It’s a concern that’s repeated often enough: Performance of Anchorage schools could be better, but parents just aren’t involved. But, does the ASD board and administration want more parental involvement? A better question to ask is, “Does district policy encourage or discourage parental involvement?” Let’s consider an example:
What if a group of parents wanted to start a school that currently doesn’t exist? It’s possible, but there are some “hoops” that they need to jump through.
If a group of parents in Alaska wants to get together to start a school that can accept the per-student education dividend from Juneau (the district gets one for every child), they must obtain permission from the local school district, abide by collective bargaining agreements that they have no part in negotiating, hire maintenance and teaching staff from the local school district pool, and pay for a school building. You also have to hire your administrator from the school district pool.
These are the Alaska policies surrounding the creation of what are known as charter schools. Many states have charter school laws; some are very effective, and some aren’t effective at all.
In order for a charter school to be effective, it needs to be tied to a small community group committed to its vision for success or it needs to be headed up by an education entrepreneur who has a vision and can do what he or she needs to do to bring about that vision. Whether headed up by a native corporation, a chamber of commerce, a trade union, a religious community, or an educational entrepreneur, flexibility is needed for this kind of partnership to succeed. Lots of it.
There’s another kind of “hoop” that needs to be cleared, this time by the parent who wants to send their kid to a charter school. There are a limited number of slots in charter schools. If there are more students who want to go than there are slots, they are put on a waiting list.
Why is this an indicator of parental involvement? Because it says a lot about how much a parent wants to be involved if they apply for a slot in a charter school for their child. For whatever reason, they have perceived that the zip code school they have been assigned isn’t meeting their child’s needs, and that the charter school might be a better option (Additionally, if a slot in a charter school, is obtained the parent is responsible for transporting the child to the school; though the State of Alaska provides a piece of funding to transport your child to school, the district does not allow this funding to follow students to charter schools).
Flexibility is also necessary in this case. If your child’s school isn’t working, most parents would want to choose another school.
The rules and hoops required to start a charter school demonstrate that district policy doesn’t encourage parental involvement when it comes to starting a school, and the waiting list would indicate whether the district is actually attempting to encourage parental involvement via more options.
Given that the waiting list was more than 2200 applications from 1300 households last year, it appears that the district isn’t encouraging parental involvement through choices either. Below is a geographic distribution of the application waiting list. Not all of the applications were for charter schools, but all of them were seeking some option, and were placed on a waiting list.
Current Anchorage School District policy works against every one of the households indicated on this map. It’s almost as if the attack was planned: One strategy to discourage the supply; the other strategy to discourage the demand.
If Anchorage wants not only the best schools in the state, but also the best schools in the country, this is a policy regime that needs to be uprooted and replaced with a different mindset. State policymakers could help a great deal, but Anchorage School Board members don’t need to wait until the next Legislative session in Juneau. They can start tomorrow.
Jeremy Thompson is Executive Director of the Alaska Policy Forum.