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Turning School Chance Into School Choice

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There are a lot of smart people in Washington, D.C., and one of them is Evelyn Boyd Simmons.

A longtime D.C. resident, an effective parental advocate, and a firm believer in the unmatched promise of public education, Evelyn has a way of cutting to the quick on complicated, contentious issues. And so it was when in a recent conversation, she summarized the state of affairs in American public education with a clever turn of phrase.

"What people like to call school choice," she said flatly, "is nothing more than clever marketing. What folks really have is school chance."

I'd never heard it described that way, and she's right. In cities like ours, where an increasing number of families are opting into the chaotic dance of the charter school waiting lists - or trying their hand at an out-of-boundary admission to a sought-after neighborhood school - what we like to celebrate as an enlightened era of self-determination is in fact little more than a citywide game of craps.

Which begs the question: when it comes to something as important as a city's public schools, can't we do better than hoping enough people come up "Boxcars?"

I believe we can, which is why my colleagues Mike Petrilli, Rick Kahlenberg and I have urged the city to adopt policies that can transform a system of chance into a city of choice.

To do that, we need to eliminate the historic notion that each family has a property right to their neighborhood school, while at the same time guaranteeing admission to a high-quality public school that is within a reasonable proximity. Let people rank the schools closest to their home, and build a system that balances parental preferences with a commitment to evenly distribute children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. What we've proposed is only a first step - it does not address, for example, the areas of the city that remain largely segregated - but we believe it's a way to begin building more racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. And, significantly, it's an idea that has been tested, and proven effective, in many cities across the country.

It's also, needless to say, an idea that raises complicated issues of race, class and privilege, and already our proposals have sparked a number of heated responses, accusations, and dismissals. This, to me, reinforces why it's a conversation worth having. Indeed, it's the conversation Thurgood Marshall tried to have with us forty years ago - and no, I don't mean Brown v. Board of Education.

The case was San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the year was 1973, and the issue was whether Texas's method of funding its schools (via property taxes) constituted a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Marshall and three of his colleagues on the Court believed that it was, meaning we came that close to overturning our country's historic (and historically inequitable) way of funding public schools.

Think about that for a second.

What strikes me most, however, is what the five Justices in the majority said. "Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state," they wrote - and even though the way we fund schools in America "can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust" - the promise of a more equitable system of schools "is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution." If it were, the majority conceded, "virtually every State will not pass muster."

To Marshall, that was the point: something as vital as a high-quality public education for every child cannot be left to chance. And while there's nothing that can be done about the Court's decision in 1973, there's plenty that can be done in cities like Washington, D.C., where rapid changes in schooling and geographic diversity are making possible some new ways of thinking about how best to ensure that every child has the same opportunity to receive a high-quality public education.

History has shown that when we let the goal of school quality be determined by the invisible hand of the market, our schools do not regress to the (positive) mean: they bunch at the poles. School choice cannot, therefore, be left to chance; it will require simple sorting structures that are grounded in our founding values as a nation - liberty and equality - and that respond to the ever-present challenge that is as old as the country itself: E Pluribus unum -- out of many, one.

Boxcars!

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