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Public school choice in Baltimore furthers education inequities

At this moment, Baltimore City Public Schools 8th graders are immersed in the school choice process, deciding what school they will attend in the fall.

Despite its goal of providing better, more equitable educational opportunities for lower-income children, more than 10 years in, the promise of public school choice for these students has yet to be realized. In some ways, the school choice system replicates existing inequities.

One need only consult a map to see one of the most glaring examples: 19 special academic programs — including gifted and advanced learning — are in schools in Baltimore's highest median income neighborhoods, while only eight are in schools situated in the lowest median income neighborhoods. Students in these honors classes receive "weighted" grades that boost their GPA and increase their admission chances to academic criteria high schools. Students in lower income neighborhoods without as much access to honors classes are playing from behind before the first bell.

The implications are serious. Students who are admitted to one of the district's citywide academic criteria high schools are much more likely to attend college than students at traditional neighborhood high schools.

Over the past year, the Fund for Educational Excellence spoke with more than 400 city schools parents and high school students to understand what they encountered during the choice process and to uncover opportunities to improve access to selective admission high schools for lower-income students. We released our findings and recommendations today in a report entitled Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools.

We heard parents and students across all income levels and neighborhoods express a need for rigorous academics and instruction in all middle and high schools. Students reported that academic intensity varied greatly from one school to another. Many students said it was not until high school that they felt challenged by their coursework, while others said when they reached high school they were simply reviewing material they had already learned.

Participants also reported inconsistencies in school-based preparation for the choice process. Many students told of teachers and guidance counselors who enthusiastically provided information, advice and encouragement, while other students believed their school staff put in minimal effort in preparing them for school choice.

In their decision-making, participants cited school safety and environment as a key factor in choosing a high school. Parents were concerned for their child's well-being on public transit and returning from school after dark in the winter. A daily cross-town commute on public transit is a lot to ask of a 14-year-old high school freshman.

The fund came away from our research with two main conclusions. First, if we are to realize the promise of school choice in Baltimore, access to advanced academic courses should be expanded to under-served areas, especially in the south side of the city — where there currently are none.

Second, city schools must take a much more proactive approach to preparing students and parents for, and guiding them through, the choice process.

Specific recommendations to achieve these ends can be found in our report.

Analyzing the first decade of school choice in Baltimore reinforces the idea that solving inequity in our school system isn't just about offering opportunities.

If lower-income middle school students have no honors courses at their neighborhood middle school and inconsistent support in the choice process from school staff, are we really offering them a fair opportunity to attend an academic criteria high school? Or is this opportunity, in part, replicating the inequities lower-income families have to overcome?

We should not be satisfied with offering opportunities. Realizing the promise of school choice means ensuring equitable resources that help lower-income families take advantage of school choice just as wealthier families do. Only then will we see the results we want: All students realizing their potential.

Roger Schulman (rogers@ffee.org) is president and CEO of the Fund For Educational Excellence.

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