Does going to the best school matter? Only if it’s the best fit.

In advising readers on whether an elite college is worth the cost, the New York Times offered a detailed analysis over the weekend that generally could be summed up in two words: It depends. As it relates to schools in the K-12 arena, that’s not a bad answer as well.

RedefinED host Doug Tuthill, a lifelong educator who could rightfully be described as an astute observer of public education and well-informed parent, often talks about his own choice of public high schools for his two sons in St. Petersburg, Fla. While Doug is known in these parts for launching the first International Baccalaureate school in Florida, a school that could be fairly described as academically elite, he chose an entirely different high school for his first son. He chose a high school that featured one of the more robust arts programs in the Pinellas County school district, the 22nd largest school district in the nation, and Doug believed it would be a good fit for his son. He was right.

Now, here is a fact that is relevant to this discussion. The high school is the only one in Pinellas County to have been judged by the state, based on standardized test scores, to be a failure. Did that matter? Not at all. Dad and son could not have been happier. (By the way, this is meant as no criticism of Gibbs High, which  improved its state grade to a “C” on the state’s latest academic report card.)

The second son had different ideas and so did his father. They chose St. Petersburg High School, home of the IB program that father helped create. But the second son found little to like about that school, judged to be an A by the state accountability system, and he wanted nothing to do with it. So the second left IB and ended up at a special charter school that allowed him to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree.

So this is the asterik that should be attached to any school’s rating: Success for any individual student might relate less to the perceived achievement or stature of the school and more to the individual needs of the student. In Doug’s case, an arts program at an “F” school sparked great success in one son, and an “A” school for another son turned out to be a poor fit.

What matters, to our way of thinking, is the choice the family had in getting there. In the case of the elite college, the New York Times presupposed that any family could consider the option of an elite college. Many who favor K-12 school choice do so proclaiming that students deserve to be lifted out of “failing” schools and into better ones, perhaps with a private school voucher. But that model assumes that “A” or “B” school works for all children. It does not, and a system that awards options only to children in schools that are graded “F” prevents disadvantaged families in other, better-performing schools from finding a choice that might work better for their children.

The exceptions are laws like the parent-trigger in California, which, in a sense, democratize empowerment among parents who petition for better schools. But as Doug recently told a Pennsylvania legislative committee considering a private-learning option for its state, limiting parental empowerment to failing schools is an imprecise way to identify low-income students who need a different learning option, and it encourages parental empowerment to be framed as a public versus private school issue.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit