The Brookings Institution used to be referred to as a liberal think tank. In reality, it was a nonpartisan think tank that hired former high-level officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations and produced valuable studies and reports. As I was ending my time in the first Bush administration in late 1992, the president of Brookings came to my office at the US Department of Education and invited me to accept the Brown Chair in Education Policy. Since I did not want to live permanently in DC, I declined his offer but agreed to be a Senior Fellow. I was in residence at Brookings until 1995, wrote a book on national standards, then returned to Brooklyn. I continued to be a Non-Resident Senior Fellow until 2012, when I was summarily fired from my unpaid position by Grover Whitehurst, who joined Brookings as chair of the Brown Policy program after serving as director of education research in the George W. Bush administration. Perhaps it was happenstance, but the email from Whitehurst came a few hours after the online release of my blistering critique of Mitt Romney, whom Whitehurst was advising. Whitehurst fired me because, he said, I was “inactive.”

Whitehurst served for a few years as head of the Brown Center but was quietly removed as the Chair. Now, he uses Brookings and its prestige to promote the Republican agenda of privatization.

Here is the latest, in which Whitehurst plugs charters because “We do not know how to create or sustain uniformly great neighborhood schools.” He should have added that “We also don’t know how to create or sustain uniformly great charter schools.” There is no existence proof, even though charters choose their students and exclude students with serious disabilities and ELLs and push out behavior problems. Residents of Clark County, Nevada, may be surprised to see that he raised their grade, since most charters in Nevada are failing schools, concentrated in Clark County, and the funding for the voucher program (which he hails) has been halted by state courts. Columbus, Ohio, got good marks even though the scandal-ridden charters in Ohio have become a bad joke.

To make sure that everyone noticed that Brookings was linking its reputation to the most controversial, least qualified member of the Trump cabinet, DeVos was invited to speak at the press conference on the only subject she knows: the glories of school choice.

The press release reads:

School Choice Increasing Nationally; Secretary DeVos to Speak at Release of Brookings’ Annual School Choice Rankings
Proportion of large school districts allowing choice has nearly doubled since 2000; Denver wins top spot for large districts for second year in a row

Rankings from Brookings’ 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI)—an annual ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts—will be unveiled today at a Brookings event featuring keynote remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. You can watch a livestream of the Secretary’s remarks at 9:30 AM EDT.

In a summary of the results (PDF), ECCI’s author and Brookings Senior Fellow Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst highlights the growth of choice across the nation’s school districts according to trends tracked by ECCI, many of which can be observed since 2000. Whitehurst notes that the proportion of large school districts allowing choice has nearly doubled over the past 16 years. That coincides with other measures of the growth of school choice, including that the number of large districts for which charter school enrollment is at least 30 percent of total public enrollment has increased from one to ten.

Whitehurst writes: “There is no question empirically that opportunities for parents to choose among traditional public schools for their children, to choose a charter school, and to receive a financial subsidy to attend a private school have grown leaps and bounds in the last 15-20 years. The traditional school district model is no longer the monopoly it used to be.”

The ECCI is not designed to answer causal questions about what system or education delivery mechanism works best, but to reveal what’s happening on the ground by providing a snapshot of choice and competition in each district and allowing for comparisons of specific policies and practices across districts. The rankings are based on objective scoring of 13 categories of education policy and practice. School choice options considered by the rankings include: the opportunity of choosing any traditional public school in a district (open enrollment), charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, and affordable private schools.

Whitehurst notes that critics of school choice often assert that the alternative to choice is to assure that every public school is of high quality, but that “universal access to a great neighborhood school is a pipedream.”

“We do not know how to create or sustain uniformly great neighborhood schools. There is no existing proof that we do, and there is strong empirical evidence that the performance of schools varies substantially everywhere there are large numbers of schools to compare…School choice is one way of addressing the reality of the normal curve of school performance by giving parents the opportunity of moving their children out of schools that are in the lower tail of the distribution.”

Students in the nation’s 100+ largest school districts are overwhelmingly (91 percent) in public schools, with 56 percent of the ECCI districts allowing choice within the traditional public schools. According to Whitehurst, “advocates of school choice should take note of the reality that for the foreseeable future the greatest opportunities for the expansion of choice are in the public school sector through furthering the reach of open enrollment.”

Denver, which received the highest score on this year’s ECCI, and the Recovery District serving New Orleans are the only two districts in the ECCI that receive grades of A on school choice. Both are characterized by: open enrollment and a centralized assignment process requiring a single application from parents for all public schools; a good mix and utilization by parents of alternatives to traditional public schools; rich information to parents to support school choice, including a school assignment website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools; funding that follows students to the school in which they enroll; a fair and efficient formula for matching school assignments for students to the expressed preferences of their parents; and provisions for transportation of students to schools of choice outside their neighborhoods.

Notably, Camden City School District in New Jersey and Clark County School District in Nevada saw substantive enough changes to move them from receiving an F in the previous year to a B- and C-, respectively. Clark County’s increase in score was largely due to Nevada’s Educational Choice Scholarship program, which was enacted and launched in 2015. Camden, NJ experienced a dramatic increase in score and grade on the 2016 ECCI by virtue of rolling out a new process for school search, application, and assignment.

New to the top 10 list this year are Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, while Baltimore and Tucson dropped off. Chicago showed a score increase due to its decision to include data on student growth among the information on school performance provided to parents on its website. The score for Columbus increased, in part, because the district documented a student-based funding formula for schools.

Almost one-quarter, or 26 of the 112 school districts scored on the 2016 ECCI, received a grade of F, meaning that families have very little in the way of school choice other than what they can exercise by choosing to live within the geographical assignment zone of their preferred public school. Or, if they do provide school choice, the process is hidden from parents.

You can learn more about the 2016 ECCI rankings by exploring an interactive breakdown of results or reading a report of topline takeaways (PDF).

Delaney Parrish
Assistant Director of Communications, Economic Studies
202-797-2969 | | @DParrish
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Washington, DC 20036