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Take it from a New Orleans charter school teacher: Parents don't always get school choice right

“Cohen — isn’t that a ghetto school?” the mom filling out her son’s application to a New Orleans high school asked me.

It was July of 2015, and we were sitting across from each other at an open enrollment fair at Dillard University, where it seemed as if the whole city had shown up to choose charter schools for their children. I was there as a volunteer to help parents sift through their options and fill out school applications. I struggled to figure out how to answer this woman’s question.

As a teacher at Cohen College Prep, I knew it to be one of her son’s best options, boasting the highest college acceptance rate of any open-enrollment high school in the city. But in my duties as a volunteer that day, I was prohibited from giving any opinion that could influence her decision.

“Cohen earned a B last year, according to the state,” I finally responded weakly.

“Hmm,” she said, turning to her son whose future we were trying to determine. “What do you think?”

“I want to go to Lake Area,” he said. “They say it’s fun there.”

My stomach sank. I had taught at Lake Area too. Despite the Herculean efforts of many of my old colleagues, Lake Area traditionally bounced between a C and a D. I knew firsthand that this child would not receive the same quality of education there as he would at Cohen.

Saying nothing, I checked to see how many seats Lake Area had left. It was full.

“Sorry,” I said. “Lake Area was a popular choice this year.”

It had been that way for the past few years. Despite its poor rankings, Lake Area consistently remained one of parents’ top choices. Cohen, meanwhile, struggled each year to persuade parents to send their students there. When I signed on as a civics teacher in 2015, 71% of the graduating class had enrolled in a four-year college, compared with 55% of Lake Area’s. But while class sizes ballooned at Lake Area, Cohen was under-enrolled by several hundred students.

How could a D school be a top-five pick with parents while a B school ranked near the bottom of the barrel? Here was the free-market theory of parent choice played out like Milton Friedman and Los Angeles’ new school board member, Nick Melvoin, imagined — except parents weren’t always choosing the best schools.

Why?

The answer is a cautionary tale for Los Angeles, where the new school board, sworn in on Friday, has made it clear that it will make parent choice a priority.

During my three years teaching in New Orleans, I heard hundreds of reasons why parents chose the schools they did. Some, at Lake Area, liked the brand-new building. In a city where Hurricane Katrina had pulverized the majority of the city, appearances mattered. The sleek glass angles of Lake Area were a source of pride, whereas the bleak concrete of Cohen suggested a history of hardship many preferred to forget.

Other parents cared about safety, and rightly so. Whereas Cohen had existed as a neighborhood school for years (a conversion, as we would call it in L.A.), Lake Area was a start-up. That meant that Cohen had decades to acquire a reputation for being a rough school, while Lake Area began with a spotless record. Although I witnessed far more fights at Lake Area than I ever did at Cohen — where new leadership had created a much calmer, better-run school —parents’ institutional memories were slow to change.

Other families cared deeply about sports, choosing schools based on athletics rather than academics. For some students and their parents, getting a sports scholarship was the best ticket to college they felt they had. Considering the fact that, prior to Katrina, 62% of New Orleans students attended what today would be considered an F school, it wasn’t an irrational premise. Just outdated.

Over and over again, I watched parents make choices that weren’t academically sound — a giant wrinkle for parent-choice theory. While I’ve been thrilled to see New Orleans parents choosing more A and B schools in recent years, thousands of students remain enrolled in lower-performing schools while seats at better schools remain open. Students who could have gone to college may never get the chance.

The lesson for Los Angeles is that parent choice is not a perfect substitute for quality. It’s imperative that the school board make student performance — not choice — the focal point of its decisions, especially when weighing which schools to open and which to close.

It’s hardly an enviable task, especially when faced with rows of emotional parents armed with speaker cards, and school data still so murky.

California’s Department of Education could help ease the shift by releasing the new state test data to an impartial institution like Stanford’s Center on Research for Educational Outcomes. CREDO’s last study comparing charter student performance with traditional student performance in L.A. uses data from five years ago that does not reflect the new Common Core tests that Los Angeles has since adopted.

The California Charter School Assn. has a complementary role to play. If an institution such as CREDO indeed shows that students in charter schools are doing better, skeptics will continue to argue it is because charter schools exclude vulnerable populations, who are harder to educate. The California Charter School Assn. could preemptively silence such a debate by welcoming equity and transparency bills. With hope, the group’s newfound support for SB 1360, which would make it harder for charter schools to cherry pick students and expel those who aren’t excelling, harbingers a new direction for the organization, which traditionally has lobbied against such legislation.

I watched thousands of students in New Orleans receive a subpar education because policymakers oversubscribed to the free-market notion that parents will fix the schools if only you let them vote with their feet. Los Angles can avoid the same mistake — but only if it stops emphasizing “parent choice” and starts emphasizing quality.

cassady.rosenblum@latimes.com

@cassadyariel

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