Shopping is the American way.  So where it’s available, the new freedom to choose among public-school options – charters, magnets, cross-district programs – has been a huge relief to some [...]

Shopping is the American way.  So where it’s available, the new freedom to choose among public-school options – charters, magnets, cross-district programs – has been a huge relief to some low-income families.  All families should educate themselves about schools and decide which is right for each child.  To boot, making informed decisions for their children has gotten lots of parents more involved with their kids’ education.

The “school-choice” movement is promising for schools and families alike.

Mind you, research shows that apart from a few truly great schools, the choice movement hasn’t boosted academic performance overall.  Charter schools, for example, have roughly the same range of good, bad and indifferent as regular district schools.

But for now, it’s fabulous that more lucky parents are as satisfied and engaged in their child’s learning as the private-school and affluent parents are.

The movie Waiting for Superman shows us two kinds of low-income families.  With great excitement we see the hopefuls whose kids are chosen by lottery and have our hearts broken by those who aren’t.

But a third group of kids desperately needs our attention.  They are growing up with adult caretakers who will not or can not manage even the simplest application process, not even filling out a preference sheet among district schools.  School choice is way down on their priority list, trumped by poverty, unmet health or mental health needs, and so on.

So an unintended consequence of the otherwise-terrific choice movement is that some of the toughest kids to educate are left behind in certain regular public schools – in increasingly high concentrations.

Take Denny’s family, for example.  When Denny was little, and already his mother’s fourth child, he went to live with his father’s family in another country.  When Dad disappeared – not even Denny knows what happened to him – his family sent the boy back to his biological mother.  At that point, Denny was an early adolescent whose schooling to date has been intermittent at best.  In the interim, Mom had several more children and resents adding a surly stranger to her stressed household.  Mom and Denny fight ferociously.

Denny has no use for Algebra 1, never mind the Lewis and Clark expedition.  He’s a pain to have in school.  The staff spends tons of time figuring out how to keep his disruptive behavior from wrecking his own learning and the learning of other students from similarly chaotic backgrounds.  Many students have Moms – or grandmothers, aunts, caretakers – who have no idea what school options are available and would only sign an application if you filled it out for them and maybe paid the electric bill.

Denny’s school is in a low-income area with a number of charters schools available.  Charter staff will tell you their kids’ families have no shortage of problems, which is true.  But let’s call those families at least “application-ready.”  To a scary extent, Denny’s district school is increasingly concentrated with application-challenged families.  I know the school is knocking itself out to serve its students, but the application-ready families want their kids away from this concentration of tough kids.

District schools are the default for families on the move.  Charters, magnets and cross-district programs have long waiting lists determined by lotteries held one day a year.  If a student leaves a choice school, their coveted spot goes to the next kid on the long list.  Even if they wanted to, choice schools can’t take the family recently arrived from Puerto Rico.  They can’t take the children of a newly-divorced mom or those forced to move to cheaper housing because the breadwinner got laid off.

Those kids are absorbed into district schools, mid-year, as strangers to the other kids.  The teachers must keep the class going at the same time as catching up the newbies.

Federal and state accountability systems do not adjust for concentrations of application-challenged families.  No matter how heroic the district staff might be, odds are that they will be sucker-punched with a negative rating of their school, publicly broadcast for all to see.  But these schools are being scapegoated for social problems made worse by the unintended consequences of an otherwise-good idea, school choice.

You can’t blame teachers for trying to find jobs in schools where the kids are not radioactive with challenge.

One day, in a happier future, let’s hope that all families have so many good school options that every one of them makes active choices.  Outreach programs help them choose. And then, if a family fails to fill out an application or preference sheet, a red flag goes up, indicating possible domestic distress.  Social services goes out to visit the home and gently offers help.

But in the meantime, states need to look long and hard at their reform strategies.  Hard-to-reach families must be integrated into the benefits of the choice movement.

Or if we’re going to concentrate the Dennys of this world into certain schools, they should be showered with help for what is essentially a special special-needs population, made more difficult by segregation.

But at the end of the day, we can’t be bananas about holding schools accountable for academic success without also helping families so we can hold them accountable too.  I believe all parents want to be good parents, but millions of them don’t know how.  Why are we talking so much about schools and so little about them?  Shouldn’t we be helping all families to become healthy, independent, and good school shoppers?

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years.  She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative.  She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com.


  1. Wendy Komancheck

    Julie, again, you hit the nail on the head! Thank you for another great article–even though, I don’t hold out much hope for challenged families to become healthy.

    To argue a point, how many of these distressed families want to change–if given the opportunity for learning how to parent better and to learn how to fill out a school application versus just giving up and giving into the repeated cycle of dysfunction and relying on the system?

  2. Miriam Kurtzig Freedman

    Great article. We’ve always known that, with choice options, some children will be left behind in schools that have a concentration of needs. This piece states the case well. With school choice, which Steiny supports, come unintended consequences.

    However, I have two concerns with the piece.
    First–she suggests that states do something about this issue. And I say, where is the notion that parents, too, have a responsibility. At what point does their role come to play? In this piece, Denny’s mother and father should have a job to do to help Denny at school and, if they choose, to help Denny apply to a school choice option. They can’t. They won’t. They don’t–and the piece says nothing about that. Just about the state doing something. I don’t believe that getting more programs by states is the answer. It’s time to tackle the issue at home.
    Second- I am saddened that the analogy chosen here is to ‘shopping.’ Shopping is the American way and parents now shop for schools–so it says. A major concern that many of us have about schools is that they are now in the consumer business. The customer is always right. Please the customer, etc. It’s a problem. “Hey, I sent my child here and he’s not getting a C. I want him to have a B or an A.” Teachers now have to educate kids but also please parents as consumers–not as partners in education. Let’s change the analogy please!

  3. MOMwithAbrain

    Let’s face it, political policies have helped to destroy the family and the public schools are supposed to, I guess, fill in that gap.

    What is missing is the fact that adding competition can make the public schools better. Let’s face it, they can’t get much worse as a monopoly right now.

    First we need to stop expecting the “state” to do the job of the parent. They will always fail. THe school needs to focus on educating and the state needs to focus on policies that reinforce the family. Family values was mocked and ridiculed only to the detriment of children.

    Until the state realizes their focus should be on policies that keep the family in tact and support the faith based organizations that offer moral guidance, we are doomed to repeating failure.

  4. Ayn Marie Samuelson

    The school choice movement leaves most children behind because of supply and demand, as well as quality issues. My son did not fit into the system, as he was a high-end achiever. Because the school district refused to step up to help, and private schools (which might not have filled the need either)were filled to capacity, I chose to home school him. Those three years were a labor of love, and the results were good.
    From my experiences as a parent and community leader, as well as some serious research into the bureaucratic education system nationwide, as noted in the book Exposing the Public Education System, I came to the conclusion that the system must be transformed to educate individual students and ensure parental and community participation in educational decision-making.

  5. Joe Nathan

    Thanks for raising important questions, Julia. A few things
    * the biggest government supported school choice program is what we call “suburbs.” Families with the financial means are allowed to move to suburbs and enjoy significant tax benefits – deduction of often substantial property taxes and deduction of interest on house payments, both from taxable income. This tax benefit is not enjoyed by low income families that rent (many of whom are live in inner cities.

    * Your briefly allude to “magnet” schools. Federal research some years ago found that more than half of the secondary magnets and more than half of the elementary magnets used admissions tests. These often screen out students from the families you cite.

    * While some charters have waiting lists, many do not. There are many charters around the country that serve precisely the population that you are asking about. According to interviews (unpublished) that I have done with some charter schools students, some of them have been “encouraged” by district school employees to attend charter because district schools id not want them. These youngsters come from the families that you describe.

    Thanks for considering these points.

  6. tim-10-ber

    I don’t think we can wait for the state to act or families to act…if they could have I believe the families would have…the state on the other hand is cold, uncaring inanimate object…

    this leaves the burden to the schools and the community…the schools these kids attend need to be different…no grades, opted out of NCLB for a while (at least formally), attention given to basic needs and basic education regardless of age…

    Once the kids have mastered the basics (these are not dumb kids) then individually assess them and see where they go…a bid picture type high school where they work and are in school? a pure voc-tech program so they can leave high school with skills to get them an above (well above) minimum wage job, etc.

    Choice is awesome…choice needs to be available to all…this does not mean the choices available are the same for all kids..

    This I believe is the role of education…reach out to the community to get the rest of the non-school needs met (there are organizations that do this 24/7) and let the schools focus on education…

    Great column…

  7. Kellie

    BRAVO! Well said! Many families are at a loss in how to help their children. I believe that they want more for their kids than they can give. Where do they turn? Even the most influential families have to stop and think about all the forms to fill out college applications. Many families don’t even consider college because 1) they can’t afford it, and 2) They don’t know where to begin in getting financial help. The community has to start being proactive in assisting families in all areas. Why should a child be punished due to their families inability to help in their lives. Someone needs to help support them and their families.

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June 9th, 2011

Julia Steiny Columnist EducationNews.org

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