School-choice lessons emerge from two different educational crises

Flanner House Elementary, an Indianapolis charter school, closed just weeks into the 2014–15 school year by a vote of its board (under heavy pressure from the mayor’s office, which was the school’s sponsor) after an investigation revealed widespread cheating on tests in previous years. This seems like a prudent course of action, given the information known and despite the havoc it wreaked on the lives of its students. A protracted closure process would have been far worse for them.

The most striking thing about this story is the praise received by the mayor’s office in the wake of the closure decision. As reported in Education Week

[The Indianapolis mayor's office]…assigned charter-office employees to communicate with parents on a biweekly basis.

"We had a tracker that listed when we called families, the nature of that communication, next steps that we agreed to, and then we worked with those families to meet their needs," which included buying school supplies and new uniforms, Mr. Brown said.

The mayor's office also hosted two enrollment fairs where parents could talk with leaders from nearly 30 schools and could enroll their children on the spot.

"What we saw is that we had a lot of angry families at first that, over time, came to really value the support we gave them, to the point that we had multiple families call our office and say, 'We are so thankful that you made this decision,' " said Mr. Brown. "We didn't feel like it was appropriate to close a school and then make the families unilaterally navigate a complex choice system."

The families’ positive response to these steps, extraordinary and commendable though they are in reaction to this particular crisis, show clearly that school choice requires a far more functional process—overseen by a strong third-party entity—in order to properly serve families. Not just in a crisis, but from the very beginning of the process.

Obviously, a fully functional school choice marketplace wouldn’t have prevented the cheating that went on at Flanner House, but it could have made the accommodation for students and families caught up in it smooth, instant, and automatic. Rather than a time-sensitive, ad hoc scramble to find a new school, parents who had already checked out the options the previous summer would likely have had their fully vetted second choice in hand. And if they didn’t remember, a universal enrollment system could have.

Luckily, the families at Flanner House had the mayor’s office looking out for them. Even in a time-compressed crisis, someone was there to help them “navigate a complex choice system”.

But let us briefly compare the crisis response in Columbus City Schools, which serves the district in which I reside, where neither an official “choice system” nor a third-party entity exist to help parents navigate anything.

In Columbus, we’ve got a years-long, institutional data-scrubbing program that is still being unraveled, and we have twenty schools which have been performing so poorly for so long that they are now eligible for Ohio’s parent trigger law, making them candidates for reorganization, state takeover, or closure if 50 percent of school parents decide to do so. With thousands of students affected by one or both issues, Columbus’s crisis seems at least as urgent as that of Flanner House, if not more so.

But there is no entity scrambling to reach out to parents in the wake of data scrubbing that, when undone, showed failing grades for many schools. Even the state’s voucher program, intended to provide a private school option for students in low-performing buildings, was thwarted by the data fixing in Columbus.

The state’s effort to find someone who wants the job of explaining the parent trigger to Columbus parents yielded one taker who was immediately vilified by school board members. The district simply tells us that these schools are “making strides”. We’ve seen the “improvement plans” in place in those buildings and we’re not impressed. And even if we concede that parent trigger laws are perhaps a bit scary and too new to be embraced by parents, they are still on their own to navigate more established options of voucher-accepting private schools and charters.

In the best of circumstances, parents’ choices within Columbus are shrouded in mystery. If parents want out in the wake of these dual crises, they have been left to their own devices even more than usual. School Choice Ohio does what it can, but they are far outside of the system and have no direct, official way to communicate with parents. The state gives information on a number of options, but it is largely devoid of quality and comparison data, and parents must navigate it on their own.

As a crisis response, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman tried to get into the charter-authorizing business while the data-scrubbing investigation was still in full swing. But this, along with his broader and more proactive education reform efforts, was turned back at the ballot box. Perhaps crises look different here than they do in Indy.

So kudos to Indy, and great news that parents were pleased with the crisis response there. But here’s hoping that school-choice advocates and reform-minded leaders in Ohio are emboldened and educated to move beyond crisis response and make a fully-functional school choice marketplace the status quo. Parents should be supported and assisted in all parts of the process, not just in times of crisis.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,