Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Who opts out of public schooling?

One of the quiet themes in this blog is that K-12 and Higher Ed could learn a lot if they paid attention to each other. This post is about another issue where this is true.

In higher ed, we have known for a long time who doesn't attend public institutions. In general it is the wealthy, the very poor, students without a family history of higher education, very religious students, students whose parents didn't go to public schools, etc.

In K-12, though, the assumption has always been that those who opt out of public schooling are simply the wealthy and those who know the system. This myth comes up every time there is a discussion of vouchers, or of school choice. Public school people say that if choice opens up, the public schools will be left only with low-achieving, troubled, low-income students whose parents don't have the time or the money to select an option.

I'm the board chair of a public charter high school in Salt Lake City--City Academy. I met yesterday with the head of the school to talk about enrollment for fall. Our enrollment is up, and growth is coming not only from wealthy, highly educated families (those who the myth says will opt out). It is coming instead from all areas of the periphery--families whose children were singled out for teasing in public schools, or high-functioning autistic kids, or kids who are culturally on the margins. In short, our school is made up of the same kids whose families later opt out of public colleges.

Why is this? Because K-12 and public higher ed aim for the middle. They recruit decent students who understand the school system. Kids whose families are on the periphery, for whatever reason opt out.

This should be good news for people worried about the future of public schooling. Rather than sink into a mass low-performing students, choice (be it through charter schools or private schools) could leave them with the students they are set up to serve. It is bad news for people who care about kids on the margin, though. There aren't nearly enough targeted non-public K-12 options for them. What we need is a K-12 system that looks more like our system of higher ed--more small options available--but with more attention to the needs of low income families.

It should also encourage us to be careful with how we think about the student body. It is rarely useful to think of a large body of students (those in a school, or a district, for example) as members of a hierarchy arrayed on economic grounds. We would be better off thinking of them as part of a system with a core and a periphery. Public schools serve the core (whatever it may look like--the core in the DC schools is far different than that in the Salt Lake City school district), the question is how can we serve the periphery better?

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