As a parent and educator, I am concerned with the uneven effects of Minnesota school choice options (“School choice splits suburbs into haves, have-nots,” Sept. 25).
These programs have unwittingly contributed to the challenges of urban and first-ring suburban school districts. Designed to empower parents, school choice often has destabilized poor urban communities.
While district leaders must be held to account for low performance and wide gaps in achievement among their student groups, we should also look more closely at state policies that have helped to make districts like Minneapolis a “loser” in the competition for students.
Empowering parents to choose schools is a worthy objective. However, the impact of school choice has fallen disproportionately on poor urban districts. Beyond giving parents the freedom to leave, school choice plans offered no fix for broader social factors, like poverty, that ailed many of these communities. The state’s policy finger was firmly on the side of mechanisms that equated choice with empowerment and school systems with markets — but markets are not always fair.
Studies have shown that charter schools are more likely to locate in densely populated communities, districts with high operating expenses per pupil and communities with higher levels of adult education. They tend, however, to serve fewer high-need students than nearby traditional public schools. These conditions are relevant for Minneapolis, which is now home to 29 of the state’s 164 charter schools.
Not surprisingly, Minneapolis loses a lot more students to charter schools than the state as a whole. Whereas 6 percent of the state’s student population attended charters in the last school year, almost 23 percent of Minneapolis resident students went to charter schools in the same period. The inter- and intradistrict voluntary desegregation initiative known as the Choice Is Yours has also intensified enrollment challenges for Minneapolis.
Declines in enrollments have had deleterious effects on the budget of Minneapolis Public Schools and similarly situated districts. Loss of students results in loss of revenue; loss of revenue leads to loss of programming, which in turn results in loss of students. A misguided notion holds that better fiscal management will allow Minneapolis to stem the tide of student departures because better management will lead to better student outcomes. That has not been the case.
Acute enrollment declines inevitably give rise to school closures. Minneapolis has already experienced painful rounds of closures over the past decade. The implications of school closures go beyond economic and political rhetoric; they touch on the schooling experience of children. Scholars have shown that students who have to transfer from closed schools risk losing important relationships. That is, students from closed schools have to get used to new buildings, different bus schedules and routes, as well as meeting new faculty and administrators. These transitional challenges have a negative impact on discipline, dropouts and absenteeism for all students, with students from the closed schools often bearing the greater burden.
There is no easy answer to improving schools. I am not advocating that we leave parents and kids feeling stuck in schools that do not serve their needs. I am calling for us to recognize that school choice is not a panacea or a silver bullet. Let us not only promote markets of schools, for markets have winners and losers. Let us also strive consistently to foster communities of learning where we enrich all students.
Equally important, let us put as much effort into supporting families who remain in struggling school districts as we do in empowering families to leave.
Nicola Alexander is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.