Thursday, January 24, 2013

Does increasing school autonomy lead to more equitable educational options?

“Autonomy” has become kind of a buzzword in recent years.  It’s treated with reverence by charter school advocates… almost as a panacea that will fix nearly any problems facing public schools.  The belief is that, given greater autonomy, schools are better able to sense and respond to families’ preferences for schooling, and to the competitive incentives of the emerging education market.

This all sounds quite appealing, and makes sense in a lot of ways.  After all, school leaders are indeed better positioned than are bureaucrats in faraway offices to understand the needs of the local families they serve in areas such as curriculum, hours, or allocating resources to various programs.  Especially in a choice system such as with charter schools, autonomy allows school leaders to compete in shaping their services in ways that will attract and retain students.  And this is particularly important if we want to provide an increased number of high quality options for disadvantaged students trapped in failing public schools.  But, in responding to increasing competition for students, do they use this autonomy to advance their school at the expense of other important societal goals for public education?

Many school choice systems have been associated with inequitable access, and segregative patterns in many cases (also look here, here, here, and here).  Much of the research on these patterns has focused on self-sorting — such as “white flight” — by families as parents make school choices based on social characteristics of students at a given school.  Little attention has been paid to the role of schools in shaping those patterns, even though, with the increasing importance of choice and competition, many schools often have the autonomy to improve equitable access for disadvantaged students.

To study this issue, we looked to the choice system in New Zealand, where policymakers have been encouraging family choice of schools, and school autonomy, since the “Tomorrow’s Schools” reforms over two decades ago.  By essentially eradicating local education authorities, policymakers devolved power to schools as autonomous, “self-managing” entities.  This has led to a system of comprehensive choice for families, and considerable competition between schools for students, particularly in urban areas.  In Auckland, the largest city in the country, upwards of one-third of traffic congestion is due to parents shuffling their kids to the schools of their choice.

But, of course, schools have a finite amount of space.  So, when a school has more applicants than seats, it can implement an “enrolment scheme” to manage the demand, through measures such as randomized “ballots” (lotteries), and/or specifying their own zones in which residents have priority access to the school. 

Previous research has shown that schools in more affluent areas are more likely to be in greater demand, and thus more likely to have enrolment schemes.  The question we asked was whether these self-managing schools were using their autonomy to draw their zones in order to improve or restrict access for disadvantaged students.  To do this, we simply compared the level of affluence in a walkable radius around each school to the level of affluence in the boundaries that the schools themselves had drawn.  Certainly, school zones are not perfects circles, as their creators have to consider traffic patterns, geographic barriers, and the boundaries of competitors.  But, all things being equal, we could expect that deviations in those boundaries from a geometric radius around a school would be more or less equally likely to include or exclude more affluent neighborhoods. 

But that is not what we found.  Instead, there is evidence of rampant gerrymandering to exclude children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  In the cases where there is a statistically significant difference in the “deprivation level” of the population in a school’s drawn zone compared to its immediate area, over three-quarters of these self-managing school had drawn a zone that was significantly more affluent than their immediate vicinity.

Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, more affluent schools are not only drawing boundaries to keep poor kids out, but in their promotional materials are bragging about their success in doing this.  A review of school websites shows that more affluent schools are much more likely to include official information about the number of disadvantaged students they serve.  In the US, this would be akin to school leaders boasting about how few of their students are eligible for free-reduced lunch.

While we might find these types of practices to be distasteful for public schools that are funded by taxpayers to serve all students, in some ways, such actions are predictable (if indefensible).  After all, policymakers are creating education markets where schools recognize competitive incentives to shape their enrollments.  It should be no surprise that, given such autonomy and such incentives, they find creative ways to do just that.

The full paper is available at the Forum on the Future of Public Education.

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