Students in Alabama hoping for more experienced teachers, better facilities and top-notch sports and arts programs may be able to get their wish simply by switching schools, thanks to a new bill signed by Governor Robert Bentley.
The bill renders school districts and boundaries obsolete by opening up enrollment in public schools to any students who want to attend, regardless of their address. The state will even provide tax credits to “parents who want to transfer their children from a failing public school to another public or private school” (NPR).
The controversial Alabama Accountability Act has already been criticized for containing outdated information about what defines a “failing” school. One portion of the drafted bill, which would allow schools to choose which students they will accept, was omitted from the final version. Despite these flaws, the bill will likely be revised “after [it] becomes law, rather than hav[ing] Bentley send the bill back to the legislators” (NPR).
An unsettling lack of structure
Governor Bentley’s strong support of the bill is, to many, surprising. He tweeted, “For the first time ever, we’re giving all public schools the flexibility they need to better serve their students.”
But is that statement really true?
Yes, allowing students to attend any school, regardless of districts or boundaries, may benefit some students who are unhappy with their assigned school, or whose families feel that their housing choices are limited because of school boundaries. But overall, it seems that this purported “flexibility” could lead to overcrowded classrooms, depleted resources at desirable schools, and decreased educational opportunities as students pour into well-regarded districts.
Another concern is that low-income students who already attend failing schools and are unable to afford transportation to more distant, better performing schools will be left in the dust as more affluent classmates grasp for better educational opportunities.
Birmingham News political reporter Kyle Whitmire pointed out that the bill could cause “brain drain, that sort of concentrates your most challenged students in school systems that are already having problems” (NPR).
Typically, school system boundaries are only suspended for extenuating circumstances, such as in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when students in New York were encouraged to attend any school that they could physically get to. But generally, school boundaries are seen as a necessary part of our educational infrastructure, to ensure that student populations are (relatively) balanced and that everyone gets (pretty much) the same opportunities.
No doubt about it, there are huge differences in quality between individual schools in many areas of the country, and we need to continue to brainstorm ways to fix those inconsistencies. But creating what basically amounts to a free-for-all educational system is not the way to do it.
Photo credit: AnotherPictureToBurn