Guest commentary: School choice advances promising _lowres

Erica McConduit-Diggs

As the school enrollment deadline approaches on Feb. 27, I pause to reflect on the meaning of school choice.

While the word “choice” has many different connotations in New Orleans, my hope is that true school choice means that all children have the choice to go to a high quality school. We are not there yet, but there have certainly been improvements along the way.

In a recent report released by the Education Research Alliance, “What Schools Do Families Want (and Why)? New Orleans Families and Their School Choices Before and After Katrina,” Doug Harris’ main findings are that the lowest-income families have greater access to higher quality schools post-Katrina because schools’ test scores have increased, transportation has expanded and higher quality schools are located near low-income neighborhoods. This is good news.

Naturally, we know that “higher” is better than “lower,” so by virtue of a pure comparison we have room to give credit where credit is due. However, in large part, the fact remains that we are still far from excellence.

In our Urban League report, “Parent Perspectives: Parental Engagement in Education Reform in New Orleans,” our findings indicate that limited seats at high quality schools, schools’ limited capacity to enroll siblings, and schools’ lack of capacity to support children with special needs are among several issues that threaten school choice. These and other reasons are why many parents still express frustration when “choosing” a school.

In addition to New Orleans offering more “choices” after the storm, certain policies like OneApp and letter grades have been put in place that have resulted in parents focusing more on academics when choosing schools for their children. These, too, are steps in the right direction. Yet, there is still work to be done for quality as well as equity of access, as nine schools out of the 80 schools in the city are still not in OneApp. In order for parents to have true choice, all schools must be a part of this process.

Ultimately, the value of school choice lies in families’ access to options that are desirable. We must make sure that all of our families have access to the best schools in the city, ultimately fulfilling the promise of public education to equitably serve all students.

The report findings reiterate the importance of continuing to increase the number of quality schools and needed supports available to our families. According to Harris, “Choice is not enough and it is only real when parents are well informed and can readily access the schools they prefer.”

The Urban League of Greater New Orleans agrees with this and has made it one of our priorities to provide parents with the information they need to make informed choices. As evidence of our continued commitment, we are hosting the ninth-annual Schools Expo from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Plaza Gate A.

At the expo, parents will be able to meet representatives from public as well as parochial schools, so they can explore and feel more comfortable about their enrollment options. Parents will be able to apply to schools on-site, including the Louisiana scholarship schools. In addition, numerous community resource providers and language interpreters will be on-site. As a family-friendly experience, adults and kids will enjoy free access to the following giveaways and activities: STEM NOLA, space walks, a rock climbing wall, miniature golf, school performances, health screenings, food, backpacks, school supplies and uniform vouchers!

While “choice” remains somewhat elusive, I am encouraged by the continued focus on delivering high quality options for all families in the city. I also believe that in order to achieve excellence in public education in New Orleans, every child must have the option and fair and equitable access to attend the high quality school they desire.

It is our responsibility to continue to improve the level of information and access to these schools so every student and parent can have the knowledge and ability to choose what is right for their child. The Urban League will continue its mission to ensure that school choice is a reality for all families in New Orleans.

Erica McConduit-Diggs is president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.