What can we learn from the Perkins Act?: Assessing vocational schools’ performance standards and accountability measures

See PDF of paper here.

Executive Summary / Introduction

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act was signed into law in 2006. As a reauthorization of the original 1984 Perkins Act, the purpose of this law was to promote the further development of career and technical education and to create accountability system to understand state and school performance. While other reports have detailed many elements of Perkins accountability, this report is the first to assess them alongside broader accountability trends in education policy. In this report, we examine this accountability system in the context of vocational education and current accountability measures. Ultimately, we make two large-scale recommendations: first, we recommend that the model used for Perkins performance standards be adopted for all public schools; second, we propose a fused model of Perkins accountability and No Child Left Behind accountability measures in response to these performance standards.

Background

Vocational schools

Vocational schools in the United States refer almost exclusively to secondary and postsecondary institutions designed to provide students with a skilled trade, as opposed to the academic-focused programs of traditional high schools and universities. While some high schools and universities incorporate vocational training, true vocational schools are generally distinguished from traditional four-year colleges. The primary difference (other than career paths and opportunities) between vocational schools and traditional colleges is the time and investment it takes to complete the education. Traditional universities generally take at least four years to complete and can cost upwards of $200,000 dollars for tuition alone. Vocational institutions will take usually take one to two years and only cost about $33,000 on average. A huge reason for the time and investment disparities is that universities require students to enroll in a broad range of classes that may not have to do with the student’s intended field of study. Vocational schools will focus exclusively on the student’s intended field of study dealing with her particular trade. Effective vocational schools can propel a student into a rewarding career path, while ineffective ones can severely limit a student’s post-secondary career/educational options. Vocational schools at the secondary level are similar in purpose to post-secondary institutions, but function within the school district system. Consequently, they are subject to state/federal funding and regulations.

There are over 11,000 vocational secondary schools and 2,600 post-secondary vocational schools with over 14 million students enrolled at the institutions across the country. Critics of vocational schools often point to the absence of academics and an overfocus of programs on simply getting people to work. Particularly at the secondary level, when the students are not adults in need of a carer and just high school students, this can have some negative implications. One negative implication is tracking. Tracking is a major criticism of secondary vocational programs. Putting students, especially low income students, on a certain path can steer kids away from opportunities, such as a traditional university,  in education in favor of their learned trade. This can lead to increases in educational inequality and discourage future generations of low income students from pursuing a traditional university education. Vocational schools are also sometimes viewed as institutions where low income students are pushed who cannot succeed in traditional academic settings. As a result of administrative neglect, students who become victims of tacking can become outpaced by their peers career-wise and financial-wise. Additionally, because of the increased demand for vocational schools, for-profit vocational programs have entered the educational market. These schools are potentially more expensive and unaccredited, which poses a financial risk to low-income students on federal loans that may be targets for these predatory programs.

Advocates of vocational schools point to the extensive on-paper benefits of vocational schools. The cost of investment is certainly lower, and advocates may even argue that this presents a better situation for low income students who would otherwise be unable to afford a traditional education. An absence of college debt and an increased likelihood of finding a job outweighs any negatives that are found with tracking students. It is no secret that some college graduates are in higher demands than others, and not all majors are going to guarantee a high paying job, or any job, upon graduation. The more pessimistic statistics point to as much as 50% of college graduates being unemployed or underemployed.

It is important to note there is a distinction between secondary and post-secondary vocational institutions. Secondary vocational schools are public high schools that may offer the same advantages of any traditional high school – AP classes, the opportunity to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. There exists opportunity for both technical and and academic training, where students get to test the theory behind the academics that they are studying. Additionally students still have the opportunity to attend college upon graduation. Advocates will additionally point to students being able to explore different fields of study as an opportunity to make a more informed decision regarding their college endeavors.

Accountability standards

With any allocation of funding from the federal level, there is some attempted measure of accountability, that comes with it. Accountability in secondary education in the United States can come from many levels, from the school to federal mandates. The most obvious example of a recent push for (and against) accountability can be found in the implementation and removal of Common Core into and from curriculums across the country. While Common Core had national implications, it started out as a movement at the state and local levels. It was proposed partially in response to different educational standards and benchmarks across state lines that resulted from No Child Left Behind, which allowed different states to set their own metrics for accountability. Consequently, some states set higher standards for education than others. This resulted in a number of issues, one of which is the discrepancy in performance based funding. The intent of performance based funding involves tying a positive correlation of student performance with funding to these schools. The purpose is to more efficiently allocate funding to schools with key student performance benchmarks to incentivize continued, improved measurable performance of students and schools. Performance based funding empowers individual schools and school administrators to more effectively allocate state funding in areas that they deem most impactful to student performance. These investments would ideally result in continued success and more desired results. Incentivizing schools by offering them monetary awards can potentially promote school growth, competition, and ultimately lead to better schools.

However, when the roads of individualized state standards and performance based funding cross, issues can arise. Currently, there are 35 states that are instituting some kind of performance based funding. With a system involving so many states, it is going to have national implications. The idea of performance based funding is generally an easy sell to most people and politicians, given its relatively simple theory. The better you do, the better your schools is funded, the better you keep doing. The benefits of school competition can be highlighted, and this will overall improve education in the United States. Unfortunately, the situation is much more complicated than it appears at the surface. A report from the Century Foundation indicates that despite the intentions of performance based funding, such practices failed to yield long-term benefits to schools that received this funding. Perhaps performance based funding can have an impact in issues where the problem facing a school is not multi-faceted, but this is rarely the case. Issues that impede school progress and development are likely highly complex and require a variety of different practices and policies to result in sustained high performance. They can exacerbate inequality when already high-achieving and well-funded schools are judged based on this system, leaving behind lower-performing schools that that will have a harder time adapting to new standards. They do not address issues of inequality and do not take into account the relative starting points for each school. Under No Child Left Behind, they also provided state and school administrators the opportunity to set  their own standards, which caused some states to lower standards to seemingly increase their performance (see Figure 1). Performance based funding can certainly play a role in incentivizing school performance, but its success will be limited if it fully takes over the role of accountability for public schools.

Figure 1. State performance standards under No Child Left Behind, 2005.

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act

There has been increased support from the federal government for vocational education at the secondary level in the United States, particularly with the authorization of the Perkins Act in 1984 and its reauthorization in 1998 and 2006. Carl D. Perkins was a Democrat from Kentucky who served in the House of Representatives. He was a strong support of technical education, and his legacy can be found in both the Perkins Loan and the Perkins Act. While colloquially referred to as vocational education, new wording in the law changes the vernacular from “vocational” to “career and technical education”.

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of the law makes federal funding available for career and technical education to high school students and adults. The federal government allocates almost $1.3 billion to the Perkins Act every year, which is administered under the Department of Education’s Department of Vocational and Adult Education. These grants are allocated to the states and are intended to develop state and local career and technical education. Perkins Basic State Grants are given directly to the states that determine their own method for funding to school districts and postsecondary vocational schools. States are allowed complete discrepancy in allocation of funds between these secondary and postsecondary institutions. Further delegation of funding occurs when states are required by law to distribute a minimum of 85% of their federal funding to local programs and districts.

The federal government does require that the method of resource allocation be advantageous to disadvantaged schools and low income students. This needs-based allocation method must be explicitly stated in the law. The most flexible aspect of the law comes from the remaining 15%, which are earmarked for “leadership” and “administrative” activities. This funding is not required to be distributed to the local level. Overall, however, the newest reauthorization of the Perkins law enables more local flexibility than previous versions. It also requires states to set specific and reliable accountability standards. It requires secondary schools to be accountable to the “Perkins Core Indicators of Performance”. These include standard academic achievement in traditional subjects such as reading and mathematics, their technical school attainment, graduation, and post-secondary vocational school placement.

Accountability under the Perkins Act

An essential element of the Perkins Act is its set of accountability measures, which are used to ensure that recipients of federal funding from Perkins grants produce quality educational outcomes for students.

High school programs are held accountable to three criteria: academic achievement and high school graduation rates, technical skill attainment, and transitions to college, employment or the military. States are required to use their No Child Left Behind accountability standards, focusing on achievement in math and English, and high school graduate rates.

Technical skill attainment is measured via industry-recognized standards to ensure that they are rigorous and are translatable to skills used in post-graduation employment. Virginia’s Department of Education, for example, uses a High School Industry Credentialing initiative that requires students to complete a recognized industry certification or receive a state-issued professional license in order to graduate high school. Where industry-standards are not available, states are required to justify the validity and reliability of their chosen assessment system.

Beyond this, states have the authority to determine their own performance indicators and yearly targets. These targets are established at the state level, and then again at the local level. If states or schools do not meet their performance target, they are required by law to develop a plan of action as to how it will improve its performance. However, the federal government is not required to impose sanctions on any career or technical program on the basis of not meeting its yearly performance targets. Rather, the Perkins Act requires the federal government to provide “technical assistance” to allow schools to better their programs. The terms of this assistance are left to the federal government and individual schools.

Reporting of accountability data occurs at both the local and state level. The data is separated by categories established in the No Child Left Behind Act. The data is analyzed at the state and local levels based on performance gaps across student subpopulations. However, neither local schools nor states are held accountable for student performance according to subgroup categories.

There are many benefits to the design of the most recent authorization of the Perkins Act. First, its performance indicators are relevant to its mission — it uses industry standards and postgraduate pathways to determine whether students have been prepared for college and/or career. It also is focused on alignment between state and school accountability.

At the same time, there exist several drawbacks to the implementation of this act. First, states have experienced difficulty in collecting accurate data on performance indicators. The requirement to track post-employment plans in particular presents an obstacle, in that it can only collect data via surveys so as to not violate FERPA privacy protections for students. Second, CTE’s lack of consequences for performance gaps in subpopulations present an issue for issues of access and inclusion. Such relaxed accountability is beneficial to schools where performance gaps are inevitable and not likely at the sole expense of the school’s instructional quality. However, if schools are not held accountable to performance gaps among subgroups, it is difficult to ensure equity for disadvantaged groups in career and technical education. Given that women and people of color are underrepresented in many CTE programs in math and science, holding schools accountable to access and inclusion is of paramount importance.

What can be learned from Perkins accountability?

As evidenced in this report, the Perkins Act’s accountability structure has marked differences from traditional accountability measures as laid out in the No Child Left Behind Act. In this section, we assess the benefits and drawbacks of both programs on two key differences, and make recommendations as to how elements of both accountability structures can be fused to make a more just accountability system for the future.

Perhaps the most salient of differences is in the extent which states are able to set their own standards. According to the No Child Left Behind Act, states have the power to lower or raise their performance targets – which often leads to unfocused and misaligned standards of rigor that vary from state to state. However, many of the performance indicators embedded in the Perkins Act do not allow for states to make their curriculum or standards less rigorous – rather, they must be aligned to industry-defined standards that ensure that students deemed proficient are actually prepared to enter the workforce. We find the Perkins Act to be far superior in this regard. The accountability structure of No Child Left Behind places too much autonomy on states to create their own standards with no regard for whether they mark legitimate proficiency of students. Students from state to state should not be held to different standards based on the leniency of policy-makers, especially when those who set standards are rewarded for setting low standards for students. The accountability standards detailed in the Perkins Act, however, have clear links to the mission of vocational schooling – to be prepared for a career out of high school. Standards are created by an independent body in industry rather than officials within state departments, and thus have a vested interest in students meeting high standards so as to actually be skilled in their trade when they plan to enter the workforce.

Recommendation 1: Preserve the performance standards of the Perkins Act, and expand them to all public schools. Require states to better align their performance standards to a common set of standards that is proven to be college and career ready. Have an independent body – perhaps out of a university or other independent institution — create these academic standards and maintain them to keep up with the changing academic expectations of post-graduates. Develop reliable systems for reporting performance data accurately and consistently.

Yet another key difference lies in the ways in which schools and states are actually held accountable towards their performance. Under NCLB, states and schools are punished severely for not achieving their Adequate Yearly Progress. Schools face heavy restructuring, or worse, complete closures, for failing to meet their yearly performance standards. These extreme measures have been shown to target schools with predominantly students of color enrolled, and have negative effects on learning outcomes on the most at-risk students. Meanwhile, the Perkins Act offers little consequence for not meeting performance standards, and thus does not hold schools or states accountable to high performance. Seeing as there is a large amount of underrepresented and at-risk students in CTE programs, we believe that there must be some form of accountability that ensures that they are given a high-quality education. Without stricter accountability measures, it is impossible to ensure access and equity for all students.

Recommendation 2: Abolish the accountability measures of both the NCLB/ESSA and the Perkins Act. Instead, create accountability measures that promote meeting performance targets without sanctioning schools in ways that affect learning outcomes for students. Provide extra resources to schools who do not meet their performance targets rather than punish them for not doing well.

Conclusion

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act plays an essential role in offering what Labaree considers a fundamental purpose of education: social efficiency. Under this model for education, which aims to ensure that every role in the economy is filled by skilled workers, career and technical education is of great importance. The Perkins Act provides greater attention and resources towards vocational education, and creates a uniquely standardized yet loose system of accountability to accompany it. In this report, we assessed this accountability system as it relates to pre-existing systems of accountability measures, and made two recommendations of how to expand this system. First, we propose toe expand the attributes of Perkins performance standards such that all public schools must adhere to them. Second, we recommend a combined model of both Perkins and No Child Left Behind/Elementary and Secondary Education Act accountability measures to incentivize meeting these standards. We find that such recommendations will help hold states and schools accountable to providing quality vocational education to students across the United States. Without them, we may lose sight of one of the most important purposes of American education.

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End notes:

[1] Information Literacy in Vocational Education: A Course Model. Web. 03 May 2017.

[2] “Trade School vs Traditional College.” Trade School vs College | What You Want (and Don’t Want) to Hear. Web. 03 May 2017.

[3] “Career and Technical Education: Perkins Act Reauthorization.”Career and Technical Education: Perkins Act Reauthorization. Mar. 2006. Web. 03 May 2017.

[4] Hanford, Emily. “The Troubled History of Vocational Education.”American RadioWorks. N.p., 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

[5] Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in capitalist America. Vol. 57. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

[6] Watson, Bruce. “Why College May Not Be the Best Choice for Your Education Dollar.” AOL.com. AOL, 14 July 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[7] Yen, Hope. “1 in 2 New Graduates Are Jobless or Underemployed.”Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 03 May 2017.

[8] Bidwell, Allie. “Vocational High Schools: Career Path or Kiss of Death?”Usnews.com. US News, 2 May 2014. Web. 3 May 2017.

[9] Gewertz, Catherine. “The Common Core Explained.” Education Week. N.p., 03 May 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

[10] Strauss, Valerie. “Everything You Need to Know about Common Core — Ravitch.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 18 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

[11] Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements, Criticisms, and More.” Education Week. N.p., 10 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

[12] Hillman, Nicholas. “Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn’t Work.” The Century Foundation. N.p., 01 June 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[13] Fain, Paul. “Critique of Performance-Based Funding.”Insidehighered.com. Inside Higher Ed, 25 May 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[14] Hillman.

[15] M. Steinberg and L. Sartain, “Does Teacher Evaluation Improve School Performance? Experimental Evidence from Chicago’s Excellence in Teaching Project,” Education Finance and Policy  10.4 (2015): 535–72.

[16] Debs, Mira. “Accountability as Education Policy.” Public Schools and Public Policy. Yale University, New Haven. 20 Feb 2017. Lecture.

[17] “Reauthorization of Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.” Home. US Department of Education (ED), 16 Mar. 2007. Web. 03 May 2017.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Threeton, Mark D. “At issue-the Carl D. Perkins career and technical education (CTE) act of 2006 and the roles and responsibilities of CTE teachers and faculty.” (2007).

[21] Meeder, Hans. “The Perkins Act of 2006: Connecting Career and Technical Education with the College and Career Readiness Agenda. Achieve Policy Brief.” Achieve, Inc. (2008).

[22] Hoachlander, E. Gareth. “Designing a Plan to Measure Vocational Education Results, Developing Accountability Systems to Meet Perkins Act Requirements.” Vocational Education Journal 66.2 (1991).

[23] American Vocational Association. “The official guide to the Perkins Act of 1998: the authoritative guide to federal legislation for vocational-technical education.” Alexandria, VA: AVA (1998).

[24] McDermott, Kathryn A. “What causes variation in states’ accountability policies?.” Peabody Journal of Education 78.4 (2003): 153-176.

[25] Dee, Thomas S., and Brian Jacob. “The impact of No Child Left Behind on student achievement.” Journal of Policy Analysis and management 30.3 (2011): 418-446.

Switching Schools: Conversations Around Climate and Choice for LGBT Students in Online Forums

 

Introduction

“I agree that every parent should do his/her best to take the very best care possible in making decisions for their children… to that end, I’d look to others…” writes a parent of an LGBT child on a city message board. In fact, a number of parents of LGBT children feel similarly in knowing that their family has particular needs and seeks out advice as to how to address them. One of the most pressing challenges faced by LGBT students is finding a school that is supportive and affirming of their gender and sexual identities. In this paper, I aim to expand the literature on school choice to incorporate LGBT friendly climate as a new measure for how families assess choosing homes and schools. On what basis do families with LGBT students identify desirable schools? How does their mobility affect how they change them? Through the use of online forums and message boards, I first argue that families looking to choose a school seeks out concrete LGBT resources and visibility of LGBT community members, both in their schools and in their neighborhoods. Second, I find that the types of schools that best present these resources are often understood differently by parents and students. Finally, I explore several issues that limit mobility of families to identify and choose schools that are LGBT friendly. The impact of this paper, then, is to open the door for future research on families with LGBT students and choosing schools to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the school choice process.

Literature review

School choice has risen in the past decade due to an increased emphasis by education reformers on charter schools, magnet schools and school vouchers (Goldring and Phillips 2008). As a result, the literature on school choice has grown considerably in recent years. A large subset of this literature places emphasis on how families choose schools — by deciding on particular neighborhoods to live, whether to participate in a public school district, and, if in a choice system, which schools within the system to choose. Academic achievement is extremely influential in helping families decide which schools are most desirable (Goldhaber 1999; Hastings and Weinstein 2007). Perhaps linked to academic achievement, but certainly a factor in its own right, racial and class inequality is also plays a considerable role in how families understand school choice (Holme 2002; Goyette 2008; Lareau and Goyette 2014). In this regard, the racial and socioeconomic climate of a school has been lightly studied as a factor for choosing schools (Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz 1996). However, very little work has been conducted on how other inequalities in schools — particularly on the basis of gender and sexual identity — and how they affect families’ understandings of what makes a desirable school. In short, the school choice literature doesn’t acknowledge how pursuing safe climate for LGBTQ students affects families’ choice of schools.

It is well-established that safe climates LGBTQ people are incredibly diverse and unequal, especially within the sphere of housing and neighborhood. The gay neighborhood is perhaps the most significant place for socialization amongst queer residents of a city (Chauncey 1994; Knopp 1997). The purpose for a gay enclave was in response to a historical intolerance for gay lifestyles; many found it necessary to congregate as a means of living in a safe community that would allow for the exploration of the social and political dimensions of gay life. Castells (1983) research on the Castro district, a gay neighborhood in San Francisco, argues that queer residents began a gentrification process as they moved into the neighborhood, thereby displacing working- class residents of the district. The upper-class gays who lived in the area made large financial and personal sacrifices in exchange for a safe social space for the development of their personal and political identities. This process of upper-class gay gentrification and inevitable displacement of lower-income residents became a national urban phenomenon (Lauria and Knopp, 1985). Such migration is likely not available to many queer residents in lower classes, which has limited their opportunity to socialize in gay neighborhoods. (Knopp, 1997; Barrett and Pollack 2005). Some scholars argue that the need for a closed gay neighborhood is no longer a necessary component of gay life. However, the demographics of queer acceptance (Bowman and O’Keefe 2004) prove that major metropolises and resort communities — typically expensive areas — are most tolerant of diversity in sexual identity. The financial freedom in migrating to more accepting locations and locating housing accepting of different lifestyles further advantages middle- and upper-class queer populations and motivates them to develop a social and political queer identity in the neighborhood. Not only is there a need for supportive spaces in neighborhoods, but the mobility that these accommodations require falls along class lines.

As an extension of the residential areas that support the development of queer identity, LGBTQ students have particular needs and face particular challenges within schools. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)’s 2013 School Climate Survey reports that 55.5% of LGBT students do not feel safe at their schools as a result of their sexual identity, and 37.8% because of their gender identity. Three quarters of LGBT students have faced verbal harassment within that calendar year, and over half reported the existence of LGBT-related discriminatory policies at their schools. Safe and affirming environments have been shown to affect educational outcomes: LGBT students show lower academic achievement than their counterparts as a result of missing school to avoid harassment, being less likely to pursue higher education, and reporting higher levels of depression (Nieto 1992; GLSEN 2013).

Different characteristics of schools show patterns of addressing these challenges differently. LGBT students are less likely to encounter verbal harassment in private, non-religious schools than they are in public schools or religious schools. LGBT students in public schools are more often victims of harassment based on their gender and sexual identities and are also less likely to have access to LGBT resources than their counterparts in private schools (religious or otherwise). These trends are exacerbated in the South and Midwest, especially in rural areas where choice systems are less prevalent (GLSEN 2013).

Though it has been established that many LGBT students experience marginalization in schools that affects the quality of their education, it is unclear whether all students have the access to mobility that they may require to seek out a supportive school climate. This paper, then, aims to unpack the ways in which families with LGBT students understand school choice. In it, I pay special attention to conversations that assume mobility. I focus on conversations driven by families who are moving or switching schools or neighborhoods as a direct result of having an LGBT student. How do these families with mobility imagine school choice? What do these families look for in choosing neighborhoods and schools for LGBT children?

Research design

This study uses online forum posts to understand how families with LGBTQ students understand school choice. The rise of the Internet has enabled families to conduct more thorough research from various sources about neighborhoods, districts, schools and even specific teachers (Weininger 2014). While a great body of literature is dedicated to how parents use the Internet to access official data published online by school districts and state agencies, little attention has been paid to conversations among families that exchange experiences and reputations of particular neighborhoods and schools. In this way, the Internet increases families’ access to networks of other families with similar interests in locating schools that meet the educational needs of their LGBTQ students.

Two message boards were used in this study. One forum, city-data.com, describes itself as focused specifically on conversations around cities, where “subjects range from relocation and city descriptions to hobbies and parenting” (City Data). The message board’s 1.5 million members write up to 15,000 new posts per day. The posts analyzed from this forum are all from parents and guardians of LGBTQ students. The other forum used, emptyclosets.com, aims to create “a safe online community for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people coming out” (Empty Closets). Its 70,000 members have written almost 3 million posts in over 200,000 threads, the majority of which are sorted into a sub-forum devoted to for support and advice. Mostly LGBT youth comprise its online community.

In searching for posts to consider for this study, three criteria are used. First, the post has to be written by a family member of any sexual orientation seeking advice for a child who identified as LGBT. Second, the thread must place an emphasis around schools and the possibility of choosing neighborhoods or specific schools for LGBT students. Finally, the original post of the thread must be explicitly seeking advice, either as to how to choose schools or which schools were most fitting for the students’ educational needs.

Data

A breakdown of the data sources for this analysis appears below.

Demographic No. of Threads No. of Posts
city-data.com Parents 7 96
emptyclosets.com Youth 3 42
Total 10 138

The forum data used is available here.

Once the data was collected, it was coded for four different themes:

  1. Resources and visibility in schools
  2. Resources and visibility in neighborhoods
  3. School type (neighborhood, magnet/charter, private)
  4. Class concerns and limitations

Analysis

Resources and visibility in schools

When giving or seeking advice for how to ensure safe educational environments for LGBT students, families often turned to the resources, reputation and visibility of certain schools and districts in particular. We see this in the number of posts that offer suggestions of schools that offer a Gay-Straight Alliance or other safe school organization:

poppydog: … the link to the high school Gay/Straight group I posted is for the whole of the Triangle… Apex (Raleigh suburb) has a strong Gay/Straight Alliance, too. Here’s a video they made [link to video].

ferrickhead28: You can also call up local high schools and ask if they have a LGBT [sic] organization within their school.

Such posts are indicative of a larger trend — desirability of a specific space within the school that was designated for LGBT students and their allies. It is important to note here that having a Gay-Straight Alliance does not necessarily speak to the general school climate, but rather to the will of a select group of students and teachers in the school to create a safe space within the school. It is possible that such an organization does not have the support of the majority of the school community, but thrives on the backs of a small group of marginalized students who are able to connect in spite of their discomfort or unsafely in the rest of the school environment. Still, though, this was the most mentioned resource for families to measure whether their students would be safe at their schools. I attribute this frequency to the ease and comfort in such organizations serving as as concrete assurances that there is at least some space in which a student can feel safe at their school.

Posters also sought out explicit affirmation of school diversity initiatives as a concrete measure of school safety for LGBT students.

Zen_master: Columbus Academy at one point prominently hosted on their website a mission statement to be inclusive of all walks of life and made a specific mention of LGBT. [link to school page]

As a whole, parents took seriously the formal, institutional structures in place to ensure a safe environment for their children. The greatest resource a parent could feel assured of before sending an LGBT student to a new school, it seems, was an explicit commitment to diversity and affirming space at the school. Whether that took the form of enabling organizational space or directly messaging a promise to encouraging diversity, forum members found it most desirable for schools to have openly endorsed their families’ needs.

Within the larger school community, posters also found visibility of LGBT community members in schools to be an important resource for LGBT students. Some made mention of anecdotes of students’ positive experiences in schools (“I know someone who is openly gay and graduated from a Raleigh high school… and he says he had plenty of friends”), while others offer suggestions of schools where LGBT faculty and administration were prominent (“I went to Indianola Informal K-8… the principal is a gay man”). The acceptance of LGBT community leaders gave posters confidence that LGBT students will also be accepted, and perhaps even nurtured, at their schools.

Resources and visibility in schools

Some forum members showed skepticism that families could determine which schools had LGBT friendly climates without looking at the geography of the school.

no kudzu: I don’t know how anyone can choose a gay friendly school. Remember the turn over is high and different groups and in “leadership”. But I would guess that schools reflect what is going on in the community and that would be the best indicator.

Many parents felt similarly, and turned to resources in the neighborhood community to gauge whether schools would be safe for their students. Perhaps the most mentioned characteristic of a desirable neighborhood was degree of LGBT visibility within the area. This could take the form of electing a gay mayor or hosting an LGBT event (such as a pride parade or film festival). Also seen as desirable was whether the neighborhood carried the reputation of serving many LGBT couples with children.

ohioaninsc: You’d probably want to find out what schools serves Victorian Village or German Village…being that these neighborhoods have a higher concentration of LGBT couples, they are bound to have some children in the schools.

jbcmh81: Clintonville has a fairly sizable lesbian population. That might be reflected in the schools around it.

Closeness to a university or living in a college town played favorably among parents of LGBT children, as well. This was found to be beneficial in two ways: first, parents imagined the university’s resources would be accessible to high school students, as well. In a thread about moving to Columbia, South Carolina — home of the University of South Carolina — one poster surmised that students would be able to find “some LGBTQ resources at USC that may trickle down to the high schools.” Second, parents interpreted the highly-educated demographic of college professors and graduate students to be more accepting of LGBT students. In a thread about moving to North Carolina, a message board user wrote that “the large [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] professor[s’] children population and general influence really keeps students more open.” In both cases, parents presupposed that the university would be an accepting environment with LGBT friendly climates of their own, and that the influence of these spaces would find their way into the area’s public schools.

Finally, parents also looked for neighborhood resources not connected to schools at all to supplement the possibility of school-based resources and an accepting school climate. Parents researched youth organizations and found local support groups and organizations helpful to their search for where to send their children to school. Solely the existence of one LGBT center was a helpful assurance for one family:

poppydog: I don’t know that much about Columbia’s LGBTQ environment, but the Harriet Hancock Center looks like an awesome resource.

Though these resources were not explicitly imagined as affecting school climate, they were seen as desirable to families with LGBT students — perhaps in the hope that if schools were not able to provide a safe space for students, there would be support in other places for them.

School type

While the majority of message board conversations around switching schools dealt with the zoned neighborhood school, perceptions of public choice systems and private schooling were also crucial to understanding families’ choice of neighborhood and school.

A widespread assumption of magnet and charter schools was their marketed demographic of students who were unhappy in public schools. This often lead to referring to charter and magnet schools as more accepting of students from diverse backgrounds and needs:

poppydog: I know my kids’ charter is very accepting of “different” kids and while your child is liable to experience negative behavior by others to some degree wherever they go, some place like my kids’ school where there’s a small student body and several “out” kids and many geek culture kids might work, too.

Other charter and magnet schools were seen as having climates where “anyone can fit in” or have “a more personal approach with each student.” The smallness and subsequent personalization of these alternative schools, matched with their perception as having more kids who do not socialize well into mainstream schools, made these schools more desirable to parents with LGBT children.

The students themselves, however, had a much more diverse set of perspectives on the value of neighborhood schools, choice schools, and private schools. The perception of many of these students was that public schools, by virtue of their size, were most likely to have some safe space for LGBT students:

Doreibo: in a [neighborhood] public school you can probably find heaps of people who you can associate with. The good thing about the public schools is the variety of students and the openness of it all.

Here, a student at a small private school argues that students are more likely to carve out a niche for themselves at a large school with many different groups of students as opposed to a small, more personalized environment. Other students agreed that “there are tonnes of people who you can associate with, [and] the variety would be beneficial—” forum members felt that at public schools “you will bet a better objective education, exposure to the real world with a much better diversity of population and probably better programs.” This demonstrates a tension between parents’ and students’ faith in the possibility of an entire school being accepting. From the parents’ perspective, a smaller community with more personalization is likely to be accepting and make an LGBT student feel comfortable. Meanwhile, LGBT students on the message board showed their skepticism that small schools could be supportive because they didn’t allow for diversity (which they understood as fragmentation of the student body by interest or background).

Class concerns and limitations

Despite what families found desirable about their schools, they also ran into obstacles achieving their ideal school environments. Many of these issues of limited mobility were rooted in social class. A series of limitations by virtue of class background were demonstrated by forum member kromburner, a lower- to middle-class father trying to move to a district where his gay son would be accepted.

In deciding between two urban metro areas in the Southeast, the user admitted his worry that he and his wife were worried about “snootiness” in one of the wealthy suburbs and inquired about “which area would be best for ‘commoners’ of average means.” Here, the poster found themselves pulled in two different directions — the culture of the most desirable LGBT friendly schools are in wealthy suburbs, yet his family is reluctant to assimilate into the upper-class neighborhood that would provide such an opportunity. Other posters were supportive of this tension, and yet pushed him to reconcile his cultural apprehensions for the sake of his child’s education.

kromburner’s situation also revealed the sacrifices that many families need to make in order to . Since the area he hopes to move to has “a very tourist-oriented economy … and not many jobs,” both parents are forced maintain their current employment and commute as many as three hours each way to work. Some posters made suggestions of other cities and neighborhoods that would fit kromburner’s child’s needs, but he eventually turns them down because they would were further than three hours away from his job. Other parents suggested bringing the son to the schools for visits and “spending quite a bit of time in the high schools—” a task that is not possible for families with rigid work schedules. The large burden placed on families to negotiate locations and schedules of work and school poses a serious threat to mobility. In all, the limitations placed on kromburner are ones faced and understood by many parents who know what positive school climates are possible to some LGBT children, but not necessarily their own. The class-based reasons for these obstacles provide a considerable limitation to how families understand school choice — in some cases, identifying a safe school is not immediately followed by choosing a safe school.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have used online message boards to understand how families with LGBT students understand and navigate choosing homes and schools on the basis of school climate. I have analyzed the ways in which families look for resources and visibility from their schools and neighborhoods alike, as well as presented tensions between parents and students in their understandings of how schools can meet their particular educational needs. Finally, I have begun an exploration of how families are limited by the school choice process.

As the first paper to assess how families with LGBT students understand school choice, there are obvious limitations to the extent of its applicability. It is important to recognize the sample population as not very diverse. All data took place on two online forums, reserved for those who have regular access to the Internet with enough time for casual networking on message boards. The threads sampled involved families who were undergoing the choice process midway through their children’s educational journeys, requiring at least some degree of mobility as a prerequisite; there was no representation of families who had no mobility whatsoever. The means by which the data was collected meant that no demographic data was collected to understand clearly how race, class and geography plays a role in these conversations.

From here, I call for more research on this topic in venues beyond the online forum. It is only once we collect more data that is inaccessible via these online spaces that we can fully understand the school choice process for families with LGBT students.

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