When a district steps up, the state should step out of the way

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As reported by the Dispatch last week, Columbus City Schools has unveiled plans to expand selective admission among its magnet schools next year. This is a positive step in an often criticized district—an effort that should be applauded and helped to grow.

Twenty-five years of school choice in Ohio have largely laid to rest the archaic notion that a home address will determine what schools children will attend from Kindergarten through high school. Interdistrict open enrollment, charter schools, private school scholarships, home schooling, virtual schooling, and independent STEM schools render district boundaries all but irrelevant to parents who are able to navigate these options. Even within districts, specialized schools, programs that look like schools, and lottery-based magnet schools have proliferated, further eroding address-based school assignments and rigid feeder patterns. This is all for the good.

A lesser-known addendum to that list is selective admission, whereby certain schools are allowed to prioritize a percentage of their seats for students who meet particular criteria. Ohio has allowed selective admission—with some important caveats—since 1990, and Columbus City Schools was the first district in the state to make use of this option. Today, five of the district’s magnet schools include a selective admission component: Two are general education and three are arts-focused. All five prioritize 20 percent of their seats for students with strong academic and disciplinary records; the arts schools also require auditions in one or more art forms. If there are more applicants than spots, a lottery is held. The Dispatch story highlighted the waiting lists at all five schools as applicants outnumber available seats—a sure sign of parental interest.

The newly proposed sixth school to adopt this pattern is Columbus Africentric School, a longstanding specialized K-12 school with an immersive focus on African and African-American history and culture. Africentric has recently relocated to a crown jewel of a new facility, and the district is proudly promoting it. Its history of athletic success has traditionally been a big draw, and the school board seems to feel that having a selective concentration of students with excellent academics and good behavior would be another selling point. Thus the district petitioned the State Board of Education to approve it starting next year.

Of course the request should be approved. But why should Columbus (or any district) even have to ask for permission from the state to make this kind of change? Efforts such as this should be a matter of local control, not a state-level decision.

In 1990, concerns about exclusion are what drove Ohio to put this sort of restriction on where and how selective admission could be implemented. The landscape is very different today, however, as more parents demand more and better schooling options for their daughters and sons. In light of this reality, increasing intra-district choice is smart policy. It allows districts to innovate, to create the schools that parents want, and to compete with other schools of choice. It is another break in the "zip code is destiny" approach of yesteryear, an approach that limits kids’ options rather than expanding them. The sooner that approach goes away, the better for Ohio’s children.

Districts shouldn’t have to beg the state for flexibility around admissions policies. Columbus’s initial plan to practice selective admission for 35 percent of the seats in Africentric was reduced by the state to conform to an arbitrary 20-percent limit before the final request was submitted. Who knows better what district parents want and what district schools can accommodate? If that many parents of students with high academics and low discipline want in to Africentric, they should be allowed to do so. Who knows what greater success the five original schools could have achieved had they not been so limited? The existing waiting lists in those schools likely point to the answer. 

To be clear, none of these schools are stellar academic performers, and the selectivity being applied is not particularly rigorous. These are not—and should not be confused with—“exam schools” in any way. What they are are better-than-average urban district schools that have drawn plenty of interest from parents and students, most likely because of their alternative focus, boundary-busting admissions, and selective admissions policies (however small that population is). That alone is good news for Columbus and an indication that a new focus on quality could emerge from the status quo. Parents are interested, the school board is all in, and the potential benefits are there. So the state should get out of the way and let the good work proceed.

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