Successfully Competing For Students
In 2000, 48 percent of parents in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District chose to opt out of that public school system. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the district was in poor shape. The district was struggling academically, its buildings had fallen into disrepair. The district’s buildings certainly did not sound inviting, according to reporter Elisa Crouch’s description:
The high school was surrounded by barbed wire. Doors with broken locks were chained shut or jammed with broom sticks. Science labs had no running water. Gangs used school walls for graffiti.
That was when Superintendent Linda Henke started at the district. Now, 12 years later, as she retires, the district is much better off. It has made big strides academically, with its students outperforming the state average in Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test scores. The buildings look more inviting.
According to the Post-Dispatch, Henke had to make tough decisions to improve the district. She terminated 30 teachers, a no small feat given how hard it can be to fire a teacher in Missouri, and the teachers’ union sued the district. The Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District also successfully passed a tax levy increase in 2010 during the midst of a recession.
But the best sign of the district’s success is that more area parents are opting to send their children to public schools. Now, 75 percent of neighborhood children are enrolled in the district. Though some of this change is due to the recession and parents no longer able to afford private school tuition, most of this change is likely attributable to the positive changes made at the district. Parents are capable of recognizing educational success, and many will, if able, leave a failing district by moving or finding a better educational alternative.
But for every success story like that at Maplewood-Richmond Heights, there are districts that are falling behind with many parents unable to afford a better option. Instead of relegating students to a failing district for who knows how long, wouldn’t it be better if districts were held accountable for failure and rewarded for success?
One way to do this would be to allow parents to choose what school (and what district) their child attends, with the child taking his or her per-pupil funding to the chosen school. That way, successful districts would attract more students (and funding), while failing districts would have to compete for students and funding, or risk being closed. If competition for students can work for Maplewood, why can’t it work for the rest of the state?