Does San Francisco have school choice?

August 21, 2014 | By JONATHAN WILLIAMS

This article in the San Francisco Examiner reminded me of the importance of school choice. The author noted the wide disparity in educational options for rich and poor kids in San Francisco. A related story notes that frustrations are growing for families unable to send their children to neighborhood schools. The unifying theme of these two stories is that middle-class and wealthy families have fled the traditional public school system, and are instead enrolling their children in private schools. When faced with the option of busing their children hours across town or scraping together thousands of dollars to send their children to private schools, families with means are choosing the latter option. In fact, more than 1 in 4 children withdraw from public schools in order to attend private ones. This has produced a divided system where 60 percent of public school students are poor enough for free or reduced-price lunches while those who can afford to leave get out.

Milton Friedman noted that one of the major benefits of school vouchers was that they allowed poor parents the right to attend the same schools as the wealthy or upper middle class. This is important because parents given the option to choose their child’s education are the ones most likely to advocate for and improve local schools. In addition, more parental involvement results in increased academic performance. But according to one of the stories linked above, it is “school choice” that is creating the shortage of good schools, and forcing wealthy parents to opt out of the public school system. Is that really what’s happening?

The first step is finding out what entices parents to leave. San Francisco’s “school choice” program only allows students to choose between San Francisco’s public schools. Accordingly, it leaves parents’ subject to a lottery—in one case 1,800 parents applied for 18 spots— and creates a shortage of appealing and academically challenging schools. Parents may not choose private schools. So, if a parent does not secure one of those coveted slots at one of the successful public schools, they are increasingly likely to leave the public school system altogether.

Private schools have responded by producing challenging curriculum that includes student specific instruction—including language schools, math academies, and a variety of other options that attract financially secure families. Public schools could try incorporating challenging academics into the public school curriculum. However, instead of taking this approach many have adopted a one-size-fits-all model where high achieving students tutor those stuck behind.

Alternatively, instead of spending money to send kids to failing public schools, San Francisco could work to undo policies that prevent California parents from using vouchers for private schools. By removing this impediment, poor parents would be able to move their children into more challenging schools. This would not only increase access it could also make a significant dent in income inequality.

As these stories reveal, San Francisco and other cities aren’t suffering from school choice. Instead, impoverished children are left with too little.