Expanding Choice in Elementary and Secondary Education: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education

What role should the feds play in school choice? That is the
question teased out in this report, one of four from the Brown Center on
various aspects of the federal role (the other three are forthcoming).
First of all, explain the authors, we need to reconceptualize how we
think about choice by moving past our idealistic visions of it--any
student can attend any school on the government’s dime--and accept the
empirical reality that only a small percentage of students attend
schools of choice, despite significant recent growth, and many of those
schools aren’t any good, or any better than traditional options. But
thinking about choice as a tool for giving students more options and
improving low-performing schools, on the other hand, provides common
ground to choice supporters and detractors. And that’s where the feds
step in. One of the main constraints on choice today is parental access
to school information. Typically, they get the wrong numbers, too late
to do any good, and in incomprehensible technical jargon. The
reauthorization of ESEA provides the perfect conduit to create a better
system. A new version of the law could tighten up school report card and
notification of choice deadlines, presentation, and readability; it
could incentivize districts to offer open enrollment programs where
there are no “default” schools, forcing parents to make a decision, even
if that still is the neighborhood school; and it could require schools
to provide more relevant information such as teacher absenteeism rates,
student transfer-out rates, and availability of advanced coursework.
Using this new information, the feds should fund and create a “School
Navigator” system, similar to the already existing College Navigator tool,
that would allow parents to troll through the entire warehouse of data
on schools in an easy to use, easy to read, and easy to understand
manner. But unlike the college version, this database would be
structured in such a way to encourage parents to consider more heavily
the factors that actually reflect school quality and student
achievement. This report is a game changer. Don’t skip it.

 Jay Greene, Tom Loveless, W. Bentley MacLeod, Thomas Nechyba, Paul Peterson, Meredith Rosenthal, Grover Whitehurst
The Brookings Institution, Brown Center on Education Policy
February 2010

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