"Unfair Comparisons in Nation's Schools." By William L. Bainbridge. New York Times. February 2000.


by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, while serving on a panel for a community meeting in Sarasota, we heard arguments supporting the county school board’s application to the State of Florida to become the nation’s first major charter school district. If approved, Sarasota would be freed from many state testing and data reporting requirements and other rules and regulations. The district would continue to assure equity compliance, fairness to children with disabilities, bargaining unit commitments, and transportation availability for students. The implications for accurate comparisons of schools in the district are far reaching. Sarasota has set a course to be among the first school districts in the nation to shift power from state politicians to school teachers and principals.

Although Sarasota County is in the 90th percentile in the country and highest in Florida on family income level, the charter proposal is not an attempt to avoid sharing the district’s tax revenues with other districts in Florida. Financial equity with other Florida districts is part of the enabling legislation already passed by the state.

Leaders of the district have experienced a good deal of frustration with state testing and reporting results. In fact, following the meeting, several people asked why a former state education agency cabinet member and superintendent of three local school districts, like me, would support this move to permit a school district to sever its ties with the state. My immediate focus was on the issue of state required reports and unfair comparisons of schools and school districts.

Those of us on the panel, including the Florida Deputy State School Commissioner, a representative of the US Office of Education, a university provost and the local superintendent, offered little evidence that state education agencies have much to offer "lighthouse" school districts like Sarasota. The burdensome number of reports required by the state alone seems to outweigh the benefits.

Many recent visits to school systems suggest to me that one of the most serious problems confronting education today is providing the public with accurate comparisons of school opportunities for their children. The problem of comparing schools for parents has become more complex due to misinformation and disinformation from a variety of sources, including state agencies and the school districts themselves.

Given such problems, it makes sense a district like Sarasota would want to escape the limitations that state mandated reporting structures impose. The states, however, are only part of the problem, as illustrated by the following examples:

Breaking free of the state system may seem risky, but for the many districts hampered by flaws in this current system, it may be a necessary step. Parents and other consumers need to be consistently vigilant in their demand for accurate school information. If more school districts and parents examine the assumptions behind the data, the results will be more reasonable.

Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a national research firm located in Columbus OH, assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.