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School Lesson Worth Studying

In Seattle’s public schools, the money follows the pupils. This open-market approach to public education rewards good schools and puts poor ones on notice to improve or risk diminished funding and ultimate closure. The results-oriented approach is the innovation of Supt. of Schools John Stanford, a retired Army general who took command three years ago. Stanford wants school principals to function like chief executive officers of businesses, satisfying the customers--the students and their parents. Yes, sir.

The new open-enrollment policy allows pupils to attend any school in the district, and it also puts pressure on schools--especially schools with small, low-achieving enrollments or skimpy curricula--to develop programs that attract and keep students. That places the onus on the principal and the staff to create an appealing environment; otherwise, they risk going out of business.

The most popular schools can’t take every student who wishes to enroll. Preference is given to students who live in the neighborhood, have a sister or brother on campus or whose race would promote integration at the school. Unpopular schools face closure because of inadequate funding.

Per-pupil funding for each school is traditionally based on attendance, but Seattle’s weighted formula gives more money to schools with enrollments that have higher needs. For instance, a school gets more money for a student if he or she is low-achieving, speaks limited English or is poor or disabled. The harder the challenge, the greater the reward. That’s fair.

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In Los Angeles, the school district has already moved toward open enrollment and many parents shop around for the best campuses, counting on luck and persistence to get their kids into magnet schools, special programs or a better school in their neighborhood. More pupils could take advantage of this limited freedom if their families could afford to pay transportation costs to send them to a better school far from home.

Seattle’s open-market approach to public education would not work as smoothly in the Los Angeles district because of serious overcrowding, but any success is worth at least some consideration here and elsewhere in California.


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