Public Choices

Public Choices

The traditional way for parents to determine which public school their children will attend is as simple as looking at a map. Find a student's home address, and see which district and school attendance area the home is in — the closest one, usually. Administrators can assign a student quickly to the right campus.

But in some cases, what is the right campus from the perspective of school district planners is not the one desired by students or their parents. Under a system of rigid attendance boundaries, school choice for most families consists of either enrolling children in the public school to which they are assigned, or paying tuition to have them attend religious or non-religious private schools.

As school systems have embraced education reforms in recent years, some institutions have tried to be more responsive to parents' wishes and offer students more attendance options. Most states now allow the formation of charter schools that students can attend instead of their assigned public school. Some districts allow students to attend facilities outside their assigned attendance areas, or even beyond district borders. In a few jurisdictions, parents may be eligible to receive vouchers that provide public funds to cover the cost of attending private schools.

Giving more attendance choices is meant to benefit students and their families, but it also can make it more difficult for school systems to accurately predict future enrollment and anticipate space needs. When enough students leave behind their assigned schools, empty desks become empty classrooms, and once-bustling school buildings become underutilized and inefficient delivery systems for education.

To survive in this more competitive environment, public schools have to be even more vigilant about providing high-quality instruction. A key component in that strategy is having educational facilities that are safe, healthful, aesthetically appealing and conducive to learning.

Options increase

States and school districts have created several ways to offer parents a greater say in which public school their children attend. Intradistrict choice allows students to enroll in schools within their district, including charter and magnet schools, other than the one to which they are assigned. Interdistrict choice permits students to attend schools outside their districts without additional cost to their parents. In a few areas, voucher programs provide public funds to parents that enable students to pay to attend private schools. Some jurisdictions have established virtual schools, where students study lessons and complete assignments online. Many parents opt for none of these and choose to home-school their children.

The result? Since the early 1990s, the percentage of students enrolled in their assigned public elementary and secondary schools has been dropping. According to a National Center for Education Statistics 2006 survey, “Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003,” 80 percent of school-age children in 1993 attended the school to which they were assigned; by 2003, only 74 percent were attending their assigned school.

Where are they going instead? Many more are enrolling in public schools they choose; the percentage of students enrolled in chosen public schools rose from 11 percent in 1993 to 15 percent in 2003. Non-church-related private school enrollment also is attracting a higher percentage of students: 2.4 percent in 2003 compared with 1.6 percent in 1993. Enrollment in church-related private schools remained steady; in both 1993 and 2003, it accounted for 8 percent of student enrollment. Although the survey questions did not include a measurement of home schooling, the report says that an estimated 1.1 million students were being home-schooled in 2003.

Elementary students in 2003 were more likely than high school and middle school students to be in chosen public schools — 17 percent of students in grades 1 to 5, 15 percent in grades 6 to 8, and 14 percent in grades 9 to 12.

The percentage of students from low-income families attending chosen public schools increased from 1993 to 2003; 18 percent of students living below the poverty level attended chosen public schools in 2003 compared with 14 percent in 1993.

The survey found that the parents of students enrolled in assigned public schools were in general less satisfied with their children's schools than parents of students in chosen public schools or private schools.

The survey also indicates that the availability of public school choice varies widely by region. In the West, 61 percent of parents say public school choice was available to them; in the Northeast, only 39 percent of the parents said so. In the South, the percentage was 47 percent, and in the Midwest, 58 percent.

The degree of choice available affects families' housing decisions, the survey found. Parents of students who attend assigned public schools are more likely to move to a neighborhood so they can attend a particular school; 28 percent of those parents said they moved to a neighborhood because of a school, compared with 19 percent of parents whose children attend a chosen public school.

Going by charter

The most prominent path for giving students and parents greater school choice is the formation of charter schools. These are public schools that are freed from many of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. The rules governing their formation, funding and operation vary widely from state to state, but since the first charter school opened in 1993 in Minnesota, 40 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing some form of charter schools.

Some states and Washington, D.C., also have expanded school choice with voucher programs (see sidebar, p. 20) but those have been less popular than charter schools because of concerns that public funds would be diverted to private schools.

Charter schools finesse the separation between private and public schools by offering some of the operating freedom of private schools while staying under the aegis of the public school system.

In 2006-07, the Center for School Reform reports, the number of charter schools in the United States grew by more than 10 percent. Some 381 charter schools opened for the first time in 2006-07, bringing the nationwide total to 3,977. The center says that about 1.15 million students are enrolled in charters.

But the boom in charters inevitably is accompanied by decreased enrollment in traditional public schools. For school systems, it has meant closing or consolidating facilities and realigning programs to cope with the enrollment decline and the accompanying loss of funding.

In the Kansas City, Mo., district, more than 6,000 of the district's 32,000 students are enrolled in charter schools, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Some of the charters are in facilities that had been traditional public schools; still, the exodus from traditional schools has left the Kansas City district with more schools than it can operate efficiently.

Superintendent Anthony Amato has proposed a consolidation plan that gradually would eliminate middle schools in the Kansas City district, and move the middle school grades to schools with a preK-8 configuration. The preK-8 setup would enable the district to use its facilities more efficiently, and it would bring other potential benefits, Amato says.

Among those: fewer transitions between schools; improved attendance and achievement; fewer discipline problems; better curriculum articulation; increased parental involvement; longer-term relationships with teachers; and students having the same school schedule as younger siblings.

Choosing to leave

Like Kansas City, the Detroit district has watched its enrollment decline, but as a larger district, the drop has been more dramatic and devastating. Years of poor performance and population declines, combined with the escape hatches that charter schools and student-choice provisions offer, have led to a persistent and devastating drain on student enrollment in the Detroit district.

In the midst of the baby boom 40 years ago, the system had 299,000 students. Although still one of the larger districts in the nation, the number of students in Detroit's traditional public schools has declined steadily. That long-term trend accelerated in the fall of 2006, when a teacher strike shut down schools for 16 days and convinced thousands more students and their families that they would be better off attending non-district schools.

By the beginning of 2007, the Detroit district reported having less than 120,000 students in its schools. The capacity of those school buildings was 180,000 students.

An analysis by The Detroit News found that about one-third of the students living in the city were attending charter schools or public schools in the suburbs.

“The district operates too many buildings for the number of students enrolled,” Detroit's 2007 preliminary facilities realignment plan acknowledges. “The school system has 60,000 fewer students than it did 10 years ago, but in that time has closed only about 30 buildings.”

District projections show the enrollment declines will continue; the system estimates that by 2011, its schools will have less than 70,000 students.

This dire scenario led to a painful recommendation in the realignment plan. Administrators proposed closing dozens of schools in the next two years. The criteria used in deciding which schools to close were usage and operational efficiency, facility condition, educational adequacy, enrollment trends and academic success.

The initial proposal called for 52 buildings to be closed over two years. The district estimated that after absorbing one-time costs of shutting down facilities, modifying schools remaining open and moving materials, the closings would result in a net savings of about $17 million a year.

District officials are optimistic that operating a leaner school system will enable them to improve educational programs by upgrading technology, replicating effective programs, establishing more K-8 schools and offering more electives for students in middle and high school grades.

Officials acknowledged that the closings would be traumatic for the city; if it weren't so difficult, more schools probably would have been shut down by now.

“Closing school buildings is a painful process for students, staff and communities that leave everyone feeling devastated and without hope,” the realignment plan concludes. “That is probably why the district has been unable to adequately deal with its current state of overcapacity. Nevertheless, closing school buildings has become a necessity.”

But it's a necessity the school board is having a hard time accepting. After public hearings, a slim majority of the school board decided even the scaled-down proposal would be too traumatic for the city; it rejected the recommendation by a vote of 6 to 5. Two weeks later, the board voted to close 34 schools by fall 2007. It targeted another eight schools for closing in 2008 if enrollment and performance do not improve.

The facilities advantage

The pros and cons of charter schools can be the subject of lively debates, but one area in which charter schools usually get the short end of the stick is facilities.

In many jurisdictions, the typical financial arrangement for a charter school is that it receives the per-pupil operational funding that would have gone to a traditional public school; however, money for facilities usually is not provided.

Because a charter school is an unknown quantity when it is created, its survival is less than assured. School districts typically pay for school construction with bonds paid back over 20 years; the odds are pretty good that the district will be around long enough to pay off the construction debt. The same can't be said for a charter school.

Without the ability to win voter authorization for bonds or the authority to borrow funds, charter schools looking for a home have to rely either on deep-pocketed donors who can underwrite construction of a facility, or take what they can find — surplus schoolhouses vacated by shrinking public school systems, rented storefronts or other makeshift spaces that can function as classrooms.

At Hospitality High School in Washington, D.C., which has been renting space in a downtown office building, the desire for a more appropriate and permanent educational space has prompted the charter school to ask to become part of the District of Columbia public school system.

The school, which received its charter in 1998 and prepares students for careers in the hotel and restaurant industry, will relinquish its charter and become part of the school district for the 2007-08 school year. Plans call for the specialized high school to be situated on one floor of an underused high school.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Vouchers in Utah

The state of Utah has enacted what many are calling the nation's most sweeping school voucher program.

Signed into law in February by Gov. Jon Huntsman, the program will provide between $500 and $3,000 in public funds for private school tuition. Unlike other voucher programs, it is not limited to low-income students; all public school students (and incoming kindergartners) are eligible, as well as low-income students already attending private schools.

The legislature has allocated $93 million for vouchers in 2007-08 and $12.4 million the following school year.

Opponents of the law, led by Utahns for Public Schools, are mounting a petition drive that would put the voucher proposal to a public statewide vote.

Voucher advocates in Washington, D.C., say that the program established there three years ago has been a success.

About 1,800 students from the District of Columbia are attending private schools this year with the aid of federally funded vouchers. The so-called Opportunity Scholarships provide students' families as much as $7,500 a year to cover tuition costs at private schools.

The Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the program, says that students benefiting from vouchers are attending 58 different schools. To be eligible for the voucher program, a student's family must have an income no higher than 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($35,798 for a family of four).

Higher competition

At the K-12 level, charter schools, expanded attendance choices and private school vouchers have added new levels of competition for public schools. But in higher education, private colleges and universities historically have commanded a significant slice of the post-secondary market.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the United States had 6,600 Title IV higher education institutions in fall 2005; 2,035 were public institutions; 1,912 were private not-for-profit schools; and 2,653 were private for-profit schools. For the 4,263 degree-granting schools, the breakdown was 1,690 public institutions; 1,643 private not-for-profit schools and 930 private for-profit schools.

Public institutions have a price advantage over private schools; average tuition and fees are substantially lower at public universities. The College Board's “Trends in College Pricing 2006” found that the average 2006-07 cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a private four-year institution was $30,367; at a four-year public institution, the average 2006-07 outlay was $12,796.

Consequently, an overwhelming majority of students attend public colleges and universities. According to The College Board's 2004-05 numbers, 35 percent of undergraduate students (28 percent full-time and 7 percent part-time) attended four-year public institutions, and 41 percent (16 percent full-time and 25 percent part-time) attended public two-year colleges. Not-for-profit private four-year colleges accounted for 16 percent of undergraduate students (13 percent full-time and 3 percent part-time).

Those percentages are similar to what they were in 1996-97. One significant change is that in 2004-05, 6 percent of undergraduate students attended for-profit colleges, compared with 3 percent in 1996-97.

The average full-time student at a four-year private college receives about $9,000 in aid; a student at a four-year public college gets an average of about $3,100 in aid.

Despite their lower tuitions, public colleges have fallen behind in their ability to pay professors salaries similar to those in comparable private institutions, The College Board found.

“Through the 1980s, salaries of full professors in public comprehensive universities were comparable to those in private comprehensive universities,” the report states. “Between 1989 and 2005, public faculty salaries fell from 100 to 89 percent of private faculty salaries.”

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