Free lunches threatened: Almost 200,000 Florida students could lose automatic access to free or reduced-price school lunches if a new Trump administration proposal to limit the number of people enrolled in the federal food stamps program (SNAP) is enacted, according to the Florida Policy Institute. Hardest hit would be Okeechobee County, where 83 percent of students are now automatically eligible. “Once these SNAP benefits are pulled, it will drastically impact the kids who are accessing free lunches at school, and it will put that much more of a burden on families that are already struggling,” said Paco Vélez, president and CEO of the hunger relief organization Feeding South Florida. Miami Herald. An anonymous donor has given $1,500 to the Leon County School District to help cover $4,000 in unpaid student lunch debts so far this school year. Tallahassee Democrat. About $11,000 in unpaid lunch fees are owed by Monroe County students. Key West Citizen.
Decades after Brown v. Board of Education, a map generated by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute indicates we have miles to go regarding school integration.
The map displays 615 Ohio school districts, using color coding to show those that allow open enrollment from any district; those that allow open enrolment from an adjacent district; and those that allow no open enrollment at all. A very disturbing pattern of segregation emerges as it becomes clear that each of Ohio’s large urban districts is surrounded by districts that choose not to give students the opportunity to attend their schools.
(Keep this map in mind the next time you hear someone claim that “school districts take everyone.” Districts take every child who can afford to live in their attendance zones, which is not the same thing as “everyone.”)
Ohio is not likely a stark outlier nationally, but it is very different than my home state of Arizona, where almost all districts participate in open enrollment – including fancy suburban districts like Scottsdale. Ohio, in line with the nation, has posted flat results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, whereas Arizona is one of two states that have made statistically significant gains on all six exams since 2009.
Another map, this one from the Brookings Institution Hamilton project, suggests why Ohio and Arizona are so different, and where Florida stands. This map measures the percentage of students who had access to one or more charter schools in their Zip code in 2014-15.
Arizona had the highest percentage in the nation of students with a charter school operating in their Zip code: 84 percent, which is more than two-and-a-half times higher than Ohio’s 31.9 percent. Ohio has choice options, but they are overwhelmingly clustered in urban areas, thus providing limited incentive for suburban districts to participate in open enrollment. Arizona has the highest percentage of charter school students in the country, but open enrollment students outnumber charter school students approximately two to one. One of the great contributions of Arizona’s charter and private choice policies has been to create an incentive for districts to participate in open enrollment.
Florida’s choice options, meanwhile, are more inclusive and diverse across community types than Ohio’s, and less so than Arizona’s. In 2014-15, just more than half of Florida students had one or more charter schools operating in their Zip code. Florida’s private choice programs focus on low-income families and children with disabilities. Low-income students are concentrated in large urban districts, but they are present in every district in the state, as are children with disabilities. Florida also has taken steps to increase open enrollment. This should be strongly encouraged, but in the end, incentives carry greater power than laws.
A great and counter-intuitive irony is at work here. The charter and private choice movement has been very focused on students in large urban districts. There are compelling moral reasons for this, but it may not have represented the optimal strategy for helping urban students. Urban students absolutely need access to charter and private schools, and they need it more than others. Urban students should however be able to attend suburban district schools as well through open enrollment. Only broad choice policies will incentivize districts to participate. Thus, urban students will be best served when all community types participate in choice.
The attempt to force district integration through forced busing during the 1970s caused no end of grief and ultimately ended in well-intentioned failure. Forcing families to bus their children across large distances based upon their race predictably did not go well. Progress can, however, be made through voluntary enrollments and incentives.
Prior to 1995 in Arizona, for instance, students who wished to attend a school in a different district, when allowed to do so, were required to pay tuition. Today, 4,000 students who don’t live within the boundary of Scottsdale Unified attend Scottsdale district schools free of charge. Arizona law merely requires districts to have an open enrollment policy, which could in effect mean, “buy or rent real estate here or get lost.” As a Scottsdale Unified taxpayer, I’d like to flatter myself by thinking my school district lowered the drawbridge over a suburban moat out of the goodness of our hearts. I am confident, however, that the thousands of Scottsdale students attending charter schools had a good deal to do with it.
In the end, our aim must be to increase the opportunity for families to find a school that matches the needs and aspirations of their families. We as a movement have underestimated the complexity of the interactions between different types of choice programs. Attempting to improve urban education with the suburban public schools sitting on the sidelines is akin to fighting with one arm tied behind our backs. The integrationists had a noble goal, but they pursued it with what turned out to be the wrong tools. People respond better to carrots than sticks, incentives rather than force.
The state of the education emergency in our inner cities can only be described as dire, which is exactly why we need to give the maximum opportunity and freedom possible across all types of schooling. Our policies can be configured in such a way as to open the walled gardens of our highest performing public schools and promote integration in the process. But don’t take it from me. The same idea was embedded in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity for this nation … When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”
We’ve reached 2019, and throughout the country, urban students still are largely not free to attend suburban district schools. Let’s speed up that day when they will be welcome.
In the first year after Florida lawmakers passed legislation that lets parents choose public schools across county lines, the state Department of Education reports that 5,397 students took advantage in 2017.
As such, educational choice experts proclaim that the controlled open enrollment law signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016 is working.
“As more parents learn about this option, it will mean more students will have the opportunity to receive a quality education in the school that best fits their needs,” said Adam Peshek, managing director of opportunity policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Even so, there is still a lot that is not known about the effect of the law, including its impact on school districts. Several districts officials said the law’s failure to provide transportation options for transferring students is a serious shortcoming. The options for parents are also limited by capacity at the most popular schools.
“Florida does not have a lot of data on the topic and what they do have is self-reported enrollment data,” Peshek said. “We don’t know much about which schools students are leaving and which districts/schools are benefiting the most. “Transportation is a large issue. Florida has very large, county-based districts. So, in addition to transportation being a barrier, options may just be too far for a parent to consider.”
House PreK-12 Education Appropriations Chairman Manny Diaz, who sponsored the legislation, said his goal was to provide students access to quality schools and provide the best use of empty seats. Though Florida has long allowed students to choose among district school through a policy known as “controlled open enrollment,” students could attend districts in other counties only through specific signed agreements. Diaz found that process to be too daunting for families.
Sonja Baker said she was grateful for the open enrollment program, which gave her the opportunity to apply to several schools outside the district for her son, who has autism and struggles academically in traditional public schools.
“As a parent of a child with special needs, I realized the traditional setting wasn’t for my child,” Baker said. “We live on a county border line. It doubles the options of giving him the quality education I feel he deserves.”
Baker ended up choosing to put her son in a charter school in the district.
All told, 266,515 students participated in open enrollment in 2017, according to DOE. Most attended schools within their district, but both programs present challenges, according to district officials.
Peter Licata, the assistant superintendent for choice and innovation for Palm Beach County Schools, said the lack of transportation options for students creates an inequity that hurts less-advantaged students. Some parents also have complained that more popular schools are not available because they tend already to be at capacity with traditionally zoned students.
In St. Johns County, for example, only two elementary schools had space available to be chosen under its open enrollment program. Countywide, there were only 29 applications this year for open enrollment.
Christina Langston, St. Johns chief of community relations, said in an email that no other schools meet the controlled open enrollment criteria to allow more students. She said the student population increases by more than 1,500 students each year.
Peshek suggested the state might consider offering financial incentives to schools that take students outside of their attendance zones.
“I can certainly see a scenario where the state would want to reward schools for taking students outside of their zoned district, in the same way they reward schools for academic success or providing access to advanced courses or industry certifications,” he said.
Parents in the low-income, predominantly black Normandy School District in St. Louis, Mo., have been made to feel unwelcome for years, as public school officials repeatedly fought to deny them the right to choose new public schools. Their saga may finally be coming to a close, as a three-judge panel this week unanimously rebuffed school officials’ latest efforts to thwart Missouri’s public-school transfer law.
The transfer law allows parents of students enrolled in “unaccredited” public school districts to request transfers to public schools in higher-performing districts. (Districts lose accreditation if the school fails to meet certain performance goals.) The law was passed in 1993, but went largely unnoticed until two parents sued to transfers out of the then-unaccredited Clayton and St. Louis Public School districts.
Public school officials fought the law through trial and appeals courts until 2013, when the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of public school transfers. With that ruling, nearly a thousand children in the persistently struggling Normandy School District rushed for the door, causing a near-collapse of the small inner-city district, prompting a takeover by the state Department of Education.
Unfortunately for the parents, a victory at the Supreme Court did not secure their right to choose a new school, as public school officials scrambled to undo the law.
Renaming the district the “Normandy Schools Collaborative,” state officials at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) claimed the “new” district was suddenly no longer unaccredited. That interpretation meant thousands of future transfers could be denied. State officials created other rules to force students back into Normandy. Addressing one legitimate flaw in the transfer law, officials stated public-school transfer students could only receive $7,200 in public funding. Districts were not required to accept the students with this lower payment, and wealthier districts had long been charging more than $7,200 to accept transfers.
In their quest for desegregation, a growing number of school systems are embracing a new approach. They expand public school choice, but use weighted admissions systems that prioritize students based on their family incomes, rather than race.
Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation explains in the Washington Post.
Research finds that the academic benefits of integration derive not from the pigment of classmates but from being in a middle-class school environment, where peers expect to go on to college, parents are able to be actively involved in school affairs and strong teachers are more often found. Nationwide, low-income fourth-grade students in middle-class schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income fourth-graders in high-poverty schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math.
Framing integration primarily in terms of socioeconomic status also has political advantages. One major lesson of the 2016 campaign has been the recognition that working-class whites feel abandoned by conventional political figures, which makes them open to demagogic appeals from the authoritarian right. Socioeconomic integration benefits Hillary Clinton’s African American and Latino voters but also Donald Trump’s white working-class constituencies. Researchers are in broad agreement that providing children with an economically and racially integrated school environment promotes social mobility in our economy and social cohesion in our democracy.
A new article in Education Week puts Florida’s new open-enrollment law in a national context, noting nearly half of U.S. states allow students to attend public schools across district lines.
Compared to most other states, the article notes, Florida’s school districts tend to be geographically larger. Transportation, both within and between districts, could pose a challenge for families who don’t have the time or resources to drive their children to school each day.
“If there’s no public transportation, then only the most-advantaged students are going to move,” said Lesley Lavery, an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in Minnesota, who has researched open-enrollment policies.
Those factors especially could hinder parents in Florida, which has large districts that span the size of each county. Five of Florida’s districts are among the top 25 biggest nationwide. The Miami-Dade County school system alone stretches over about 2,000 square miles, and has 392 schools.
The new law does not require schools to provide transportation outside their districts, but schools can do so if they wish.
“Transportation is an enormous issue even under very normal circumstances,” said Ruth Melton, the director of government relations for the Florida School Boards Association.
The lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the nation’s largest private school choice program and an advocate who helped establish it squared off Wednesday on Southwest Florida public radio.
The rare public exchange between Joanne McCall, the president of Florida Education Association, and John Kirtley, the chairman and founder of Step Up For Students*, came the week after the case was argued in a state appellate court. The full WGCU broadcast can be heard here.
A key issue at this stage of the case is whether the plaintiffs adequately alleged that the tax credit scholarship program, which serves more than 78,000 low-income children, actually harms the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, or whether they just dislike it politically.
Kirtley pointed to multiple studies by state economists showing the scholarship program saves the state money. In recent years, as the program has grown by tens of thousands of students, per-pupil public-school funding has gone up, he said. If school districts suddenly had to absorb nearly 80,000 students, “per-pupil spending would go down.”
What’s more, public schools would have to build new space for them, at a time when many are struggling to handle existing growth. In fast-growing Central Florida, for example, WFTV recently reported that Osceola County expects to add 10,000 students in the next five years, and is hoping charter schools can help accommodate them. There are nearly 3,000 students in the district on scholarships.
Over the past decade, Denver closed or replaced 48 struggling schools. The district’s 55 charters and 38 “innovation schools” (schools controlled by the district that enjoy some charter-like autonomy) educate nearly one-third of its students. More importantly, student achievement for black and Hispanic students has risen faster in Denver than the statewide average in Colorado.
Under the portfolio strategy, districts manage pluralistic school systems that “give parents choices among the schools while working to replicate successful schools and replace failing ones,” writes Osborn, a researcher at the Progressive Policy Institute.
Reform began in 2005, when the school board chose Michael Bennet to take the helm of a dysfunctional and struggling school district that was losing students to private schools and nearby suburbs. Bennet knew he needed outside pressure to shake up the system. Charter schools appeared to be the answer, but the district had only 17, and a powerful teachers union that opposed opening any more.