When it comes to educational choice and competition, Mecklenburg County ranks about in the middle of the pack, while Wake County is among the leaders. That's the conclusion of The Brookings Institution, which today released ratings of the nation's 25 largest school districts, along with the charter and private schools that offer alternatives in those counties.
Brookings worked from the premise that students benefit when their families have alternatives to their assigned neighborhood schools, whether in the form of magnets, charters, affordable private schools or online learning. Too often , study author Grover "Russ" Whitehurst writes, real choice is available only to families who earn enough to move to neighborhoods with the best schools or pay private-school tuition.
Whitehurst created a 13-item choice and competition index that includes such things as the number of alternatives available in each area, the quality and clarity of data available to help families make choices and the willingness of school districts to let family choice influence decisions about school budgets and even closings. New York City took the top spot with a B grade. Wake was No. 4 with a B-, and CMS was 11th with a C+ . Orange County, Fla. , was last with a D. (Read the list here.)
Both Mecklenburg and Wake rated high on options available and accessible online information about school quality . In both N.C. counties, roughly 80 percent of school-age children attend regular public schools, with the rest divided among charters, private schools and home-schooling. Both districts offer an array of magnets.
Wake County Public Schools rated high on closing schools that aren't popular with parents, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools landed at the bottom of that list. Mecklenburg got a low rating on providing transportation as part of school choice. CMS recently cut back on busing to magnets, and N.C. charter schools are not required to offer transportation.
In an interview Tuesday, Whitehurst said he was impressed with the data CMS offers families to help them compare and choose schools. But he said he's disappointed that the district backed away from the "choice plan" that rolled out in 2002, offering families options to switch their kids to other nonmagnet schools. That plan created crowding at some schools and underenrollment at others, which led CMS leaders to limit choices. Whitehurst, who directs Brookings' Brown Center on Education Policy, said CMS would have served students better by closing the schools that families fled and expanding those that attracted students.
"It was disappointing to see a good choice system in place ... kind of collapsing because of the difficulty of dealing with the demand," he said.
Brookings, a nonpartisan research and policy group based in Washington, D.C., hopes the index sparks discussion of ways to increase choice. Whitehurst said he plans to update the index to include the 100 largest districts and their environs by this time next year.
Choice is a front-burner issue in North Carolina, with the legislature's recent decision to lift the 100-school cap on charters. Earlier this fall, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina held meetings around the state to encourage people of color to launch charters; the Charlotte session drew more than 350 people.