Students living outside the illustrious 90210 zip code have been allowed to attend Beverly Hills Unified schools through an “opportunity permits” program. That opportunity came to an abrupt end in January when the Beverly Hills school board voted to end the program—kicking out a full 10 percent of their students.
“No one should pretend that a return to L.A. Unified represents a good educational opportunity for the affected students,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial.
On the flip side, the Los Angeles Unified School District has announced that students will no longer be allowed to attend school outside the district. Nearly 12,000 students residing within LAUSD boundaries have been able to receive a permit to attend school in neighboring districts—but those will be revoked for the 2010-11 school year.
The reasoning for these drastic changes is the state’s dysfunctional funding formulas and inequitable district zones. Schools are paid based on the number of students on campus daily. For Beverly Hills, in years past the system brought more money to open the school to new students. Now, as the budget is shrinking, the city will move to depend solely on city taxes rather than added state funding. So if the kids don’t represent extra funding, the district gives them the boot.
“Rich school or poor, it’s not pretty to see students treated like walking dollar signs,” said the Los Angeles Times editorial. “They are students who found a better education elsewhere, not cash cows.” As it happens, there is no guarantee that their education will be better off in Beverly Hills.
A full 40 percent of Beverly Hills’11th-graders scored below grade level or proficiency on the state English test. In both, algebra 2 and geometry more than 50 percent of Beverly Hills’ students also scored below grade-level mastery on the state test.
“Indeed, there are literally hundreds of schools in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods where significant percentages of students fail to achieve grade-level proficiency,” says Lance Izumi, Koret senior fellow and senior director for education studies with the Pacific Research Institute and author of Not As Good As You Think: Myth of the Middle Class School.
California should heed lessons from what has been shown to improve both school funding and student achievement. Sweden, for instance, established a choice program allowing funding to go specifically to the student, instead of their government-run schools. The money, in form of voucher, was allowed at any school the family chooses, government or independent.
“If a public school isn’t meeting a student’s needs, he or she can leave. Students have the option to switch to another public school or they can leave the public system altogether and opt for a private school,” explained Fredric Skälstad, political adviser to the Swedish minister of education.
“Choice is for everyone, whatever income you have. The right of the kid is to get a good education. If the public sector cannot offer it, he or she should have the right to go somewhere else,” said Per Unckel, governor of Stockholm and former education minister of Sweden.
Several Canadian provinces have also moved to provide direct per student grants, similar to vouchers, allowing families to attend independent or religious schools. A study by the Fraser Institute found that students in the pro-choice provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario outperformed U.S. students in reading. Moreover, Canada spends, on average, 20 percent less per pupil than the United States.
Similar reforms are taking place in Chicago, home town of President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. There Republicans and Democrats have passed a voucher program for students attending Chicago’s lowest performing schools. The program allows 22,000 eligible Chicago students to receive a voucher to attend any school. The Illinois Policy Institute estimates that the program will save the state $19 million in five years.
California persists in letting districts and bureaucrats make the call where students can go to school. Better to let parents and students decide, and take their funding with them. Choice is the wave of progress for all students, and California should get on board.