In an effort to show greater accountability for results, school districts across the country from Florida to Missouri to California are issuing so-called school report cards, which contain data on various indicators of student and school performance. Ray Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), recently announced a new report card on the performance of each school in his district. Parents may welcome the new information but, unfortunately, there is little they can do with that information to improve the education of their children.
The new report card offers a much different picture of school performance than that contained in the state’s calculations. For example, the latest state figures claim a graduation rate of 76 percent for Manual Arts High School near downtown Los Angeles. In eye-opening contrast, the district report card says that only 37 percent of the school’s students in the class of 2008 graduated on time.
Cortines fully acknowledged that in the past school districts cherry-picked statistics to cover up poor performance and accentuate selective successes. Now, says Cortines, “I want both the bad and good, and I don’t want it sugarcoated.” While Cortines’ attitude is highly commendable, the new district report card has holes.
The report card fails to include measurements of teaching effectiveness, campus safety, and satisfaction of parents and students with individual schools. There are even more critical concerns, however, than missing statistics. While it’s important that parents receive truthful information regarding their children’s school, the question remains what they can do with this information once they receive it. Even if they truly understand how badly their neighborhood public school is performing, there are precious few alternatives.
Imagine you are a parent with a child at Manual Arts High School. You learn from the new district report card that only 13 percent of students at the school score at the proficient level or above on the state English test and 2 percent score at that level in math. What recourse is open to you? Wait for the school to do better? That could take years, if not decades, and your child will be long gone, saddled with an inadequate education, and ill-prepared for higher education or the modern workplace.
How about working to turn the school into a less-regulated public charter school? That might be great, but the process of creating a charter is often extremely political, and the powerful Los Angeles teachers union has fought such efforts tooth and nail. Perhaps paying for private school or private after-school tutoring? Such costly alternatives aren’t an option even for many middle-class families, saddled with debt and job uncertainty.
There’s really only one effective way to ensure that parents can use the information contained in public-school report cards to improve their children’s education immediately. That’s by giving them school-choice options such as the universal voucher system Sweden instituted in the early 1990s.
While the Swedish banking plan has been cited as a possible way to solve our own banking crisis, the Swedes actually offer a better example for education reform. Under the Swedish voucher system, government funding follows the child, which allows parents of all income levels to choose between local municipal schools and private independent schools. Prior to the enactment of the voucher system Sweden had very few private schools but now about one- third of students in Stockholm attends private school.
Research shows that the Swedish private schools perform at a higher level than the public schools, but that the competition resulting from the program has raised public-school performance. Most important, the voucher program gives parents a ticket to exit public schools that are not meeting the needs of their children.
Per Unckel, current governor of Stockholm and minister of education when the Swedish school-choice law was implemented, says that all parents have the inherent right to send their children to the school of their choice. Parents, he emphasized, should be given choice options immediately, without having to wait for government-run schools to take years to improve, because every year in a failing school is a year wasted in a child’s life.
In the end, better information in school report cards will only help parents if they are given the tools to make better education choices for their children. Improved information without choice creates frustration, while improved information with choice creates satisfaction. It’s time for policymakers to stop worrying about satisfying the education special interests and start giving real satisfaction to parents and their children.
Lance T. Izumi is Senior Fellow in California Studies and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (PRI), California’s premier free-market public-policy think tank based in San Francisco.