This post continues my exploration of the Wake School Choice Plan (WSCP), a student assignment proposal advanced by the Wake Education Partnership. This third post focuses on whether the WSCP would use our schools efficiently. I tackle this question from three angles: facilities use, transportation cost, and “other.”
The WSCP makes a strong effort to match the population of its three “areas” to the capacities of their schools. Generally speaking, this sort of approach should promote efficient facilities use, though it is not much different than what we try to do now.
The WSCP also assigns kindergarten students and other “choosers” one at a time. This does differ from the node-at-a-time approach we now use. Further, this approach should permit the WSCP to better use capacity limits to ensure that there are few, if any, crowded schools in 2012. Although the plan would allow this, it does not appear to do it. It appears to favor giving people their choices instead, contemplating school crowding of up to 125%. This level of crowding is extreme by today’s standards. This problem could easily be fixed by restricting crowding to lower levels.
In comparison to our current node-based assignment approach, I think the WSCP will have a harder time using middle schools and high schools efficiently. The difficulty arises from the plan’s “feeder patterns.” Students in a given elementary school will automatically be assigned to a particular middle school. Students in a given middle school will automatically be assigned to a particular high school. Feeding one entire school into another—rather than particular nodes, as we do now—does not provide much flexibility to adjust enrollment at the middle and high school levels.
While the plan specifies which schools are in each of its three “areas,” it does not identify the feeder patterns for each area. This makes it hard to demonstrate the problem convincingly, but there will almost certain be one, particularly at the high school level, where our high schools already operate at 112% of their optimum capacity. This must be watched carefully.
Despite the many choices it provides, the WSCP posits significantly lower transportation costs than now exist based on a projected annual reduction in student transport distances of approximately 12.2 million miles. It achieves these projected savings in the following ways: (1) it assumes that students in a choice regime will overwhelmingly attend their nearby schools, and that far more of them will be able to walk; and (2) despite indications that the WSCP would preserve the current systemwide magnet program with transportation, the plan seems to ignore the associated transportation costs.
With respect to the first point, the WSCP’s transportation cost estimates claim to assume something called a Reverse Fibonacci distribution of students. (I don’t think it adheres to the assumption for middle and high schools, but this is not discussed and cannot be demonstrated from the limited data provided.) This distribution posits that 38% of elementary students will attend their closest school (lower than the 53% who do so now), but 77% will attend one of the three closest (much higher than current conditions) and only 3% will attend one of the three farthest options.
The WSCP provides no empirical support for the assumption, which is said to be based on experience. I doubt it’s accurate. To me, it seems likely that an even higher number will select their closest school, because it is closest and because the WSCP strongly incentivizes you to choose it by giving you priorities if you do. After that, however, I think the choices of many will focus on the magnets among the choices or on the schools with the fewest low achieving, or poor, or nonwhite students, whether they should focus on these considerations or not.
As to the second point, there is simply no discussion of systemwide magnet transportation, from which I deduce that its cost has not been factored in. Nor is there any discussion of the cost of providing transportation to grandfathered students, which is likely to be substantial in the short run.
On the plus side, the WSCP transportation analysis may underestimate the efficiencies that could be generated through the above-discussed feeder patterns. These might—if students strongly select their neighborhood schools, and if the feeder patterns can actually be implemented—streamline current transportation patterns even further than the plan anticipates.
On the whole, the WSCP’s transportation cost proof posits savings of over 12 million student miles traveled. This sounds like a lot. But students currently travel 223 million miles, so it really isn’t. It’s about 5% of current miles. And this assumes that the plan’s projections are accurate rather than optimistic.
It was politically necessary to try to show that the WSCP could be implemented without increasing transportation costs. It may even be true. But it is important to keep in mind that whatever the difference in cost between the old assignment plan and the new one, it is unlikely to be material if the new plan works better. Total transportation costs are about 5-7% of our overall and local spending, so any difference between two reasonable plans is likely to be small.
This plan has two other potential costs that are not discussed: the cost of “outreach” and the cost of enhancing underchosen schools. I will not take these up here, because I have no way to estimate the cost of “outreach” designed to induce folks to make good choices, and the cost of enhancing underchosen schools is one we will likely bear in some form or fashion regardless of the assignment mechanism.
If the WSCP did not worry too much about whether folks were actually granted their wishes, and if it did not incorporate guaranteed feeder patterns, it would not be difficult for it to ensure near perfect utilization of every school. Because the WSCP does try to grant wishes, and does incorporate guaranteed feeder patterns, there will be some significant inefficiencies, just as there are now.
The WSCP’s transportation cost estimates depends heavily on the assumptions it makes about where children will choose to attend school. While I am not convinced that transportation costs will be lower under the WSCP, I doubt they will be materially higher.
In a nutshell, I would not focus too much on the efficiency and cost factors in considering whether the WSCP is a good idea. I would focus more on whether it will promote achievement and whether it would increase parent satisfaction.
If you have any thoughts on things I missed in this post, please use the feedback form or email me at email@example.com. In my next and final post, I will look at whether there are any alternatives to the WSCP that might provide better results.