A Conservative Is A Liberal Whose Schools Have Been Rezoned?

I look at that question and, more generally, economic integration of schools as a reform strategy in this week’s School of Thought column at TIME.com:

School integration has vexed policymakers for more than a half-century. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that schools can’t keep kids out based on race, but in 2007 it ruled that schools can’t bring kids together based on race either. After the court struck down two race-based integration schemes in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., attention turned to diversifying schools via students’ household-income levels. Economic integration, a concept first floated by early public-school crusaders like Horace Mann, is a compelling idea with intuitive appeal: reduce the preponderance of high-poverty schools by spreading poor students around. The idea jumped back into the spotlight this month when the Century Foundation released a new study touting the benefits of economically integrated schools. The glaring problem from a policy perspective, however, is that low-income families tend to live in the same neighborhoods, and dramatically changing housing patterns — or school-zoning boundaries — is impractical as a large-scale reform measure.

Read the entire thing here.

Update: Economic integration go-to guy Rick Kahlenberg, who has done a lot of important work on this issue, responds. He makes several points that when unpacked ultimately bear out the frustrating conundrum here.  Economic integration is a good idea, it’s just impractical as a large-scale remedy.

On the logistical challenges Rick argues that poor parents will put up with long car or bus rides for better schools.  Perhaps, and where possible they should be accommodated, but the uptake in places with open-enrollment is less than you’d assume. But, regardless, they shouldn’t have to — they should have good schools where they live!  Rick also argues that the Education Sector study I cited in the piece has been roundly criticized for its assumptions.  Actually, it’s been roundly criticized by Rick.   The assumptions that the author, Erin Dillon, made were tested (for instance, she doubled the assumed driving time for parents and found that it didn’t appreciably change the availability of seats).  The issue is that there is not a lot of space near where there are a lot of poor kids and as you move them further and further the number of other students who could then also use those seats increases, too.   We have a shortage of good schools in too many places not merely a moving people around problem.

On the politics, Rick again cites the 80 school districts that are doing this, at least to some extent.  Great!  That only leaves 13,000 to go! More could, sure, but not at scale, especially considering how boundaries are drawn in the first place.  By way of example, I can think of a county near Washington that is among the very most liberal/progressive counties in the entire country.  There are three non-choice high schools there.  One is quite diverse, the other two not very much.   It’s a very small and dense county, so they could easily change that distribution without geographic constraints by simply redrawing the school boundary lines.  Don’t hold your breath.  Oh, and by the way, housing prices in that county track the high schools.

He also chastises me for promoting charters as a better solution.  But I don’t.*  It’s apples to oranges.  I do, however, think they are a more feasible solution.  It’s ironic, though, that Rick continues to marginalize charter schools while citing the power of something that much less than even one percent of school districts are doing.   Charters, for all their challenges, are way ahead of that curve already.

So what should we be doing on socioeconomic integration?  I think more incentives and more creative ones – for instance giving school districts additional funding when they take a certain number of low-income students from elsewhere — make a lot of sense. A “Race to the Top” style competition here would be a good idea to encourage districts and states to change policies.  And I’m all for housing policies that encourage economic diversity.  We should also use open-enrollment policies that allow students to move when space is available, as some states do.  But there are no easy answers here and we shouldn’t try to just wish the obstacles away, they’re real.

*Here’s what I wrote:

No one in the mainstream of the education debate wants segregated schools. But while such schools are not an immutable condition, they are an unfortunate fact of life today. That’s why so many in the reform community see issues such as improving teacher effectiveness, providing a better curriculum, and expanding high-performing charter schools into underserved communities as more impactful and immediate steps than grand schemes to change housing policy or school district boundaries. And, of course, there are plenty of schools that demonstrate that high poverty rates and low achievement are not inexorably linked. These reformers, myself included, are not opposed to efforts to create more economically integrated schools. We’re just keenly attuned to the practical constraints.

8 Replies to “A Conservative Is A Liberal Whose Schools Have Been Rezoned?”

  1. Just read Andrew J. Rotherham’s Time article. I live in a City that cannot solve this issue. For 12 years my 3 kids have attended Santa Monica Public Schools (11,000 students) in this very affluent City. There is only one high school which proves your point of segregation can happen in one school. There are 4 Title I elementary schools. I saw firsthand, a 1st grade Title I classroom where out of 20 kids, 6 did not speak English, and 5 could not read. (fyi – there are 10 free preschools offered in Santa Monica). The teacher told us we should be happy our child read above grade level. Educated parents do not want to have to watch their child get zero attention because he is smart. I paid taxes for that teacher too. So we transferred to the affluent Santa Monica public elementary school across town where this issue does not have to be addressed. The curriculum was not dumb downed. This year my son is a senior who has accumulated 9 AP classes. All those kids from the Title I elementary schools are not in any of his advanced classes. The school cannot substitute for educated parents who mandate 1 hour of homework and 1 hour of reading EVERY night. My other son in middle school sat next to kids that said they did not have to do any homework – not a surprise, kids from the Title I elementary school then mix with affluent kids in 6-8th grades. Giving detention does not solve this problem. Our City pours more money in Title I schools to keep the teacher student ratio at 1:20 and 1:25. My child at the affluent elementary school gets a ratio of 1:33. Fair? The noise level of 33 kids is horrific. Our High school pays over half a million dollars to tutor 9th and 10th graders afterschool who need help. High school classes for Title I kids are kept at 15. AP classes are 42 students. We pay more taxes every step of the way to compensate for poverty and learning differences. My kids will do great in public school because we home school (joking) every night. Most of our neighbors go to private school at $30K a year because they don’t want to bother with poor performing students sitting next to their kid. The only diversity in the AP classes is Asian and Russian. Transferring kids to the affluent schools may help. But it broke my heart to see the one poor kid in class hold up his poster drawn in pencil. While the rest of the kids have color printers and stickers. He knew that his was poorly done. So should we all lower the bar for our kids heading to college to compensate for others in poverty? Our kids are tech savvy. Again, what my husband and I do with our kids CANNOT be replicated by only one teacher in a kid’s life for less than 6 hours a day. That is insulting. Life is competitive. Hard work is the only solution. If you even suggest to a parent whose kid is doing poorly, “Are they reading every night” you will only get a mean glare. In my heart, I truly believe that Title I families think the school is 100% responsible for their child’s academic success. We all know that this is untrue. I do not have the solution, but I do know that lowering the academic bar in Title I schools and increasing class sizes for the affluent kids is NOT an effective solution ever. An increase of taxes is set for our November 4th ballot – I’m voting no. I need to keep that money to hire tutors since my youngest is having trouble with her 6th grade math class of 36 students. Schools are now Survival of the Fittest, more organized, and more affluent.

  2. Lisette Gold makes a good point that simply putting kids from different backgrounds into the same school doesn’t guarantee that the low income kids will perform well. In my experience. both as a student and as a (former) teacher, students from supportive, educated families will perform well in school, and students who lack this type of background will often struggle, even if they’re sitting side by side in the same school (or in the same classroom).

    Ms. Gold also makes a good point that we should not overlook the effect on the high-SES kids when trying to socially engineer schools in this way: In a classroom with a wide range of academic levels, the teacher may have little choice but to aim for the middle (or even the bottom), which may negatively impact the high-performing students.

  3. Dr. Deasy was Santa Monica’s Superintendent in 2001 when over 2,000 permits were issued to out of city residents in Los Angeles. That is how you balance a budget?? Now he is the Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District – and they need to stop all those permits which total almost $54 million in lost revenue. Here comes Mr. Hypocrite. I can’t wait until he cancels all those thousands of permits he printed like money. Community schools, not commuter schools. Santa Monica High School alone has over 600 Los Angeles residents commuting in and out of our City. Welcome back to California Mr. Deasy!!

  4. i think this is a lot tougher a sell than people who advocate integration want to acknowledge. i just don’t see a lot of support for integration from low-income or minority families themselves. a lot of these families seem to like their neighborhood school just fine even if it’s “segregated” and even if it’s “failing” by most standards. hence, closure protests. and once you add in a long commute, i think you’ll get stiff family push back. because now you’re either forcing parents into a big time commitment to transport their kids or raising safety concerns if their only other option is public transportation. in my conversations with hispanic families, these are the two biggest reasons why they send their kids to the unremarkable high school near their house instead of a school with a stronger reputation. and i think if you look, for example, at charters serving low income students in big cities (or other open-enrollment schools), you’ll see most of the students live nearby and aren’t commuting far. It’s a hunch.

  5. My children (preschool and 1st grade) attend a Title I elementary school in Ward 6 (Capitol Hill) in Washington, DC. We are an upper income white family. Those details are very important, especially in this town. I would love to see some research done that shows the benefits to the non-title I students in an integrated school. I understand the frustration of what is going on in Santa Monica, it’s the norm. But what we have in DC is the exception and it doesn’t have to be that way! We LOVE our school. Michelle Rhee set expectations high for principals, teachers, students, AND parents. We all have to perform. Our principal is a LEADER and no child suffers or lacks attention. One simple idea that has taken off in our school is to have tutors from an exceptional private high school come during the school day. They don’t tutor those students “needing help”. Rather they take the furthest ahead and work with them to give the teachers more time with those furthest behind. They work on advanced projects and the rest of the kids get much needed low ratio time on reading and math. It’s just one idea but just to make the point that this CAN and IS working. Please, Lisette, check out what is going on in DC! And I know that my kids are learning a LOT about how the world works just by seeing the disparities in the school. They see the kindness and the grace of good adults and they see the bright faces of kids that don’t look like them but are just as ready to learn. I truly believe that every child in this elementary school is receiving a top notch Montgomery County style education. Would just love to see the research to support it!

  6. Paige, I demand certified teachers to teach my children. I pay taxes for college educated teachers to be certified by the State of California. I do not want high school students teaching my child the fundamentals of English and math in first grade. Teachers go through screenings and background checks. How will you ensure a safe environment for the kids in a classroom? Talk about a lawsuit waiting to happen. On second thought, I am happy to be in Santa Monica if that is what is happening in D.C. At least I know my child is safe and is being instructed by licensed adults. I heard Rhee is out. Amazing that parents will fight to the death for poor performing schools.

  7. Lisette, I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. That isn’t what is happening. And anyone walking into a school in DCPS is fingerprinted and undergoes a thorough background check. Parent volunteers included. My children have amazing certified and HIGHLY EFFECTIVE teachers. They are in classes with 15 other children. Our student/teacher ratios are envied and our teachers love our school because they are rewarded for the efforts and have tremendous support from parents, their principal, the community and the district in general. These high achieving private school students spend a few hours a week on special projects (NOT on the fundamentals of math and reading which they get from their teacher). This allows them to USE the fundamentals they’re learning in more engaging and exciting ways while ensuring that those furthest behind get a few extra hours a week in a smaller environment with their teacher. There really isn’t a need for so much bitterness. I obviously can’t explain all the wonderful things going on in my school in a paragraph on a blog. I simply am trying to point out that great things can and are happening in some traditionally low performing schools. I hope you find solutions that work for your family.

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