Last year, 43 percent of Florida’s PreK-12 students attended a school other than their assigned neighborhood school. This enthusiastic embrace of school choice by parents is forcing school boards to rethink their roles and responsibilities. Should they fight to prevent parents from attending non-district schools? Or should they embrace parent empowerment and help ensure all their community’s students have access to the schools – neighborhood, magnet, charter, virtual or private – that best meet their needs?
This dilemma was on full display at a recent Palm Beach County, Fla. school board meeting. The board was reviewing what to do about three struggling charter schools when one board member, Marcia Andrews, suggested the board should do more to help these schools succeed. “We’ve got to kind of change how we do business,” she said, according to the Palm Beach Post, “so they’ll know we’ll partner with them, so they’ll be successful.”
Some of her colleagues disagreed. They argued that when parents choose charter schools they take their funding with them and that hurts the district. They also worried about the costs of helping charter schools when district budgets are already stretched tight.
This caused another board member, Frank Barbieri, to join Andrews in calling for greater collaboration and support. “I don’t want to hear about ‘we’re taking money from our kids and giving it to these kids,’ ” said Barbieri. “These are our kids. Let’s help them.”
Statistics from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which I help administer, support the these-are-all-our-kids position.
This year, approximately 10,000 scholarship students will leave their private schools and return to their district schools, while 20,000 low-income students will leave their district schools to attend private schools. This level of yearly churn will increase as customization becomes normative throughout public education, which suggests school boards should become more engaged with all K-12 providers in their communities.
The exact regulatory and support role school districts should play in the future is an open question. Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, published a book last year, The Urban School System of the Future, in which he argued that school boards need to be abolished and replaced by a system of authorizers who charter and regulate a portfolio of independently owned and managed schools. These authorizers would themselves be overseen by a regulatory authority that would “keep the system fluid, responsive, high-performing, and self-improving by facilitating and managing starts, closures, and expansions; guaranteeing diversity; and enabling choice.” (154)
According to Smarick, this new system would integrate all schools – public, private, and charter – into a single K-12 education system through which students would move seamlessly.
Critics of Smarick’s more inclusive and decentralized public education system level charges of privatization and corporate profiteering, which leads to the question: Should public education be more decentralized and market-driven? Or is our current command-and-control system the more effective approach?
The Palm Beach County school board debate is interesting because it is being driven by their daily realities, yet it raises issues that Smarick’s futuristic vision attempts to address. This convergence suggests Smarick’s book is timely. The roles and responsibilities of school boards are probably going to evolve significantly over the next 20 years.