On school choice, accountability, and equitable access

From the Field: A periodic reflection by Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee on the most important conversations happening today among state and district school leaders.

This is the right time to be having serious new conversations about school choice in America. Even before President Trump’s administration made choice a key element of its budget focus, a variety of developments have made a reckoning of the impact of choice worthwhile. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) elevated and changed the role that school choice plays in state and district plans. ESSA, which became law more than a year ago, empowers state and local education leaders with new flexibility to use school choice as part of their comprehensive strategies for improving their lowest performing schools. It also gives us occasion to look back at the growth of school choice under No Child Left Behind, the law that ESSA replaced. In particular, it allows us to ask what worked and what didn’t in the effort of the nation’s systems leaders and education entrepreneurs to dramatically improve outcomes for kids by giving them access to high-quality schools. Moreover, the federal government and legislatures, state agencies and school districts across the country are exploring a variety of policy levers for expanding school choice in ways that demand thoughtful dialogue.

Like many in the education policy world, Chiefs for Change members are having all of these conversations. And for me, what is most striking is the contrast between the theoretical nature of the conversation among education pundits and the practical reality in which these Chiefs and their states and communities are working. The reality is that most of our members are already implementing complex, varied school choice systems at scale — combinations of district schools, public charters, and in some places, private-school vouchers. The details depend on what legislatures, voters, school boards, and leaders have decided — but in so many cases, the result is a wide range of possibilities for families, a landscape that at once offers challenge and opportunity. All these leaders have grappled seriously with the question of how to assemble from that complexity a system that ensures all students have more options than a single-zoned school.

In that effort, our members increasingly are focusing on issues of accountability and equitable access. The first step is making sure all families have the information they need to make thoughtful choices. To take one example: As I’ve previously noted, under ESSA, Washington, DC, has led the way with a plan to provide clear and thoughtful summative ratings for all district and charter schools under a single accountability system. It’s groundbreaking work.

Inequities of access, where they exist, also become more glaring as choice systems grow, forcing crucial questions. To what degree should all students be able to go to all schools? What should be done about traditional schools with selection criteria? Should all schools serve all kids, regardless of a student’s proficiency level, language status, wealth, or disability? How radically do systems have to change to make a school choice system truly equitable? Our members are digging into these questions with their leadership teams, their communities, and their peers.

Our members exemplify a commitment to equitable access for all students and accountability for all schools. They continue to drive toward those mutually reinforcing goals. Denver Public Schools’ SchoolChoice process, for example, offers citywide access to public schools for any family seeking an alternative to its assigned school. The NewarkEnrolls initiative of Newark Public Schools provides the same options for families in that city. And in New Orleans, OneApp offers families choices of both public and nonpublic schools, while the state of Louisiana provides families in rural and urban communities alike the option to pursue early college courses, career and technical education credentials, and ACT tutoring through its Course Choice program.

Choice by itself can’t solve all the problems public schools face — but it is an essential element of some of the leading examples of expanding opportunity for underserved kids. What seems clear to me is that in systems like DC, Denver, and Louisiana, principled and thoughtful policy-making around issues of accountability and equitable access have allowed school choice to grow more rapidly and with better quality than it would have otherwise, and positioned those communities more strongly for further growth. Their efforts should serve as a guidepost for policymakers around the nation as this critical conversation evolves.