School Choice in Philadelphia: Myth to Reality

It bothers me when folks complain about a problem without offering a solution, or at least a direction for a solution. Back in August, I was guilty. I wrote “School Choice in Philadelphia is a Myth” Well, how could we turn the myth into reality?

To make amends, I have a two-pronged approach that doesn’t call for making every school a charter. The two prongs

  1. Rate schools
  2. Give transfer/charter opportunities to parents living in catchments with poorly rated schools

How should we go about rating schools? I propose a weighted three-tiered rating system. All of these evaluation criteria would be completely transparent–with results viewable by families, school and public officials. A school rating would be composed of the following:

Tier 1: Test Scores (20%): if you have spent any time reading this blog, you know that I think that reliance on test scores is a bad idea.  Reliance on test scores alone gives schools incentive to cheat. And apparently some do.  Plus, the tests themselves explain income levels better than they explain whether a school is well run or has good teachers. On the other hand, the School District of Philadelphia already has an answer to this problem–a comparison of test scores with schools in peer neighborhoods called the School Performance Index. This does not eliminate the problem of cheating or economic bias, but the relatively low weighting compared to the other criteria should balance that.

Tier 2: Independent Evaluation (40%): I propose creating an Educational Quality Assessment team. This commission would be an independent group of experienced educators formed or hired by the city/state to evaluate schools. The educators would conduct random audits of schools. Their team would visit classrooms, interview principals and teachers, review curriculur materials, and whatever else they deemed necessary to determine the quality of a school and its teachers and administrators.

Tier 3: Parent Satisfaction (40%): Let parents take tests too!  On an annual/bi-annual basis, parents would rate their school. Is the school responsive to parent concerns? Have their kids developed adequately in the past year? How does the school perform in areas of academics, discipline, extracurricular programs, special needs programs, etc.?

Which brings me to the second prong of my approach.  Today parents can enter two sets of lotteries which, like the traditional lottery, offer slim prospects of ‘winning’ a seat.  The chances of gaining a seat at a charter school are about 10-15% per school, depending on the school.  The Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) is the same–In fact, VTP is a pipe dream for many parents.  Though I have heard that it happens, I have personally never met a parent who got awarded a seat this way.  Many school officials that I have spoken with have stated that in most years they accept ZERO transfers.

I propose, simply, that families’ VTP and charter school applications be weighted by the previously calculated rating of their catchment school. Families at the worst schools should get a much greater set of alternatives than families who come from neighborhoods serviced by strong schools. Families who already have good school options would be strongly encouraged to stay at their neighborhood school, increasing neighborhood cohesiveness.  The VTP and charter school systems do not have the capacity to create a mass migration from the poorly performing schools–maybe the small migration can be used to alleviate overcrowding and actually help the poorly performing schools improve?

What do you think of this idea?  Feasibility aside, am I a complete lunatic?  Would this idea work?

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