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60 Years After Brown, A Way for Schools to Fulfill Its Promise

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As I travel around the country this month, participating in public conversations about the promise and peril of school choice, it seems fitting that a few days before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, I would end up having lunch with Michael Alves.

For those of you that don't know, Alves has made a career out of helping communities and districts craft new student assignment policies that promote greater equity throughout their schools.

The 1980 effort to create more diverse schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts? That was Alves. The celebrated effort to merge city and county schools in Raleigh, North Carolina? Alves. Indeed, although as recently as 2000 the number of U.S. school districts pursuing socioeconomic integration policies could be added up on one hand, today there are more than 80 that are using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment - and Alves has had a hand in almost all of them.

A bald, jovial Bostonian who raised his six boys in a stately house that was built in 1882, Alves provides a clarity to core questions of equity that I rarely encounter in school reform circles. "The problem with most of the current efforts around school choice," he explained, "is that we aren't clear on what the goals are. The goal can't be a zero-sum game between charters and districts. So how do kids get distributed? In my mind, the purpose of any student assignment policy should be to facilitate the mission and vision of the district. Is our goal to promote greater socioeconomic diversity? Are we motivated by a need to ease overcrowding? Whatever the answer, you can't craft a good plan unless you really understand the makeup of your community. And the reality is that charters are operating as their own islands, while most school districts don't know much more than the percentage of their kids that receive free and reduced lunch. That's not good enough."

To help districts solve this complex problem, Alves has a simple solution: treat student registration the way an obstetrician treats a pregnant mother's first visit to the doctor's office. "When a couple makes that first visit to the OB/GYN," he says, "the doctor gets all kinds of information - not to hurt the child, but to help him. We tell districts to do the same. When that parent registers their child, schools should be asking all kinds of questions (all of which are voluntary): what is the monthly income of the household; how many adults are in the house; how many other children are there in the house; what is the highest educational attainment level of the parents; what sort of preschool program was the child enrolled in; and so on.

"Everything we ask is designed to create an assignment algorithm that correlates to educational readiness while still prioritizing proximity," Alves continued. "Once districts start to understand, on a more granular level, where their kids are coming from and what their school readiness is likely to be, they have the chance to craft assignment policies that ensure a more equitable distribution of children and families across their network of schools."

"We have diversity everywhere, except in schools. "Where you live, you live. But that doesn't mean you have to go to school strictly based on where you live."

For me, that last point is one we need to take more seriously as we mark the 60th anniversary of The U.S. Supreme Court's historic decision in Brown - and our inability to ever fulfill its promise. Too often, we assume that schools and school policies can somehow solve by themselves the intractable, entrenched legacies of race-and class-based inequity in American society. But schools can't impact economic and housing policies, or deepen our commitment to public health. And even though the Court came within one vote, in 1973, of ruling that the way we fund schools - via property taxes - was unconstitutional, the reality is that many of our most celebrated school reform efforts are actually deepening, not diminishing, our commitment to "separate but equal" schools.

This is why I support school choice - albeit not the limited concept of choice that so many want to promote. Simply put, you can't solve the equity problem in American society merely by razing the old system and rebuilding everything from scratch. But neither can you solve it solely by preserving and improving what we already have; a both/and strategy is needed, one that creates space for new schools and ideas, and that puts as much energy into renovating the old as it does to revering the new.

What would such a strategy look like? I'd start by having more urban districts mirror the efforts of Boston Public Schools, which has built into its traditional district model the space to seed 21 schools that have charter-like autonomy, and keep them within the larger network of the district. Does the system work perfectly in its efforts to have the best ideas of those pilot schools funnel through the rest of the schools in the district? No. But as Mission Hill principal Ayla Gavins puts it, "what the pilot program does is create the conditions for greater innovation and collaboration to take place; the rest is up to us."

Next, I'd encourage more schools to adopt intentional, district-wide socioeconomic diversity assignment policies - the sorts of policies Michael Alves has been tinkering with for over thirty years. "I believe a central goal for any district should be to help any kid at any school feel like, "No matter who I am, I fit in somewhere at that school. No one wants to be the 'only' anything - that's the goal; that's inclusion. And that's the only way, until these other aspects of our society change, we can get closer to the promise of Brown."

Raze and renovate. Provide autonomy within a traditional district structure. And craft student assignment policies that balance individual choice alongside communal commitments to equity.

Would that sort of recipe get us closer to honoring the Court's declaration, on May 17, 1954, that education is "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms?"

I think it would.

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