School-choice supporters in Indianapolis are beside themselves. They’ve smacked right up against the inconvenient truth: Parents sometimes make bad choices.
The source of their consternation is The Project School, a charter school sponsored by the Indianapolis mayor’s office. Mayor Greg Ballard announced last month he would revoke the school’s charter and order it to cease operations because of poor academic performance.
That’s precisely how charter-school proponents promised it would work when they pushed legislation through the Indiana General Assembly in 2001. In fact, they suggested it wouldn’t even come to that point.
If a school was performing poorly, they reasoned, parents would stop sending their children there.
Truth be told, charter champions likely never imagined they would see anything but stellar schools. Freed from what they saw as the red tape of traditional public schools and the strangling grasp of teacher unions, charter schools would undoubtedly soar to academic heights, they believed.
But more than a decade along, Indiana charters are not outperforming traditional public schools and some, like The Project School, aren’t even doing as well.
That wouldn’t be a problem if parents recognized that fact and chose better-performing schools. But parents at The Project School – and many other struggling Indiana charters – continued to enroll. And when Ballard announced that the charter school would close, citing financial problems and academic performance that placed it among the lowest-achieving schools in the state, some became incensed, insisting that the school be spared. The school board president told Kyle Stokes of StateImpact Indiana that 90 percent of the parents were satisfied with the school.
Some have suggested that The Project School was targeted by the Republican mayor because it is not operated by a for-profit education management organization. But the mayor’s office – to its credit – has long exercised more stringent control as an authorizer than Ball State University’s Office of Charter Schools and has demanded higher approval standards than either Ball State or the new Indiana Charter School Board. In 2006, the mayor’s office rejected two applications from Imagine Inc. to open schools in Indianapolis, so the for-profit company went to Ball State for approval. Likewise, Fountain Square Academy supporters went to the university for a new charter when Ballard declined to renew the school’s authority last year.
I first saw the inherent problem with school choice when I traveled to Muskegon, Mich., to visit a charter school in 2002. Tri-Valley Academy was operated by the Leona Group, which was about to open the first charter in Fort Wayne, the Timothy L. Johnson Academy.
It was an eye-opening visit. The people I met there were passionate about children and education, but the school clearly wasn’t on par with any Indiana public school I had ever visited. It was the first school where I witnessed students memorizing sing-song chants – a teaching method I’ve since seen used in Fort Wayne but continue to question.
Tri-Valley’s authorizer was Grand Valley State University, whose charter school office director shared an enlightening insight from his experience running the school on an interim basis:
I knew the founders of the school wanted to improve the academic performance of the kids, but I learned that parents weren’t so interested in test scores as they were in making sure that their kid’s lunch money wasn’t stolen, their jacket wasn’t stolen, said Pat Sandro. They wanted the kids to be safe. ... It wasn’t a shock, but it was a surprise.
Indeed, a parent I met at Tri-Valley told me she liked the school because she felt her daughter was safe there, which seemed to speak more of the neighboring public school than it did of the charter school. And Tri-Valley wasn’t performing well even in 2002 – it scored among the lowest of all Michigan schools on the state’s version of ISTEP+, and Sandro told me at the time it would have to improve or Grand Valley would pull its charter. Performance didn’t improve, and the university did just that in 2008.
Still, a parent insisted to the Muskegon Chronicle at the time that it was a good school and worth saving.
The same misplaced confidence was on display in 2004, when Fort Wayne’s Urban Brightest Academy became the first Indiana charter school to close. Ball State pulled the charter because of declining enrollment and financial mismanagement, but parents of 42 students had already indicated they wanted to return in the fall and 35 new student applications had been submitted.
So why do parents insist on staying in poorly performing schools?
There’s no simple answer, just as there’s no simple solution for what ails schools. Some parents are right when they insist a poorly performing school is good for their child. It’s how their own student is doing that counts, after all. If a student was bullied in her former school and not in a poor-performing school, the latter still is a better school for that child. Some students will excel wherever they are enrolled, even if their school is failing struggling students.
And as The Project School parents demonstrate, standardized test scores mean more to the school-accountability crowd than to parents. Some have even suggested that the high number of parents who kept their children home during ISTEP+ testing as part of a national opt-out protest movement actually helped to doom the school.
Then there’s the fact that parents often don’t have the information to know what constitutes a good school.
Aside from the standardized test scores held up as incontrovertible truth, who really does? Good grades easily mask instruction that isn’t challenging for advanced students. A school that doesn’t challenge an honors student with rigorous and relevant courses fails as surely as a school that doesn’t bring a student up to reading at grade level.
Most important, the vast majority of parents truly want the best for their children and want to believe the choice they made as parents is the right one. To suggest to some parents that the school they’ve chosen is failing is to suggest they’ve failed as a parent. It’s a poor way to begin a conversation about helping kids.
For middle-class parents, school choice might be choosing one suburban district over another. For wealthy families, it might be choosing a private school over a public school. Those choices aren’t always based on academic considerations – just ask any official of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, where a review committee routinely rules on cases in which athletic eligibility is challenged.
Then there are vouchers, which add a whole new dimension to school choice.
At a meeting of the Indiana Select Commission on Education last month, Rep. Kevin Mahan complained about public school districts restricting enrollment from students who lived outside their geographic boundaries.
No school taking public tax dollars should be able to pick and choose, said the Hartford City Republican, who apparently was unaware when he voted for the voucher bill that public and private schools taking public tax dollars would be able to pick and choose students. That’s not a new development. Public school administrators have long seen students enrolling after they’ve been told they can’t return to their private or parochial school for academic or behavioral reasons. After the voucher bill passed last year, St. Jude Catholic School in Fort Wayne assured parents and parishioners that its standards would not change.
Students will be tested and screened, according to an article in the parish bulletin, and we will accept students only if we feel that they will fit in well with our mission and academic and discipline standards.
Home-schooling, another choice Indiana parents enjoy, presents its own challenges. The only requirement for parents is to provide 180 days of instruction and to keep an attendance record. State academic standards don’t apply and there is no required testing. While most home-school families very likely offer challenging instruction, no one can say with authority that every home-schooled student is receiving a sound education.
David Harris, a former Indianapolis charter school official who now runs the Mind Trust, laments the dilemma involving The Project School in remarks to an Indianapolis Star columnist, but finally plays the accountability card.
Letting a failing school stay open is a grave injustice, Harris tells columnist Erika Smith.
But there’s a big problem with his conclusion. Unless enrollment requirements, standards and accountability apply to every education choice available to parents, failure is a subjective term. If parents can choose to enroll their children in a school that teaches creationism as science – in contradiction to state academic standards and federal law – how have they succeeded while a Project School parent whose child passed ISTEP+ has failed? If a parent chooses to home-school but offers no instruction in math, how have they succeeded any more than the parent whose child passed the math portion of ISTEP+ at an Indianapolis school just handed over to a turnaround operator?
We believe that parents know best how to help their kids succeed, Gov. Mitch Daniels proclaims in a TV commercial produced last month for School Choice Indiana.
If the governor and other choice proponents believe that’s the case, they must explain why they demand accountability only when it seems to support their case against public schools. And voters should begin asking why public dollars should be left to parent choice while taxpayers are left with no choice.