David Segal

The new educational divide

By David Segal
August 3, 2009

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AS THE OBAMA administration touts its $5 billion “Race to the Top’’ fund and uses it to promote charter schools, it is time to acknowledge that we are encouraging a new split within our public school system. The old divides along lines of race and class persist, but are now overlaid with a different segregation: one tier overwhelmingly composed of relatively advantaged students whose parents are active participants in their education, and one whose students are relatively disadvantaged and lacking in such support from adults.

Critics of charter schools have long expressed concern that charters tilt toward students with certain advantages over their peers in traditional public schools. To matriculate at a charter school, a child typically needs to be entered into a lottery of all those students seeking admission. This requires having a parent or guardian who is highly involved in a child’s education - enough to know about the possibility of his or her child attending a charter, to conclude that to do so would benefit the child, to apply to enter the lottery and follow its proceedings. Charter parents must also frequently agree to substantial participation in the child’s schooling.

Children of parents who play this active role in their education will tend to perform better in school than children of less-involved parents. The effect of such parental involvement has been measured: Controlling for race, gender, and socio-economics, students with involved parents will tend to achieve at about the 75th percentile - well above average.

Surely, most parents want their children to excel in school, and beyond, and will work as well as they can toward those ends. But for any of a variety of reasons - health, language barriers, constraints from employment, or, sometimes, lack of concern - some children simply do not have stable adult guidance in their schooling. Parental engagement in education should be strongly encouraged, but having involved parents should never be a prerequisite for a child to gain access to the best opportunities. That would mean many kids - those who are already somewhat disadvantaged - would unfairly miss out.

Charter proponents have retorted that parents seek out charters for children who are languishing in traditional public schools, and that charters therefore serve, on average, underperforming students. But that’s not what the broadening body of evidence says in many jurisdictions.

A January 2009 study by the Boston Foundation - much touted by charter proponents for certain findings deemed favorable to their cause - found that upon entry, charter school students tended to have substantially higher test scores than did students in Boston’s traditional public schools. These findings are consistent with research by the Economic Policy Institute. It concluded that guidance counselors and other school officials systematically encourage higher-performing students to enter certain charter school lotteries.

Removing a population of above-average students, and their concerned parents, from the traditional public school system will leave behind students likely to perform worse on assessment tests. There will be less parent-teacher association activity, less parental oversight of teachers and administrators, and more behavioral problems. It will be easier for politicians and policymakers to ignore the needs of traditional schools and their students’ less-engaged parents.

This divergence will become more problematic as we encourage proliferation of charters, so long as admission is based on opt-in lotteries. When charters account for a small fraction of a district’s student population, the harmful effects on the traditional schools are minimal. Where they account for a greater proportion of students - already approaching 40 percent or higher in certain cities, like New Orleans and Washington - the effects will be devastating.

To address the new educational divide, I have proposed legislation in Rhode Island to replace opt-in lotteries with opt-out lotteries. Charters would offer admission to a randomized sample of the general public school population. Children offered admission could, in consultation with parents and guidance counselors, actively accept or reject it. It is just a partial solution to the self-selection problem, but it and other tools must be adopted quickly if public schools are ever to serve their idealized role as society’s great equalizers.

David Segal is a state representative in Rhode Island.

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