done, I know.  It will probably take an unorthodox idea like Hertz’s to get us to the point of considering options to get us there.

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One Response to “Make Every School a Charter?”

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