By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- An Albany-area research group is calling for a statewide open enrollment program that gives parents a choice of public schools for their children.
The Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability argued in a report Monday that establishing school-choice programs around New York would increase poor and minority students' access to high-quality public education.
The group, a state policy think tank that supports charter schools and vouchers, pointed to open-enrollment programs already in place in Rochester, Buffalo and New York City as a start.
"Chronically-failing schools, which are overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income urban neighborhoods, are one of the primary causes of the income- and racially-based performance gaps generated by New York's educational system," B. Jason Brooks, director of research, said in a statement. "There appears to be no end in sight to this educational neglect."
The state could boost academic performance, particularly among disadvantaged students, by adopting open-enrollment policies, which allow parents to choose schools within a district or another district for their children to attend. The reform would not require "significant new public funding," the report said.
The report contends that "throwing more money at the problem" of educational inequity and unideal graduation rates has not been effective.
Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil costs have doubled nationwide in nearly four decades, growing from an average of $4.552 in 1970 to $10,441 in 2007, an increase of 129 percent, the report said. That change is more dramatic in New York, with a 150 percent increase over the same period, from $6,787 to $17,029.
The report cited U.S. Census Bureau data that showed New York spent $18,618 per student in 2009-10, which is 75 percent higher than the national average, $10,615. The state spends $1,777 more per student than the second-ranking state, New Jersey.
New York ranks 38th in the nation in high school graduation rates. Seventy-three percent of students in the state graduate high school, and 37 percent are considered "college ready," the report said.
The report claims that the state education system needs a massive overhaul.
"Continued significant underperformance overall and a sizable and unacceptable racial academic performance gap will remain for additional generations unless meaningful, widespread public education reform is achieved."
Carl Korn, spokesman for NYSUT, the statewide teachers union, said the report ignores achievements made by New York's schools in recent years.
"The vast majority of New York's public schools are successful and have made tremendous gains over the last decade," Korn said. "To suggest that New York's public education system is somehow failing shows how out of touch (the group) is with what's going on in public schools."
Korn said opportunities for school-choice already exist; the reform group contends these options are written in weak legislation that restricts access.
The union spokesman said statewide school choice programs are unrealistic. The measure hasn't gained traction in the state Legislature.
"Even if this were to become widespread, geography and the lack of empty seats throughout the state would make it a moot point," Korn said.
The report pushes for the state to mandate intradistrict open enrollment programs for all grades in the "Big Five" school districts: New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.
Buffalo already has an intradistrict program, where families can submit preferences for which schools they want. In Rochester, an interdistrict program exists where students in city schools can apply to attend better-performing suburban schools. New York City schools offer both types of programs.
"All families enrolling children in public schools would be asked to select the schools in which they wish to enroll their children, and districts would be prohibited from having zoned schools where students are assigned based on residency," the group's proposal said. "When placing students, certain preferences, such as for siblings, could be established without seriously hindering the underlying choice-driven system."
The report also suggests a mandatory interdistrict open-enrollment program statewide that would prioritize allowing students in chronically failing schools to attend high-performing schools in other districts. All students would be eligible under the group's proposed plan, but there would be a tiered enrollment preference structure that would would benefit low-income students attending failing schools and other disadvantaged students.
Providing transportation would be mandatory for schools, and high-performing schools would be required to participate. The report argues that the funding would follow the student to whichever school he or she attended.
Read the full report here: http://www.nyfera.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/FERA-Report-Open-Enrollment.pdf