It’s National School Choice Week

Except, Kentucky isn’t a player

This week parents, students and schools around the country are celebrating National School Choice Week.

Except in Kentucky

Our state really doesn’t have school choice: no charter schools, no voucher programs, no special scholarships for learning disabled students to go where they can get the best support. Basically Kentucky offers nothing except for a few, ever decreasing options to send children across school district lines or to ask (with no guarantees) that a child be accepted in a magnet school (generally, only an option in our very biggest school districts).

That’s really sad. Kentucky trusts parents to find the right doctor for their children; but, our state’s leaders have convinced themselves that faceless bureaucrats – who often don’t even know the child – are somehow better equipped to mandate where a student will attend school.

There are consequences for such closed-mindedness.

About 85 percent of Kentucky’s school population is white, so it is very relevant to see what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows about how our white students compare to whites elsewhere.

In math, the answer is: not very well.

This map shows states in green where white fourth grade scores were statistically significantly higher than Kentucky’s in the latest NAEP math testing. There are a lot of states in green, including many in the South. Only two states, West Virginia and Alabama, got statistically significantly lower scores than Kentucky’s whites.

Things look even worse when we examine the eighth grade math results for whites. Now, only one state got scores that were statistically significantly lower than Kentucky’s.

Could more school choice options help improve this picture?

We hear a lot from Kentucky educators that parents are not engaged in their children’s schools. I think there is something to that, but there are reasons for parent disengagement that our educators either don’t understand, or don’t want to admit.

There is evidence that a lot of Kentucky parents feel disconnected from their schools. But, consider this from the parents’ viewpoint.

Other than by moving a residence into a desired school zone, an expensive proposition for some, parents everywhere in this state have virtually no ability to change where their child goes to school.

In Louisville, parents don’t even get the choice-by-real-estate-selection option. This option has been overruled as faceless bureaucrats dictate to parents where their kids will attend school, even if that school winds up being over 25 miles away. It’s a ‘no-brainer.’ Louisville parents living so far from their children’s school have limited opportunities, in many cases, to do anything meaningful in their child’s school.

Aside from limited or no ability to choose a school, parents across Kentucky have no real say about what happens in their child’s school.

Schools in Kentucky are ruled by School Based Decision Making Councils or SBDM. Those councils are firmly controlled by teachers and the school principal. Although two parents do serve on each council, they always have only a minority vote and cannot prevail in any decision.

The usually very low parent turnout for SBDM parent member elections provides stark testimony that parents are not fired up about this mirage of parent control in schools.

For example, consider the latest data for the highly selective Dupont Manual magnet high school in Louisville. The school’s 2008-2009 Report Card (get from menus here) shows that a grand total of 28 parents voted for the parent SBDM members in that school term. The school enrolled 1,870 students that year (Data from the ‘Growth Factor Ethnicity Report for School Year ending 09’ from Kentucky Department of Education, not available on line). Only 28 of the parents showed up to vote for SBDM representatives. Even if each student only has one parent, that would be a voting percentage of just 1.5 percent.

Basically, with the SBDM scheme, schools are run at the convenience of the staff, not parents or students. Even the locally elected school board cannot override the SBDM on most important matters. It’s not the kind of situation to encourage parent involvement, and the results are almost inevitable.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Right now, the Kentucky Senate has already passed Senate Bill 3, which will allow charter schools to form in Kentucky and will also permit parents to choose to send their child to the closest neighborhood school (a right currently denied by those faceless bureaucrats in Louisville). These charter schools would not have to follow some of the parent-restricting rules such as bureaucrats selecting schools and mandatory, teacher-dominated SBDM governance.

By creating parent choices, parents will have to get more involved in their student’s schooling. That can’t help but improve the sorts of statistics shown on the maps above.