Guest Column

School Choice for the Wrong Reasons

by Stan Bippus

In theory, parents who are allowed to choose the schools their children attend will base their decisions on the quality of educational programs offered by different schools. The assumption is that once educators compete for students, most schools will improve their services to children.

Reality suggests otherwise. School choice has little if any long-range effect on the quality of education that children receive in school.

Our 7,300-student school district in northwestern New Mexico offers a prime case study of the misplaced faith in parental choice. We deal with school choice everyday and have done so for more than 50 years. Our district of 16 schools must compete for Native American students (most of our district rests on a Navaho reservation) with five schools of choice funded fully by the U.S. Department of Interior. These schools are located within our attendance boundaries, and a sixth is just a few miles outside our lines.

Based on our experiences, parents select a school for their children for reasons other than the quality of educational programs and services. The fact is not one choice school in this area—despite receiving $600 more in per-pupil aid from Washington than we receive from state government—produces the standardized test results of our public schools. Our district produces more scholarship winners and higher ACT scores than the two high schools of choice. Our daily attendance is higher and our dropout rates are lower.

Misperceptions Rule

So why are parents sending their children elsewhere? The most common reason given by elementary and middle school parents is their perception of school safety, not program quality. Public schools make news when students misbehave, while disciplinary problems in choice schools do not attract news coverage and receive little negative press. This leads to a widespread misperception that schools of choice are safer.

Another major attraction for parents is the full-day kindergarten program at schools of choice. The quality of the program has no bearing, so we estimate we lose 60 to 80 kindergarten students to schools of choice each year. We have decided to compete on this point. This fall we will implement full-day kindergarten at seven elementary schools at a cost exceeding $300,000.

Decision making on school selection becomes truly muddled at the secondary level. The No. 1 reason we lose high school students to schools of choice is athletic recruiting. Students who ride the bench in a high school of 800-900 students in our district realize they can be starters on varsity teams at the much-smaller choice schools.

The No. 2 reason is discipline. When students are expelled from our schools or become ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities due to poor grades or excessive absences, they enroll in a school of choice, which does not enforce eligibility standards. The third common reason we lose students is due to transfers. Students want to attend a school with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

One time I asked students who were enrolled in a choice high school why they did not attend a public school. One said he was expelled from our district, and two others laughed. "It’s easier up here than down there," one student said.

Unconcerned Teachers

Facts never seem to get in the way of strongly held opinions. The school of choice with a college preparatory theme has given some parents the impression that the school’s academic standards and student performance surpass those of the public schools. Yet if these parents took the time to examine our students’ ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement scores, they might come to a different conclusion.

Last year, we estimate our district lost more than $400,000 in state funding because of students who enrolled in the federally funded schools of choice. The reaction of many secondary staff members was, "Good riddance, we don’t need those students in our schools." Not one teacher responded by saying, "We need to make some changes to be more competitive to keep from losing students to schools of choice."

When I announced last spring our district planned to spend $10,000, mostly in newspaper advertising and posters, to market our schools to parents and students for the first time, the teaching ranks offered no support. Unworried about job security because of tenure, the teachers felt the promotional efforts were unnecessary and a waste of money.

We forged ahead nevertheless, purchasing ads to attract students to our schools. We displayed posters in public places and distributed flyers to parents. We even considered TV spots.

A Marketing Response

During this next school year, we plan to send school representatives to address monthly meetings of community groups. We will distribute flyers that sell the worth of our schools door to door in outlying areas. Local movie theaters have agreed to show a slide during the next two months that promotes our schools.

Our primary reaction to the competition has been marketing, not investment in instructional changes, because one thing we have learned is that we will attract and retain few students based on our success in the classroom.

To those who suggest the use of vouchers and the creation of charter schools will lead to better schools, I say this: Choice will not improve public education. Educational improvement will result from good leadership, not competing programs such as choice schools that create an unhealthy reason for reform. Negative approaches to change seldom work, and the motivation behind school choice is decidedly negative.

Stan Bippus is superintendent, Central Consolidated School District, Shiprock, New Mexico