If advocates for children were able to draw school district boundaries anew, nobody in their right mind would configure them with the high levels of inefficiency, inequality and segregation we find today in states like California and Texas (included in the study) and others like New Jersey, Connecticut and Ohio. Education Sector’s report on interdistrict school choice underscores the fact that we have consigned large numbers of the nation’s poorest and most academically struggling children–children who are disproportionately African-American and Latino–to schools in districts with the worst track records and least capacity to educate them. Yet, we know that smart, thoughtful approaches to school choice–including providing interdistrict options and successful charter schools, along with parent outreach and incentives for receiving schools–can yield enormous benefits. Low-income parents are empowered and more satisfied. Parents of all races and income levels experience and come to value diversity. Students benefit in tangible and intangible ways. In St. Louis, for example (where I have represented the NAACP and schoolchildren), we negotiated the largest, longest-running inter-district program in the country. Outcomes for the Black students who choose to attend schools in suburban districts are demonstrably better than those who remain in city schools: they have access to more rigorous coursework, and they graduate and attend college at much higher rates.
The good news from this report is the finding by the authors that some 10-20% of eligible students could be accommodated via interdistrict choice under their hypotheses. The sobering news, of course, is that the political will is not quite there yet to help make this happen and that laws like NCLB will need to be amended to strengthen the interdistrict choice provisions.
Finally, while the report provides interesting geographic and demographic data for a handful ot localities, I would argue that its premises, while useful as a starting point, are incomplete in at least three respects:
First, parents who choose demonstrably better schools for their children (whether magnet, private, parochial or interdistrict public) are often willing to have their children transported longer than 20 minutes each way. In the Washington, D.C. area where I live, it is not uncommon for students to commute up to an hour each way to high-performing schools that promise greater access to rigorous coursework and competitive colleges.
Second, in my experience litigating school desegregation cases I have learned that school “capacity” is a nimble & moving target. It is used as a defense by parents and teacher in affluent communities to resist welcoming less advantaged students. Figures rise and fall with school budgets, housing patterns, the commitment of states and the federal government to enforce the law, and, unfortunately, racial dynamics. Recently, in Birmingham, Alabama, the school district argued it could not honor middle school students’ right to transfer out of a school in need of improvement because it lacked capacity in other schools. But when the U.S. Department of Education ordered compliance with the law, capacity was found and the right was extended to all eligible students.
Finally, although the report acknowledges the existence of preexisting choice–i.e., school choice made pursuant to state or local law, magnet programs, informal practices and the like–it does not address the impact on enrollment and capacity. For example, a high school’s enrollment increases and its capacity to accept NCLB transfers is reduced every time an affluent parent chooses to jump district lines and enroll her child in a neighboring district. Because many states and districts allow other forms of choice (with parents usually providing their own transportation and sometimes even making tuition payments to these better schools, in the case of interdistrict choice) and make it available before NCLB choice, there is likely to be more capacity than meets the eye in many schools. Additional research could be helpful in this regard.
–Dianne Piché, Executive Director, Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights