Here is what the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington pronounces on its website as the heart of “portfolio school reform”:
“A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.”
New Orleans is one of the Center’s prime examples of the implementation of the “portfolio” theory it has been promoting. Reorganized by the state after Hurricane Katrina—with financial support from the federal government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other philanthropies—the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) has progressively closed all of its traditional public neighborhood schools and replaced them with privately operated charter schools. As of the fall of 2014, the district will now be fully charterized. All parents and guardians must now select a prioritized short-list of schools from the array of options, file an application through what has, thankfully, finally become a centralized process, and wait to see where their child is accepted.
Except that the application process doesn’t seem to be working very well. It seems in a lot of cases that parents are struggling to get their child into the school that seems to them “the best fit for their child.” The mess that happened in the application process on Wednesday, as reported by Danielle Dreilinger for the Times-Picayune, raises an essential question about the theory of school choice: Is it possible to ensure that all children can select into a school that is the best fit for them when school placement is based on competition, a competition that will inevitably have winners and losers?
Dreilinger reports: “New Orleans public school enrollment faltered badly Wednesday when hundreds of parents arrived at the lone resource center to sign up their children—only to be turned away for lack of staff to help them. It was an embarrassing fiasco for an enrollment process that has received national praise and aims to make life easier for families.”
Here is the history of the school application process in New Orleans in recent years, according to Dreilinger: “New Orleans has had a decentralized education system since after Hurricane Katrina… There are no default assignments to a neighborhood school; all families must choose where to go. For the first several years, that meant a tiring scavenger hunt of dropping off applications at individual schools. Starting in the winter of 2012, the Recovery School District began to centralize the process through OneApp…. Taking enrollment out of the hands of individual charter groups or schools is designed to ensure there’s no funny business and to lessen the work for parents.”
The process begins in the winter, and this year approximately 11,000 students applied and were placed in a school. If families are unhappy with their child’s placement or if they have recently moved to the district and didn’t have a chance to participate last winter, families were invited on Wednesday to come to the summer parent center set up to help them search for their child’s school for this coming fall. The school district expected 300 applicants on Wednesday, but the center was overwhelmed when over 800 parents showed up, many arriving before 6 AM. The enrollment center opened at 7:30 AM, but closed at 11 AM when the small staff became overwhelmed with the number of applicants.
Bilingual counselors, who brought new immigrant parents unfamiliar with English to the enrollment center to help them with the application process, complained that their clients were not served despite the appointments that had been arranged by their translators. Said one counselor, “I spoke to an RSD employee (who) assured me that when I brought my families, they would be able to support. And now that we’re here, they’re telling us we need to turn around.”
A primary challenge with an “all-choice” system is that charter schools can each set enrollment caps, unlike traditional neighborhood schools that are required to accommodate all children living in a prescribed attendance area. Families seeking a different placement than the one to which their children were assigned have few options by early July. The spaces from which families new to the district can choose are by now extremely limited.
School districts that are organized traditionally with assigned attendance zones do not promise a perfect fit for every child. The assumption has been that it is the responsibility of well-qualified teachers to learn to know the children and to address each child’s needs in the context of the needs of the other children who attend the school. And of course school districts are required to provide targeted services for children with defined special needs. Traditional public schools are organized systematically to balance the needs of each particular child and family with services that secure the rights and address the needs of the children across the community.
School districts like New Orleans that have moved to universal school choice depend on the parents to drive school improvement through market selection of the schools they prefer. Critics in New Orleans have been pointing out, however, that overall school improvement does not seem to have been the result of the plan based on school choice. Among the critics is Mike Deshotels, a retired Louisiana high school science teacher who recently concluded: “The Louisiana Department of Education has just released the results of the state accountability testing called LEAP and ILEAP for the S;ring of 2014… The latest state testing results in this official LDOE report now rank the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance. By the state’s own calculations, this means that 83 percent of the state’s school districts provide their students a better opportunity for learning than do the schools in New Orleans that were taken over and converted into charter schools.”