What can Mexico teach us about School Choice?

Thank you Education Gadfly:

Whenever a legislative measure is aimed at the imbalance of power between parents and public school interests, it’s often the poorest families who suffer the greatest indignity in the debate.

After Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed a sweeping voucher program for low-income students, the head of the state’s teachers union, Michael Walker Jones, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that parents living just out of poverty’s reach would have neither the time nor the knowledge to make the right educational decisions. In another case, an Orlando Sentinel editorial panned a proposed “parent trigger” bill working its way through the Florida legislature by asserting that parents in the worst performing schools would be unable “to face a steep and brief learning curve in making such a game-changing call.”

So what can a sample of relatively poor families in Mexico do to inform the conversation? That’s what a team of researchers set out to explore in several rural Mexican states participating in a decentralized government education program we might consider almost revolutionary in the United States.

Paul Gertler, Harry Patrinos, and Marta Rubio-Codina examined an initiative that directly involved parents in the management of schools located in disadvantaged communities. The program, Apoyo a la Gestiόn Escolar (School Management Support), gives seed money to parent associations so that they can make improvements to a school’s resources and materials. In return, the parents must commit to greater involvement with the school and they must receive instruction in school-based management.

Parents, even those a step above poverty, are ready to exercise more control over their children’s education.

The results of the study were published in September in the Journal of Development Economics. The program, the authors concluded, showed increased parental participation in school matters and improved communication between parents and teachers. Parents involved in the management of school affairs were more likely to complain about poor teaching and teacher absence, and they were more likely to know when their child was performing poorly and when to intervene.

And because parents were more accountable for their children’s performance, the researchers found that their intervention led to a decrease in failing grades and a decrease in grade repetition for students in primary school grades. Students moved ahead by about a year in reading and math after dropout rates fell by more than 1.5 percentage points.

“The AGE project shows just how much improvement a simple parental and community empowerment program can achieve when it is implemented properly,” said Patrinos, a World Bank education economist, in a blog post last week.

The program isn’t perfect. The researchers didn’t find any improvement among Mexico’s most extreme cases of poverty. But, just as school choice policies do in the United States, the project is one tool to help educators become more responsive to the needs of low-income families. It opened up a communication and information link to parents, something that school districts and teachers unions in the U.S. say they want to do. But Apoyo a la Gestiόn Escolar goes a step further by giving low-income parents power and holds them accountable for their performance.

Florida is just the latest state to call for a trigger to give parents that power and the waiting lists of families to obtain the mature tax credit scholarship options in Florida and Arizona show that parents, even those a step above poverty, are ready to exercise more control over their children’s education. We would do better to help them make the right decisions than to point out their limitations.

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