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A Matter of Equity

Ineffective schools hurt poor families most.


The 2003-2004 school year started like most new school years do, with high energy and high expectations for students, teachers, and school administrators. That September, according to Cities in Crisis, a new report released in April by America’s Promise Alliance, approximately 592,000 freshman high school students were enrolled in the principal school districts serving the nation’s 50 largest metro areas. Four years later in the spring of 2007, only 52 percent of these students graduated. That means that more than 280,000 students failed to graduate from these 50 districts, collectively accounting for 23 percent of the nation’s non-graduates, but only 14 percent of its ninth-graders.

There’s more. Only six of the principal school districts in the 50 largest metro areas met or exceeded the national average graduation rate of 70 percent, and only the top ranking 17 met or exceeded the average graduation rate of 60 percent for all urban districts across the country. Of these 50 districts, in the lowest ranking 17 more than half of the students failed to graduate, and in the bottom four—Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Detroit—fewer than 35 percent of the entering freshman in September 2003, graduated on time in 2007. The nation’s largest district, New York City Public Schools ranked 43rd, graduating just 45 percent of its entering freshman.

Students Fail, Teachers Pass

These dismal drop out numbers stand out even more when you consider the retention rate of teachers in the same districts. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which ranked 41st in the Cities in Crisis report, with a meager 45 percent graduation rate, rarely dismisses a tenured teacher. In fact, in the 10-year period from 1990-1999 the district retained all but one of the more than 30,000 tenured teachers in its employ.

Of these 50 districts, in the lowest ranking 17 more than half of the students failed to graduate.

The bottom ranking district in there port—the Detroit City School District—in 2007 graduated just 25 percent of the students enrolled as freshman in the district four years earlier, yet retained the vast majority of its tenured teachers. As I reported in my February column on teacher tenure, Art Przybylowicz, legal counsel for the state’s largest teachers’ union, recently told the Detroit Free Press “the paucity of [teacher dismissal] cases out there shows there just aren’t that many incompetent teachers.”

He may be right, but then clearly there is another problem. If graduation is a measure of school effectiveness and school success, as most of us believe it is, then we must conclude that many of these districts are ineffective for far too many students. They may indeed be filled with qualified and competent teachers, but then what’s causing them to be ineffective?

No Options

The answer to that question is a topic for a future column. For purposes of this one, suffice it to say that regardless of the underlying causes, it’s clear that these districts are not as effective as they need to be, and that creates an equity issue. It’s an equity issue of wealth and poverty, not of geography. The poor families served by school districts that fail to graduate even half of their students have no options but to continue to send their children to these schools and hope the results will improve. At the same time, wealthy parents can afford to continue subsidizing the failing schools while sending their children to more effective schools.

The most straight forward solution to this inequity is school choice for all students. It means creating a mechanism by which funding follows students. This will enable talented school leaders to create the schools they believe will best serve student needs and then compete for students and the funding that comes with them. School leaders must also be free to hire and fire the teachers and staff they need. School choice for all will inject unprecedented innovation and improvement into the system, but of course it will require massive changes in how school districts are structured and in the ways public funds for education are distributed. But the crisis is dramatic and urgent, and so must be our response.

Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.