Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Public school choice-letting parents decide which public school is the best place for their child and allowing and enabling the transfer to that school-is a key strategy in current federal legislation aimed at improving educational outcomes. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) supports choice through multiple grant programs as well as through the law's key accountability provisions: school districts with Title I schools deemed to be "in need of improvement" must offer parents an opportunity to move their children to schools that are meeting standards, and districts must pay for the transportation to make this move. These requirements are creating new forms of choice and causing many more districts and schools to grapple with how to implement choice effectively.

Public school choice is not itself a new idea, nor is it unique to NCLB. Districts offer parents choices in order to increase parent involvement, provide different types of learning environments that may better match children's needs, increase integration of schools, and encourage the creativity of educators, all in the service of improved outcomes for students. Harvard University researcher Carolyn Hoxby has documented that competition from choice improves the quality of education provided across a district.1 Public opinion polling has shown that the public strongly supports choice. In a 1999 poll by Public Agenda, 88 percent agreed with the statement "Parents should have the right to choose the school they want their child to attend."2

Districts operate choice programs that include a range of options for parents:

  • Open enrollment: Parents can choose among schools in a district, or even among districts. Thirty-three states have interdistrict open enrollment laws, and 15 require districts to offer open enrollment.3

  • Controlled choice or magnet schools: Special-focus schools are designed to attract students and integrate schools; some restrictions are made to balance enrollment. More than 1,350 magnet schools were reported in 1999-2000.4

  • Alternative schools: Designed to provide nurturing environments for students at risk of school failure, these schools enroll some 610,000 students.5

  • Concurrent enrollment: High school students attend college classes and receive both high school and postsecondary credit. Twenty-one states have comprehensive dual enrollment programs.6

  • Charter schools: Public charter schools are run by an independent operator under the oversight of a chartering authority, which may be the school district. Some districts seek charter schools as a way to expand the range of options available to students. As of January 2004, the nation had 2,996 charter schools.7

Clearly, public school choice is attractive to many districts as well as to parents. This guide is designed to help districts implement choice options more effectively. It draws on the concrete experiences of five districts that already had a history of implementing choice prior to NCLB. It provides ideas that have been implemented in these districts and elsewhere, as well as relevant research and resources.

Figure 1. Key Actions to Implement Choice

Action First Steps Going Deeper
Help Parents Make Informed Choices
  • Communicate clearly about NCLB choice options.
  • Provide personalized follow-up.
  • Get ahead of the deadlines with NCLB information.
  • Develop a multifaceted communications strategy.
  • Partner with community organizations.
  • Help parents understand their choices more fully.

Build District Infrastructure
  • Assign and coordinate responsibilities.
  • Determine space and transportation options.
  • Build information-processing capacity.
  • Expand space and transportation options.
  • Start new schools and programs.
  • Establish new outreach roles.
  • Increase community involvement.

Support Schools
  • Communicate to schools about choice.
  • Prepare schools to communicate with parents.
  • Make all schools "schools of choice."
  • Support receiving schools.
  • Help schools market their programs to parents.

Improve Programs Over Time
  • Track parent choices and school enrollments.
  • Survey parents about satisfaction and reasons for choices.
  • Learn from results.
  • Follow a strategic plan.

First Steps

At the most fundamental level, getting started with choice under NCLB will mean deciding who in the district office needs to do what-beginning with getting the message to parents and managing an enrollment process-on timelines constrained by the availability of state test data. These tasks are likely to be first in the minds of districts implementing choice under NCLB. In addition to more long-range options, this guide offers practical suggestions for "first steps" in each of several areas. (See figure 1 as an outline of the key actions, both initial and long-range, described in this guide.)

Some districts and schools are just learning about the NCLB choice provisions (see figure 2). After a school that receives federal Title I funding fails to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) for two consecutive years, that school is defined as "in need of improvement" and required actions set in (see figure 3). Parents must have the option of moving their child to a public school that is meeting standards. After three years missing AYP, the Title I school must offer parents an additional choice-supplemental educational services such as tutoring.* Choice remains an option if the school continues to miss AYP and enters the stages of corrective action or restructuring. (Information about federal resources under NCLB is available at

Figure 2. NCLB Choice Requirements

Children are eligible for school choice when the Title I school they attend has not made adequate yearly progress in improving student achievement— as defined by the state—for two consecutive years or longer and is therefore identified as needing improvement, corrective action, or restructuring. Any child attending such a school must be offered the option of transferring to a public school in the district—which may be a public charter school—not identified for school improvement, unless such an option is prohibited by state law. The district (subject to a spending cap in the legislation) must provide transportation to students who decide to change schools under this policy. In addition, children are eligible for school choice when they attend any “persistently dangerous school” or have been a victim on school grounds of a “violent” crime, as defined by the individual state.

[Source: Questions and Answers on No Child Left Behind,]

Going Deeper

While districts may launch a public school choice program in order to comply with NCLB requirements, many have found that public school choice is a valuable part of a comprehensive district strategy for systemic change. Districts such as the five profiled in this guide, or others with a history of choice, find compelling reasons to encourage parental choice. Seeking fundamentally to improve student achievement, they see that choice creates a number of benefits that contribute to such achievement, including the following8:

Figure 3. Adequate Yearly Progress Timeline

School Year 1 Does not make AYP  

School Year 2 Does not make AYP  

School Year 3 1st year of school improvement
  • Technical assistance
  • Public school choice

School Year 4 2nd year of school improvement
  • Technical assistance
  • Public school choice
  • Supplemental educational services
  • increased parent satisfaction,

  • greater parent commitment,

  • distinctive learning environments to meet different needs,

  • more creativity among educators,

  • increased economic and racial integration across schools, and

  • increased organizational coherence.

Districts that embrace choice as part of their overall strategy can integrate NCLB choice into a more comprehensive approach-not "layering it on" but making it part of a coherent program. Districts then have the opportunity to implement their programs over time, developing them more fully, and continuously improving them. They are able to set their own parameters: timelines that allow more deliberate decision-making, broad community involvement in program design, and evaluation data to guide local program improvement.

The examples and practical suggestions in this guide are intended to support thoughtful implementation over time. Key actions are described in the chapters that follow in terms of "First Steps," followed by suggestions for "Going Deeper" (see figure 1). For example, if getting a clear letter to parents informing them of their NCLB choice options is a first step, then going deeper entails a more diversified communication strategy that might include community fairs, marketing, and targeted personal outreach.

Case Study Sites and Methodology

Five districts are profiled in this guide: Cambridge, Mass.; Desert Sands, Calif.; Mesa, Ariz.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and Milwaukee, Wis. Basic statistics about these districts appear in figure 4.

These districts were selected because of their experience with choice. Each provided choice options within the district prior to NCLB. Some, but not all, are recipients of grants under the U.S. Department of Education's Voluntary Public School Choice program and Magnet Schools Assistance program. In addition, they exist in a broader context of choice: in each district, charter schools authorized by entities other than the district are in operation; both Milwaukee and Miami-Dade have state-funded voucher programs that enable parents to send their children to private schools; Mesa and Miami-Dade are in states that give tax credits for donations to scholarship funds for poor students. (For more information about the context of each district and its history with school choice, see appendix A.)

The experiences of operating choice programs and observing the dynamics of a competitive choice system have taught these districts valuable lessons. Their practices have evolved and been tested over time and can serve as a reference point for others thinking through choice implementation. Yet even with a histroy of choice, these districts often found the requirements and timelines of NCLB choice to be challenging. They had to set up new enrollment periods and communicate to parents about a new set of options. The number of parents taking up the NCLB option to transfer to another school has sometimes been small, whether because of early implementation challenges, delayed timelines, and incomplete communications, which can be expected to be addressed over time; or because there is little pent-up demand for the options available in these districts, where thousands of parents already exercise choice. These districts, like others, need to gear up to fully promote NCLB choice and reach out to parents. They are not perfect; their choice initiatives are very much works in progress, but their previous experiences and lessons learned can help others along the road.

Figure 4. Demographics of Five Profiled School Districts

These five districts were selected from a larger set of possible sites as part of the benchmarking methodology that underlies this study. Twenty-three districts were identified as potential sites because they were mentioned in previous research on choice or suggested by the advisory group. Existing public data and targeted interviews provided preliminary information about these districts that was used to "screen" sites and identify those that appeared to have practices in place in several key operational areas. For example, they had clearly articulated placement plans, communications strategies that had evolved over time, and local data that they used to guide improvements.

This exploratory, descriptive study is adapted from the four-phase benchmarking process used by the American Productivity and Quality Center (see appendix B for further details). In benchmarking, organizations analyze their own operations and look to promising practice partners for ideas of specific practices that might help them improve. For this study, an advisory group of researchers and practitioners with expertise in choice helped guide the focus of the study. Their input, together with an examination of research literature and an analysis of NCLB requirements, led to the study scope (see appendix B).

Descriptions of the districts' practices were collected through a combination of individual interviews, conference calls, and one-day site visits. The districts arranged contacts with staff and community members knowledgeable about the study topics and also provided copies of artifacts such as sample letters, plans, pamphlets, schedules, and so forth. Individual case reports summarized practices and lessons learned in each site; a cross-site analysis organized the findings by topic and revealed common patterns. This guide is adapted from the full research report. Individual district results from specific practices, their rationales for what they did, patterns of consistency across districts, and common sense, along with the initial framework, led to the themes and suggested actions in this guide.

This descriptive research process suggests promising practices-ways to do things that others have found helpful or lessons they have learned about what not to do-and practical, "how-to" guidance. This is not the kind of experimental research that can yield valid causal claims about what works. Readers should judge for themselves the merits of these practices, based on their understanding of why they should work, how they fit the local context, and what happens when they actually try them. Also, readers should understand that these descriptions are not intended to add any requirements beyond what is already in the NCLB statute and regulations.

* A forthcoming guide in this series will cover supplemental educational services.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009