Friday, November 15, 2013
How One School District Bucks Trends in School Choice While Replicating Old Mistakes (And Still Seems to Come Out on Top)
Earlier this week, the Greenville County Schools in South Carolina made a change to their school choice policy, moving from a first come first serve basis to a lottery. The school system may not ring a bell to many, but Greenville has both historical and growning modern significance. For instance, it was the locus of desegregation sit-ins during the 1960s that led to a Supreme Court decision. Today, it attracts national recognition for its quality of life and economic vibrancy. It is regularly listed among the top 10 fastest growing cities in the country and among the top 10 strongest job markets. Several multinational businesses, including BMW and Caterpillar, have set headquarters or major facilities there.
The quality and attractiveness of the school system is necessarily part of this mix. The school district assigns every student to a school based on neighborhood zones, but offers every family the opportunity to transfer out of their neighborhood school. About 18 or so percent of families have opted for schools other than those in their neighborhood. Prior to this year, parents literally had to stand in line at the school of their choice and transfer were accepted on a first come first serve basis. Local news likened it to Black Friday at Best Buy. Some parents would camp out over the weekend to increase their children's chances. Last year, in Best Buy fashion, the first come first serve process resulted in a physical injury to one parent.
This year the board began debating options. Substantial numbers of parents preferred the old system. Why not give the seats to the most eager and committed, they charged. My suspicion is that those with that opinion were disproportionately represented at the school board hearings. Those who can stand in line for enrollment are also those most likely to have the time and ability to go to school board meetings. This skewed voicing of opinions almost resulted in the district retaining its old policy. Better judgment prevailed and the new policy requires parents who wish to transfer to identify three preferred schools. Admissions are then granted on a lottery basis.
After digging at the details, a few unusual facts struck me. First, the old system is the exact type that in the past has perpetuated segregation and inequality. It incentivizes flight from minority schools and flight from underachieving schools, but tends to only give refuge to the advantaged. But based on what I saw in the data, the choice plan was not obviously having this effect, maybe because the African American and Latino population in total is only 25% of the district and the incentives for racial flight are not as high. Maybe, the district is working some other magic. I suspect it is.
Second, families choose to transfer out of schools that would otherwise be characterized as good. The district's explanation is that parents are basing transfers on legitimate concerns like commutes, after-care, proximity to the parent's workplace, etc.
Third, the schools with the highest percentages of African American students tended to have the highest waitlists. Based on historical patterns, I doubt that this is because people are fleeing to African American schools. My assumption is that these schools either had fewer available openings to begin with, they are geographically desirable, or they are just among the better schools. Regardless, race is not having it normally substantial impact.
None of this is to say that Greenville is a model. Parents are responsible for transportation when they transfer, which tends to have substantial socio-economic and racial impacts. In addition, the lottery is completely blind, which from an equity standpoint is problematic. Consider that students from good schools can randomly gain admission to a school of choice over another student with special needs or a student coming from a failing school. For this reason, a blind lottery foregoes the possibility of balancing schools in various important ways.
Despite these flaws, Greeneville has gotten some other important things exactly right. It has somehow fostered an open lottery system whereby choice is often being sought for legitimate rather than illegitimate reasons. Equally important, it has increased capacity in all of its schools so that choice are available. Every school has a substantiall number of available slots for transfers. Finally, the district has gotten people excited about their schools, gauranteed options, and made its school system attractive to business considering locating there. While the story of choice is different in every locality, this one likely warrants special attention and research.