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How Much Parental Choice Is Enough?

The debate over parental choice of schools took an unexpected turn recently when Mitt Romney came out in favor of allowing children to enroll in any school anywhere as long as there was room to accommodate them ("Romney's School Surprise," The New York Times, May 30). His remarks fly in the face of the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley, which held that students could be bused across district lines only when clear evidence of de jure segregation existed. Most often, the movement is from city to suburban schools because the latter are known for the quality of their educational programs. This was the case in Milliken, which involved Detroit and its suburban school districts.

It's here that the issue becomes highly emotional. One of the top considerations when parents move into any area is the reputation of neighborhood schools. Realtors prominently play up this factor in their ads, and parents willingly pay a premium for housing. Even in today's protracted recession, exceptional schools tend to keep the value of houses from plummeting ("Good Schools, Bad Real Estate," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 25, 2010). Determined to get the best education for their children, parents have been arrested for enrolling their children in stellar schools outside their districts ("The Latest Crime Wave: Sending Your Child to a Better School," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2011). These are realities.

Although I've long supported parental choice of schools, I've also pointed out that not all children have parents involved enough in their education to take advantage of the options open to them. These children, therefore, become collateral damage. But I also hasten to note that there are other victims as well: parents who have worked hard and sacrificed dearly to save enough in order to move into a neighborhood with exemplary schools. They pay high property taxes or high rentals in the understandable belief that their children will be able to attend neighborhood schools. Don't they have rights too? If their children are denied a seat because of competition from children from other areas, I don't think it's fair. This view has nothing at all to do with who the children are from outside the catchment area. It's strictly a matter of reasonable expectation.

Some will argue that open enrollment is the only way to correct the uneven quality of public school districts. I realize that the line between two districts is often only a matter of a few arbitrary yards or of clever gerrymandering. But parents know before they move into an area about the quality of schools. It's not as if the news comes as a shock. I think the controversy, therefore, comes down to whose ox is being gored.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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