The Brookings Institute just released its 2014 Education Choice and Competition Index and one of the star players is Newark Public Schools. The premise of the Index is that offering school choices to families in large cities can lead to “greater access to quality schools for students who would otherwise be assigned to a low performing public school based on their family’s place of residence.” That success , however, is dependent on a number of factors like good traditional schools, magnets, charters, common applications, transportation, and “availability of rich and valid information, including test scores that incorporate growth.” The Index quantifies these factors and ranks districts accordingly.
Newark is the only N.J. city populous enough to qualify for rankings. It came in third in school choice, bested only by New Orleans and New York City.
The Index puts Newark on its short list of“standouts” (along with Denver, NYC, and New Orleans) because of its “use of a centralized computer-based algorithm to assign public high school students to schools in such a way as to maximize the match between student preferences and school assignment, conditional on any admission requirements exercised by the school. Students apply once and receive one offer, assuming they can match with one of the schools they have listed among their choices.”
The Index also notes that Newark’s score went up 21 points from last year, the largest increase among the schools included in the study. This increase, Brookings says,
reflects a major upgrade in several aspects of their choice system, the most notable of which is a new “One Newark Enrolls” process for enrollment: Students/parents rank up to eight schools and are matched to one through a computer algorithm that minimizes the overall disparity for all applicants between their preferences and their assignments. The new enrollment system includes charter schools in the common application. The Newark Public Schools website provides a great deal of guidance on using the new system. Transportation is now provided for everyone, with free shuttles to support families most impacted by One Newark.
Overall, the Index reveals that more large American cities – 51%, according to Brookings – are moving towards enrollment systems that offer parents choices among schools instead of zip-code-driven school assignments. The editors conclude with a discussion of the the benefits of school choice that has particular relevance to N.J.’s zip-code-driven school enrollment structure:
A lack of school choice perpetuates inequality in education opportunity in school districts that have residential school assignment zones for neighborhood schools that are stratified by family income and socioeconomic status (as is typical in most cities), and in which schools that serve disproportionately lower-income families struggle to attract and retain highly effective teachers and school leaders (as is also typical). In such a district, a parent whose child is assigned to an under-performing school because of where the family lives, and who does not have the wherewithal to move to a different neighborhood with a better school, is stuck with a subpar education for her child. In contrast, a similar parent in a district that affords the opportunity for school choice that includes charter schools and open enrollment in traditional public schools can have the same chance of her child being admitted to a good school as any other parent being served by the district. If the district has good schools and the parent shops wisely for one, the future of her child can be substantially improved.