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A primer on school choice

Op-ed: Maryland's experience with school choice might provide a primer for the rest of the nation.

One education issue, school choice, took a prominent place during this election year debate. But what exactly is school choice, and can it be implemented in a way that is beneficial to all students, educators and communities? Maryland is often called "America in Miniature." Maryland's experience with school choice might provide a primer for the rest of the nation.

Maryland has had a long history with holding schools accountable for student achievement. Over two decades ago, Maryland, and then the federal government, began mandating school options for students in low performing schools. For example, under certain circumstances, parents were given the choice to transfer their children to higher performing schools. While one might think this would be an attractive opportunity for parents, very few transfers were requested. The reality was that parents sought to keep their children in their neighborhood school, often the same school where the parents attended. Parents were unwilling to have their children, especially elementary school-aged children, transported to other neighborhoods. Safety was a main concern. In Maryland's urban districts, parents have supported strengthening community schools and opening charter schools as better choice options.

In Maryland, charter schools are public schools that are typically operated by third parties. Charter schools are given authority to implement innovative programs and teaching methods. Most charter schools are open to all students, often through a lottery system. The most successful charter schools are those that have grass-roots parent involvement, are able to instill a strong school culture that is embraced by students, teachers, families and partners, and provide expanded learning opportunities. Maryland has over 50 charter schools, the majority of which are elementary/middle schools.

Charter schools at the high school level face challenges. Across the nation, charter high schools are often less attractive to students because they are less likely to be able to provide the variety of academic programs and extracurricular athletic and fine arts programs available in most large comprehensive public high schools. For high school students, magnet programs show greater promise. Magnet schools are public schools that have specialized programs emphasizing a consistent theme, curriculum or method of teaching. Magnet schools provide students with choice beyond their zoned schools. In Maryland, the most successful magnet programs have been those that set high admission standards and require competition for enrollment. Schools for the arts and the International Baccalaureate programs are perhaps the best known, and most successful type of these magnet programs. However, these programs are not available to every student.

Another type of magnet school is the "themed" high school. These schools attract students with interests in a particular content area such as health sciences, STEM, law and law enforcement, or the design arts. These schools are smaller public high schools, or a school within a school, that serve interested students on a first come, first served basis. Because these schools provide students with opportunities to explore their interests, themed schools report increased attendance and graduation rates, and decreased disciplinary instances. However, student achievement results are mixed. The most successful themed schools infuse their theme into every academic course. When teachers are content rich in the theme and able to adapt to a non-traditional curriculum, student achievement rises.

In recent years, states have also begun to administer opportunity scholarship tax credit programs. These programs allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private nonprofit organizations that issue scholarships to K-12 students. The scholarship allows a student to choose among a list of non-public schools, and sometimes public schools outside of the district. Maryland administers a "BOOST" program that works with an advisory board to allocate up to $5 million to provide scholarships for economically disadvantaged students to attend non-public schools. In its first year, it is too early to determine whether this program will have a positive impact on student achievement.

Several states have adopted voucher programs. These programs allow economically disadvantaged families to have a portion of a non-public school's tuition covered by state funds. These programs are not open to all students and are limited by the number of seats available in the non-public schools. Maryland does not fund typical school vouchers.

As you can see, school choice covers much ground. Instead of mandating a "one size fits all approach," students are best served when states and local school districts work collaboratively to select and implement the choice options that work best for their students, teachers and communities. I hope Maryland will continue to take this thoughtful approach.

Nancy S. Grasmick is a presidential scholar at Towson University and a former Maryland superintendent of schools. Her email is ngrasmick@towson.edu.

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