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The Michael Brown saga offers school choice lessons

School Choice
School Choice
Photo credit: j neuberger via photopin cc

The Washington Post's Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, writes about Michael Brown's high school and makes the case for school choice.

If education is the gateway to a better future, the door at Normandy High School was shut long ago, fueling a mix of resignation and rage. Wax-Thibodeaux writes that the school system’s entrenched dysfunction helps explain the street anger that has unfolded in neighboring town of Ferguson since Brown was killed.

Imagine not just your neighborhood school, but your school district is failing. That your High school is considered the most dangerous school in the city, has abysmal test scores, under performing teachers, a student body in which nine of every 10 students qualify for subsidized or free lunches, and the graduation rate is less than 50 percent.

How's your imagination? Think about things getting even worse, so bad that the school district loses its state accreditation. That actually results in a little bit of hope. With the lose of accreditation, state law permits the students to transfer to other districts and the cost of the tuition and the transportation to and from the new school has to be paid by the no-longer accredited school district.

Then things get worse still. The additional expense for the students who transferred out of the unaccredited school, about $1.3 million a month, nearly bankrupts the school district.

That causes the state to take over the school district to protect it from bankruptcy. The state takeover eliminates the rationale for the transfers. So after spending a year adjusting to new schools — many predominantly white and more wealthy, students were told they would have to return to Michael Brown's terrible high school. Marva Robinson, a clinical psychologist, says this sends a message to the students, "Stay in your place. You don’t matter."

It gets even worse. When they return to Normandy High School, students find that 40 percent of the teachers are new. As a condition of taking over the failing school district, the state required that all the teachers were dismissed and forced to re-interview for their positions.

As Wax-Thibodeaux puts it, "The Normandy school district is on the front lines of the national school-choice debate."

School choice is all about public policy enabling families stuck with low-performing schools to being able to choose to attend higher-performing public and private schools in other districts. School choice encourages healthy competition among schools to better serve students. Parents are allowed to use the public funds set aside for their children's education to choose schools that work best for them.

Imagine how different things might have been for the students of Normandy High School if they were allowed to choose better schools for longer than one term. It's hard to imagine a better case for school choice. It's unfortunate that some school administrators and teacher unions such as those we have written about in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina fear the competition of school choice and turn to the courts to fight choice instead of embracing the competition.

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Franklin School Choice Fellow