Do More Choices Mean Better Choices?
Tom Boasberg, Superintendent, Denver Public Schools / Bruce Fuller, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education
When discussing which “choice” of K–12 education options is best, most objective professionals would say that the “jury is still out.”
It may be a more reasonable question to ask if the jury will ever be back in.
the Sausalito Marin City School District is an example of choice gone wrong —
or gone wrong at least, in appearance.
To the uninformed, the words “Sausalito” or “Marin” conjure up visions of yachts bobbing in San Francisco Bay or other examples of California wealth. Indeed, the school district is almost entirely supported by property taxes that bring about $30,000 a year for each student in the district, among the largest per-student funding levels in the state. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, average per-pupil funding for the state was $10,291 in 2016.
Substantial funding does not always equal equitable choices. In Marin City, the K–8 Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy has long struggled academically. In response to demand for better options, the district funded the Willow Creek Academy (WCA) in Sausalito, a much wealthier community.
In short order, the superintendent of schools resigned. Once known for his strong support of charter schools, he had run afoul of laws in another part of the state. Some members of the school board, responsible for funding decisions, had children enrolled in WCA. While WCA thrived, Bayside declined.
There weren’t enough books at Bayside and the school relied on only part-time instructors for science, visual arts, music and physical education.
Bayside students are predominantly people of color, with as many as 80 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. WCA is both whiter and wealthier.
Charges began to fly regarding conflicts of interest and a funding advantage given to WCA based on school board decisions.
In March of 2016, the state of California’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) was brought in to study possible inequities.
The examination brought a report of more than 100 pages that was vigorously contested by the school board, a group serving as “at-large” elected members. FCMAT noted that at-large elections often result in unfair minority representation.
In short, the FCMAT report stated:
“The majority of the district’s governing board members are closely allied with the board of WCA. Documents reviewed and individuals interviewed, including one governing board member, indicate that those involved in the leadership and promotion of WCA ensured the election of, and exercise control over, the majority of members of the district’s governing board. Thus, the majority of governing board members are beholden to those whose primary interest is the well-being of WCA. This is a clear detriment to the students at Bayside MLK. Interviews and a review of governing board meeting minutes confirm that the district’s governing board is more supportive of WCA than of the district’s own school.”
Civil engagement opportunity
Are we making evidenced-based decisions about choice OR letting bias guide our conclusions?
The good news is that there are education professionals establishing mechanisms for real, equitable choice.
Fuller sees Los Angeles possibly going to a uniform application system, whereby a parent would go online to view options for charter schools, private schools, magnet schools and traditional public schools and make three or four applications.
He is also well aware of children left behind at failing schools in the rush to new choices. “We don’t have very good data about what happens to the kid left behind in traditional public schools,” Fuller said. “We kind of know that unbalanced charters are probably a little more effective than regular public schools on average, but we don’t have much data about the kid left behind.”