A Mary­land primer on school choice

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Nancy S. Gras­mick Nancy S. Gras­mick is a pres­i­den­tial scholar at Tow­son Uni­ver­sity and a for­mer Mary­land su­per­in­ten­dent of schools. Her email is ngras­mick@tow­son.edu.

One ed­u­ca­tion is­sue, school choice, took a prom­i­nent place dur­ing this elec­tion year de­bate. But what ex­actly is school choice, and can it be im­ple­mented in a way that is ben­e­fi­cial to all stu­dents, ed­u­ca­tors and com­mu­ni­ties? Mary­land is of­ten called “Amer­ica in Minia­ture.” Mary­land’s ex­pe­ri­ence with school choice might pro­vide a primer for the rest of the na­tion.

Mary­land has had a long his­tory with hold­ing schools ac­count­able for stu­dent achieve­ment. Over two decades ago, Mary­land, and then the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, be­gan man­dat­ing school op­tions for stu­dents in low-per­form­ing schools. For ex­am­ple, un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, par­ents were given the choice to trans­fer their chil­dren to higher-per­form­ing schools. While one might think this would be an at­trac­tive op­por­tu­nity for par­ents, very few trans­fers were re­quested. The re­al­ity was that par­ents sought to keep their chil­dren in their neigh­bor­hood school, of­ten the same school the par­ents at­tended. Par­ents were un­will­ing to have their chil­dren, es­pe­cially el­e­men­tary school-age chil­dren, trans­ported to other neigh­bor­hoods. Safety was a main con­cern. In Mary­land’s ur­ban dis­tricts, par­ents have sup­ported strength­en­ing com­mu­nity schools and open­ing char­ter schools as bet­ter choice op­tions.

In Mary­land, char­ter schools are pub­lic schools that are typ­i­cally op­er­ated by third par­ties. Char­ter schools are given au­thor­ity to im­ple­ment in­no­va­tive pro­grams and teach­ing meth­ods. Most char­ter schools are open to all stu­dents, of­ten through a lot­tery sys­tem. The most suc­cess­ful char­ter schools are those that have grass-roots par­ent in­volve­ment, are able to in­still a strong school cul­ture that is em­braced by stu­dents, teach­ers, fam­i­lies and part­ners, and pro­vide ex­panded learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Mary­land has over 50 char­ter schools, the ma­jor­ity of which are el­e­men­tary/mid­dle schools.

Char­ter schools at the high school level face chal­lenges. Across the na­tion, char­ter high schools are of­ten less at­trac­tive to stu­dents be­cause they are less likely to be able to pro­vide the va­ri­ety of aca­demic pro­grams and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ath­letic and fine arts pro­grams avail­able in most large com­pre­hen­sive pub­lic high schools. For high school stu­dents, mag­net pro­grams show greater prom­ise. Mag­net schools are pub­lic schools that have spe­cial­ized pro­grams em­pha­siz­ing a con­sis­tent theme, cur­ricu­lum or method of teach­ing. Mag­net schools pro­vide stu­dents with choice be­yond their zoned schools. In Mary­land, the most suc­cess­ful mag­net pro­grams have been those that set high ad­mis­sion stan­dards and re­quire com­pe­ti­tion for en­roll­ment. Schools for the arts and the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate pro­grams are per­haps the best known, and most suc­cess­ful type of th­ese mag­net pro­grams. How­ever, th­ese pro­grams are not avail­able to ev­ery stu­dent.

Another type of mag­net school is the “themed” high school. Th­ese schools at­tract stu­dents with in­ter­ests in a par­tic­u­lar con­tent area such as health sciences, STEM, law and law en­force­ment, or the de­sign arts. Th­ese schools are smaller pub­lic high schools, or a school within a school, that serve in­ter­ested stu­dents on a first-come, first-served ba­sis. Be­cause th­ese schools pro­vide stu­dents with op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­plore their in­ter­ests, themed schools re­port in­creased at­ten­dance and grad­u­a­tion rates, and de­creased dis­ci­plinary in­stances. How­ever, stu­dent achieve­ment re­sults are mixed. The most suc­cess­ful themed schools in­fuse their theme into ev­ery aca­demic course. When teach­ers are con­tent rich in the theme and able to adapt to a non­tra­di­tional cur­ricu­lum, stu­dent achieve­ment rises.

In re­cent years, states have also be­gun to ad­min­is­ter op­por­tu­nity schol­ar­ship tax credit pro­grams. Th­ese pro­grams al­low in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions to al­lo­cate a por­tion of their owed state taxes to pri­vate non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that is­sue schol­ar­ships to K-12 stu­dents. The schol­ar­ship al­lows a stu­dent to choose among a list of non-pub­lic schools, and some­times pub­lic schools out­side of the dis­trict. Mary­land ad­min­is­ters a “BOOST” pro­gram that works with an ad­vi­sory board to al­lo­cate up to $5 mil­lion to pro­vide schol­ar­ships for eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents to at­tend non-pub­lic schools. In its first year, it is too early to de­ter­mine whether this pro­gram will have a positive im­pact on stu­dent achieve­ment.

Sev­eral states have adopted voucher pro­grams. Th­ese pro­grams al­low eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged fam­i­lies to have a por­tion of a non-pub­lic school’s tu­ition covered by state funds. Th­ese pro­grams are not open to all stu­dents and are lim­ited by the num­ber of seats avail­able in the non-pub­lic schools. Mary­land does not fund typ­i­cal school vouch­ers.

As you can see, school choice cov­ers much ground. In­stead of man­dat­ing a “one-size-fits-all ap­proach,” stu­dents are best served when states and lo­cal school dis­tricts work col­lab­o­ra­tively to se­lect and im­ple­ment the choice op­tions that work best for their stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ties. I hope Mary­land will con­tinue to take this thought­ful ap­proach.

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