Back to School: Higher miseducation

Is your wealthy neighborhood school on the wrong side of the education tracks?

It’s an idea that’s evolved over time but the core principle of the American Dream remains the same: to live well and prosper. And so we do our best to go to a good school, get a good job, buy a house in a good neighborhood and send our kids to a good school. But what happens when that “good” school isn’t what it seems—when the school we’re required to send our kids to isn’t fulfilling its end of the bargain?

In short, the American Dream becomes our future nightmare.

And Marin—ground zero for “good neighborhoods”—is not immune. Because, even though Forbes magazine deemed Marin’s public schools at the head of the class in 2007 for delivering the highest student performance at the lowest cost—among 775 similar counties in the country with high property taxes and populations greater than 65,000—individually, these schools are not all getting stellar report cards.

In fact, according to the film Not as Good as You Think: The Myth of the Middle Class School, it seems that many high-priced neighborhood schools are underperforming at an alarming rate.

The film—a newly released documentary produced by the San Francisco-based nonprofit think tank Pacific Research Institute—examines performance results at both high-income and low-income California schools and comes to the conclusion that higher home prices do not necessarily result in higher education.

According to the film’s 2006-07 statistics, for instance, in 94 percent of the areas where schools were performing at less than 50 percent proficiency the median home price was greater than $300,000. At San Marin High School in Novato—where the surrounding neighborhood’s median home price is roughly $500,000—only 49 percent of the students in 11th grade were proficient in geometry; 47 percent were proficient in algebra II; and a dismal 25 percent were proficient in first-year algebra.

Unfortunately, in these nice neighborhoods, it’s difficult to tell what’s really going on behind the “nice” school facade.

“Parents often look at the superficial factors because they’re the easiest to see,” said Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at Pacific Research Institute, and co-author of the book upon which the documentary is based. “If the school looks like it’s well put-together—whether the lawn is mowed, if it physically looks nice—I think a lot of their judgment is based upon something as simple as that. One of the things that makes it difficult for parents is that the California Department of Education often gives out the California Distinguished School award to schools that actually have pretty bad proficiency marks. It’s very opaque as to how those awards are given out and certainly, the percent of kids at grade-level proficiency doesn’t seem to be a major factor.”

And a school’s poor academic performance is not just about lack of funds.

According to daily-attendance data from the California School Finance Center, San Rafael schools receive an average of $12,000 a day for student attendance, while the Novato Unified School District pulls in less than $10,000. Yet Novato students score nearly 10 percent higher in English and math proficiency than their San Rafael counterparts.

One model that seems to be working, for the most part, is that of charter schools—publicly funded schools that aren’t bound by the same educational methods in their district. Charter schools notoriously receive less government funding than public schools, yet currently comprise 12 of California’s 15 best performing schools for low-income students, according to API scores. While not considered a low-income-population school, the Novato Charter School in Marin was the second-ranked primary school in all of Novato for 2007 and finished in the 90th percentile in the state.

What’s important about charter schools, according to Izumi, is that they offer another option for parents in a public education system that’s run like a monopoly. Which gets to the primary thesis of the film: We have the ability to make choices in everything we do—where we live, where we eat, where we buy our plastic-bag-less organic groceries—except for perhaps the most important choice of all—our kids’ school.

That decision is determined by residential assignment.

So you’re either stuck with the school in your neighborhood and hope that it’s sufficient, or you can opt to cart your child off to a charter or private school.

An advantage to charter schools, says Izumi, is that they can be held more accountable for their performance than regular public schools.

“Because they can be closed down, charter schools are much more attuned to their consumers than the traditional public schools—they’re going to be much more focused on the achievement levels of their kids and getting those achievement levels up,” says Izumi. “Whereas, if you’re a public school, nothing really happens to you, even if you do produce bad test scores.” But due to the difficulty in launching charter schools—they’re often started by parent coalitions—Izumi doesn’t see them as an end-all solution.

What could possibly be an answer, at least according to the documentary, is the universal school system started by the Swedish government back in the early 1990s. As part of its radical reformation of public education, Sweden instituted a “voucher” program where the funding followed the kid, rather than the institution or state, encouraging private firms to set up and run schools, and allowing parents to place their kids in whichever school they wanted—public or private—on a first-come-first-served basis. The program has been considered a success within Sweden. But in this country, the universal school system has faced resistance.

Opponents in the United States believe the universal system would lead to school segregation. But the film argues that in Sweden, which has about the same proportion of immigrants (12.5 percent versus 12.8 percent in this country), schools are comprised of very diverse nationalities. Others are also concerned that if a voucher is offered to every parent in America, there won’t be enough spaces for the kids, especially in private schools. “If you look at what happened in Sweden,” explains Izumi, “as soon as everybody had access to a voucher, then the number of private schools increased greatly to meet that demand.”

But is a complete overhaul of the education system really necessary? Isn’t there a way to implement change slowly, over time? Izumi doesn’t think so.

“I wish there was some middle ground. But I think that having analyzed over the last 10 or 15 years the whole accountability movement that’s trying to turn around the public schools—without outside competition and the possibility that your consumer base could actually leave—the current public system really won’t change very much,” he says. “If you look at the way California’s accountability system is operated, very, very few schools have felt any kind of consequences from poor performance.”

Because the No Child Left Behind Act requires that every child by the year 2013 be proficient in English and mathematics, Izumi urges parents to look deeper into their school’s performance, beyond those single aggregate number scores. If they suspect their school is underperforming, they should make their voices heard in the local district.

But that’s not all. “Trying to change things the Civics 101 way—like, ‘OK, we’re going to recall the board members, we’re going to do a campaign’—doing all those things that you learn in grade school about how democracy works in America, well, that doesn’t actually work very well,” says Izumi. Ultimately, he believes parents need to petition their legislators.

“You should say, ‘Look, I’ve got a huge mortgage payment, I don’t have money or a huge discretionary income to pay for private school tuition. I’m now stuck in this neighborhood where my school is not performing well. I need to have options.’”

As the film points out, our nation is “leased on the intellectual capital of its people”—so education is the single most important thing we can do to ensure our future. And today’s education problems will echo for generations, along with however we define the American Dream.

For more info or to purchase ‘Not as Good as You Think: The Myth of the Middle Class School,’ visit online at or . Educate Samantha at [email protected]

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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