Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Controlled choice has been central to the ability of progressive school districts to voluntarily desegregate. The title of this post is in no way meant to disparage school choice in general, but rather to highlight a recent study by Julia Burdick-Will. Her study revealed an interesting pattern: "as a neighborhood’s income decreases, its range of educational experiences greatly expands." In other words, the assumption that students in disadvantaged neighborhoods are trapped in their failing local school is not necessarily true. Rather, children in wealthier neighborhoods are the ones most likely to stay in their neighborhood schools. No one, of course, would claim these students are trapped. Rebecca Klien points out that going to a strong neighborhood school is the privilege, not choice. Wealthier students have this privilege. Low-income students do not.From this perspective, choice is the lesser alternative to quality neighborhood schools and, thus, the burden that low-income students must suffer. For instance, had the Supreme Court bothered to look at school quality in Zelman v. Harris--the case in which the Court upheld a voucher program that sent primarily low-income students to primarily religious schools--it would have seen Cleveland's voucher program for what it was: the state's sorry excuse for a remedy to the inadequate schools that state courts had found violated the state constitution's quality mandate. Offering choice deflected the real issue and co-opted the parents who otherwise would have been most likely to demand change in their neighborhood schools.
Yet, neighborhood schools operate as a troubled a model as well. Their purported value has long served as the "neutral" object to desegregation. Today, those families in affluent neighborhoods who insist on going to a neighborhood school and have little interest in options elsewhere are consigning themselves to racially and socio-economically isolated schools. As Rob Garda's argues in The White Interest in School Integration, these students are harming themselves in ways they do not even recognize. In effect, their isolation is the very reason why they do not realize how isolation harms them.
Overall, this new data on choice and neighborhood schools suggest a more complex problem. The problem is neither choice, nor neighborhood schools. The problem is that some need choice and some believe they do not. The problem is that some have good neighborhood schools and some do not. Thus, the problems are segregation and inequality. Choice for all in such a system simply masks these underlying fundamental problems.