April 20 2012

Empowering Parents, not Government Meddling, Improves Schools

Vicki E. Alger

A new report from the Brookings Institution confirms what most of us know: low-income students are disproportionately enrolled in low-performing schools—something decades of government programs, busing, and more money was supposed to fix.

The report looked at national and metropolitan data on public school populations and state standardized test scores for 84,077 schools in 2010 and 2011. The data revealed that the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams. In contrast, the average middle- and high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams. The report recommends revising housing policies that “prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools in order to promote individual social mobility and broader economic security.”

Government meddling in the housing market, however, will likely be as effective as the government running schools. The problem is poor school performance, and giving options to all students—regardless of their parents’ income or address—is the solution. The reason is that by decoupling where children go to school from where their parents can afford to live would force schools to compete for students and their education dollars.

But there’s an uncomfortable reality many policy makers, parents, and others may not want to face: poor public-school school performance is not limited to poor neighborhoods.

My former colleague Lance Izumi and I did an extensive analysis of California public schools and found that parents are going broke paying mortgages in tony neighborhoods with supposedly “good” public schools. In hundreds of affluent California public schools enrolling few low-income students, a majority of students across grade levels did not score proficient in reading or math on the state standards test. In far too many cases the good middle-class school turned out to be a myth. But this problem isn’t limited to California.

A quick review of math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, reveals that a majority of non-poor students (those not eligible for free- and reduced-price school meals) are not proficient in reading or math by eighth grade. From 2003 through 2011, math and reading performance has improved slightly overall among middle- and upper-income students; however, as of 2011 barely half of fourth and eighth grade girls are proficient in reading. By grade eight, not even 40 percent of boys are proficient in reading. In math, a majority of fourth grade boys and girls are proficient, dropping to less than half for each by grade eight.

Available research indicates that simply letting parents pick their children’s schools works:

 

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