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A 'Third Way': Intra-District Choice

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Jack and Julian continue their conversation about school choice, this time examining intra-district choice as a "third way" that might avoid the pitfalls of voucher schemes or charter expansion.

Schneider: I ended our conversation Tuesday by wondering aloud if there's a "third way" vis-à-vis school choice. The evidence seems to indicate that vouchers would be a blow to equity. And charters, in aggregate, don't solve any of the core problems facing our schools.

Yet choice is seemingly a good thing. And, unlike their more affluent counterparts, low-income parents are rarely empowered to exercise choice with regard to the education of their children.

So what about intra-district choice as an option?

Heilig: I think intra-district choice has potential, but appears to be less sexy and has lost some momentum over the past decade compared to vouchers and charters. In addition to student success opportunities, intra-district choices that allow students to attend schools across the district or area could also be promising for equity and desegregation purposes.

However, one of the primary issues that comes up is that students who live nearby typically receive preference. For example, a wealthy school like River Oaks Elementary in Houston still primarily enrolls students from that ultra-wealthy area of the city, despite various intra-district choice mechanisms that have been in place over the years. Then you have the issue of transportation across the district and the costs associated with it.

Magnets are also an important form of intra-district choice. The challenge with magnets is that "sometimes they are magnet in name only—a district can just slap a "magnet: moniker on schools without their having an appreciable difference from non-magnets. The second issue with magnets is whether they are selective enrollment or not. Selective enrollment based on exams or other metrics creates a gatekeeping mechanism that has implications for students of color and low-SES students.

It seems like we are bending over backwards to avoid neighborhood public schools. Why don't we just offer parents the choice of properly-resourced, high-quality neighborhood public schools? Charters, vouchers, and magnets all exhibit forms of creaming—focusing on educating the proverbial talented tenth. We need a system that works for the many, not a patchwork of "market" and "choice" mechanisms that operate for the few. Pasi Sahlberg recently discussed on CNN that Finland's success is linked to a strategy that focuses on equity for the nation rather than just a few. Cesar Chavez once said "We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community...Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own." 

Schneider: I'm on board with educating everyone in well-resourced neighborhood schools. The problem with that approach, however, is that it does nothing to address segregation (for a great map of racial demographics click here). And as far as I'm concerned, you can't have great schools as long as you have segregated schools.

Choice, for all its pitfalls, does offer that glimmering hope.

Intra-district school choice would allow low-income and minority families to send their children to mixed schools—disrupting the pattern we see today, in which a majority of black and Latino/a students attend racially monolithic schools. And it would do so with fewer unintended consequences than voucher plans or charter schools.

Now, there is the possibility that whiter and more affluent families might leave cities for good if intra-district choice became the norm (I focus on cities here, since that's where we tend to see significant populations of low-income and minority students). Still, there's some evidence that when schools are truly diverse, white parents don't just automatically flee. It isn't bigotry, after all, that drives them away from schools with large populations of color. It's the fact that such schools tend to be underserved. They are confusing a correlation with causation.

But what if a school appealed to different kinds of families, drawing them from different neighborhoods into a single school? That was the original purpose of magnet schools; though, as you noted, the magnet concept never really evolved beyond a single, selective-admission "academic" high school.

Schools could, however, have different specialties—fostering real choice rather than competition. That, of course, requires more flexibility around accountability mechanisms. Because fostering distinctiveness was an original aim of the charter movement, and it has long since been swept aside. Instead, we have seen the emergence of a single, preferred model: the "no excuses" charter producing high test scores. 

Heilig: You bring up an important point about segregation and intra-district choice. Fortunately, there are existing policies in a variety of districts that address this concern. In the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy we wrote about such a plan that has been used in Berkeley, California. 

The Berkeley schools designed an integration plan to pair controlled parental choice with innovative geographically-based diversity indices. Under this plan, parents have been allowed to select their top school choices. So long as their choices would result in racial/ethnic and socio-economic diversity remaining close to the attendance zone average, the parents' request is granted. However, when school demographics would deviate significantly from the attendance zone average, students could be assigned to campuses on the basis of their neighborhood's "diversity index" rather than their individual characteristics. So there are means by which we can insure integrated schools, communities just have to have the will and interest to do so.

Schneider: What would it take to get a thoughtful policy like this on the reform agenda? It's a question that haunts me.

Because unlike some of their critics, I don't think self-styled "reformers" are evil. Nor am I convinced that more than a handful are out to make a buck. The problem, at least as I see it, is that most of them simply assume that crafting educational policy is more like checkers than chess. They just don't get how unbelievably complicated it is to create the right learning conditions for 50 million kids.

As the Berkeley plan illustrates, there have to be a lot of moving parts in a reform that works. Schools are so complicated and policy just has to take so much into consideration. So when I hear someone like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings say that expanding charter schools is "a long-term solution" in public education, I feel like banging my head against the wall.

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