Education

The Boundaries of Choice

A growing number of school districts allow poor children to transfer out of failing public schools. But the most desirable schools rarely let them in.
by | December 2002
 

Two years ago, the Oak Park City School District feared it was on the losing side of a fierce battle raging in Detroit's northern and western suburbs. Just to its north, the Royal Oak School District had launched an aggressive advertising campaign that was successfully luring students away from Oak Park and other nearby suburban jurisdictions. But Oak Park Superintendent Alexander Bailey doubted that his district, a relatively low-income pocket on the edge of wealthy Oakland County, could prevail in a head-to-head competition for students.

Oak Park's competitive disadvantage didn't arise from any lack of effort. The district last year spent $8,856 per student, $94 more than Royal Oak schools. But it has a very different student population. About 40 percent of its students come from low-income families that qualify for subsidized lunches. In Royal Oak, on the other hand, the poverty rate is just 9 percent. That difference apparently mattered to Oakland County parents, who were flocking to Royal Oak but showing considerably less interest in Oak Park.

So Oak Park did what no other Oakland County school district had been willing to try: It opened its doors to students from Wayne County, which includes Detroit. This time, Oak Park played the role of the wealthy competitor. Although Detroit schools actually spend slightly more--$9,082 per student--than those in Oak Park, they serve a significantly poorer population: More than 60 percent of their students are eligible for subsidized lunches. Just as students were leaving Oak Park for Royal Oak, a number of Detroit families jumped at the chance to send their kids across the county line to Oak Park. As a result, Oak Park's school population stabilized; in fact, it grew this year.

Superintendent Bailey believes that Oak Park's enrollment failures, as well as its successes, can be attributed to the same thing: Parents want to send their children to schools where there are more middle- class students and fewer poorer ones. "The issue is class," the superintendent says. "People sometimes talk about it as a racial issue, but well-to-do blacks have the same concerns as middle-class whites about who goes to school with their children."

At a time when school vouchers are attracting increased interest and the federal government is forcing school districts to offer students an opportunity to transfer out of failing schools, Michigan's experience bears close watching. Advocates of school "choice," as these and similar policies are known, argue that letting parents pick their children's schools will unleash the magic of the market: Parents will choose the best schools, which will thrive, while schools that are passed over will be forced to mend their ways. So the theory goes. But it hasn't exactly worked that way. In practice, parents' options are sharply curtailed--and are likely to remain so because social class almost always trumps choice. The best schools invariably are those with mostly middle-class students, the worst are those whose students come from poor families, and affluent parents who can afford to live in neighborhoods with the best schools have all the political clout they need to keep poor kids out. School choice, in short, faces political obstacles that may always prevent it from being put to a true test.

The dynamic is clear to see in Michigan, which strongly encourages public school systems to pursue open enrollment policies. Most poor parents want to send their children to more affluent schools, but the desirable schools rarely allow an influx of children from down the socioeconomic ladder. The only exceptions are schools such as Oak Park, which themselves are losing students to more upscale schools. These are exceptions that prove the rule, however. In general, school choice in Michigan is an exercise by schools in managing which students they enroll, not a catalyst for reform. "Rather than leading to innovation or general improvement in the performance of local policies, school choice policies have served to reinforce the prestige hierarchy among schools and school districts," says David Plank, director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

DECONCENTRATING POVERTY

Choice advocates may be right on at least one key point, though: A great deal of research shows that low-income parents who try to move their children to more affluent districts really are picking the best schools. This is true for many reasons. Wealthier schools tend to have more experienced teachers, probably because pay often is higher and burn-out is a serious problem at schools with large numbers of low- income children (a recent University of Pennsylvania study, for instance, found that teacher turnover runs at a 20 percent annual rate in high-poverty schools, compared with just 13 percent in low-poverty ones). What's more, children in predominantly middle-class schools get a bigger boost from parents, who are more likely than low-income parents to help with homework, volunteer in school, and demand quality services from teachers and administrators. Peers make a big difference, too. Values such as studiousness and good grades are more likely to be keys to social success in schools with mostly middle- class students, while peer pressures reinforce the opposite values in schools with many poor students.

Whatever the reason for the close correlation between school performance and income levels of students, a number of school districts have concluded that the best way to fix failing schools is to eliminate concentrations of poverty. Wake County, North Carolina, a sprawling 864-square-mile jurisdiction that includes Raleigh and 11 surrounding municipalities, operates a number of respected magnet schools designed to attract affluent kids to the inner city. Where that fails, it assigns students to schools in an effort to ensure that no school has more than 40 percent of its students eligible for subsidized lunches.

School officials say the policy is working. Test scores for low- income students have improved significantly since the school system started placing them in schools that have large numbers of middle- class students. And despite parental fears, middle-class students haven't suffered. Between 2001 and 2002, for instance, the proportion of Wake County black students who scored at or above grade level in reading climbed from 67 percent to 72 percent, while the proportion of white students rose from 96 percent to 97 percent. "We're real proud of that," says Associate Superintendent Walt Sherlin. "We're closing the gap."

Nevertheless, Wake County, which has a strong school administration and a history of busing to achieve racial integration, has been forced to ease its policies to placate parents in the suburbs. In most cases, when suburbanites fight, they win. That was clear last fall, when the school system tried to move 5,200 children from affluent outlying suburbs to schools in the "Rim," a group of inner suburbs along the beltline that encircles Raleigh. Rim schools have been losing middle- class students to both the inner-city magnet programs and to a group of year-round schools the county has built in newer suburbs farther away. When the county tried to offset these losses by moving some children into the Rim from other suburbs that lie farther away from Raleigh, outraged parents forced it to back down, at least partially. Under fire, the school system agreed to move only 2,200 students.

"I don't think people are naturally drawn to integrated environments," says Ann Majestic, the school system's lawyer and a skeptic about school choice. She says the school system will stick to its diversification strategy. "Even though the [integration] policy may not always seem compelling to some parents as individuals, the board has to keep the whole district strong and healthy."

SUBURBAN CLOUT

Suburban opposition has blunted school choice programs even more than mandatory diversification efforts such as Wake County's. In a bow to suburban voters, for instance, almost all of the 33 states that allow students to transfer between districts let school districts decide whether to participate. Similarly, the new federal "No Child Left Behind Act" requires school districts to allow children in schools where test scores are dropping to move to higher-performing schools, but Congress effectively insulated middle-class, suburban schools by requiring transfers only within districts, not between them.

Voucher programs have been similarly constricted. Milwaukee, which has the country's largest voucher program, flatly exempts suburban schools. Cleveland's voucher program, which led to last summer's landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the use of government- funded vouchers to pay parochial school tuition, only became a church- state battle because suburban public schools refused to accept voucher students. The third existing voucher program, Florida's, allows students to transfer to the suburbs, but it doesn't require schools to provide transportation across district lines--a provision that critics say will prevent most city kids from going to school in the suburbs (currently, just 545 children participate in Florida's program).

"Unless the politics surrounding school choice are altered, school choice plans will continue to be structured in ways that protect the physical and financial independence of suburban schools," wrote James Ryan and Michael Heise, professors at the University of Virginia and Case Western Reserve law schools in the Yale Law Journal in June.

Ryan and Heise believe lack of suburban participation will keep choice policies from succeeding, but some advocates of school vouchers disagree. "It is desirable, all things being equal, to have a good socioeconomic mix in a school," says Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, the libertarian law firm that has led the fight for vouchers. But efforts to achieve socioeconomic balance, especially forcing children to commute long distances, "distract from the educational experience," he adds, arguing that vouchers can work to improve education even if they are confined to areas with predominantly poor students. The jury is still out on that question, though. The U.S. General Accounting Office and RAND Corp. have both found that the research on the effects of vouchers is inconclusive. And even researchers who believe vouchers have improved schools are unclear about how the improvement actually occurs. "We would all like to know why," says Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson. "We have some ideas, but we have no proof."

Peterson's research, which includes some of the most positive findings concerning the effects of vouchers, raises as many questions as it answers. The Harvard professor has found, for instance, that vouchers have increased achievement levels for African-American students but not for other low-income and minority groups. Why? Peterson speculates that black students may be more enthusiastic about the opportunities vouchers create because, unlike many other students, they haven't had such choice in the past. Or, he says, public school teachers may have uniquely low expectations of black students--a pattern that doesn't occur in private schools, where teachers are more likely to view all students as "customers." Peterson also theorizes that vouchers may enable some black students to escape a peer group culture that is particularly negative about schooling.

All these theories raise questions about whether voucher programs could succeed on a large scale. If vouchers work because of their novelty, for instance, the benefits may disappear once they become more commonplace. If they work by enabling students to go to small, private schools, that may be difficult to replicate because legislatures so far have been reluctant to put enough money into vouchers to lead entrepreneurs to start new schools. The three current programs pay maximum benefits ranging from $2,250 per student in Cleveland to $5,553 in Milwaukee. But at Aspire Public Schools, a California-based nonprofit company that establishes charter schools, legal counsel Scott Morgan estimates that operating revenues must equal at least $6,000 per student to spur creation of new schools in the Golden State--and that doesn't include capital costs. Finally, if vouchers remove black students from bad peer influences, the benefits may disappear if vouchers become available to large numbers of students.

"Once voucher schools take in large numbers of low-income students, rather than a self-selected group of students whose parents cared enough to put money down, the schools are likely to face all the difficulties of high poverty public schools--negative peer influences, low parental involvement and less ability to attract qualified teaching staffs," says Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

LEGENDS AND MYTHS

While many researchers and advocates believe choice is incompatible with socioeconomic integration, Kahlenberg contends that the two can be complementary. Relying not on the invisible hand of the market but the firm hand of government, a handful of school districts are trying to offer parents an array of choices so broad and enticing that they will forget their inclination to sort themselves by income. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, parents can choose among a variety of elementary schools, including a dual English-Spanish immersion school, a school that emphasizes multi-grade classrooms, a school that boasts a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio, a school that bases its curriculum on the "core learning" theories of University of Virginia professor emeritus Edward Hirsch, and one that offers daily instruction in Chinese and English.

The Cambridge approach may have some advantages over vouchers. For one thing, existing voucher programs don't reach the most disadvantaged students--those who come from families unable or uninterested in seeking something better for their children. In Cambridge, every family is required to identify its top three school choices, and the city operates an information center to help parents make informed decisions.

The system also has an answer to another problem rarely addressed by choice advocates--what to do with schools that lose the competition for students. In a truly competitive market, schools that aren't chosen would wither and die. But in reality, that's unlikely to happen as long as Americans remain committed to universal education. Instead, failing schools are more likely to muddle along with the least-able, least-motivated and lowest-income students. In Cambridge, however, Superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro is seeking ways to promulgate successful schools while phasing out unsuccessful ones. The school system surveys parents to learn what new choices they would like (the most recent poll showed the "market" is most interested in arts and science magnet schools). Cambridge then offers grants to help schools develop the kind of programs parents say they prefer. And it has been weighing the possibility of moving "over-chosen" schools into larger buildings to accommodate more students; one proposal would consolidate a successful school with an "under-chosen" one that can't fill all its classrooms.

Despite the razzle-dazzle, however, choice alone hasn't erased class distinctions in Cambridge. While parents do shop around for schools, their choices often are still shaped by "legends and myths," many of which are based on ideas about social class, according to Lois Sullivan, the school system's spokesman. The Maria Baldwin school, for instance, has a lustrous reputation because many parents assume faculty from nearby Harvard Law school send their children there--even though Cambridge hasn't had neighborhood schools for 20 years. By the same token, several schools that lie near large multifamily housing projects have undeserved--but seemingly unshakable--reputations as being poor schools, Sullivan says. Because of such lingering perceptions, the Cambridge school system, which is firmly committed to achieving socioeconomic integration, reserves to itself the right to override parental choice and assign children according to their socioeconomic status. The resulting policy carries the ironic name "controlled choice."

The biggest flaw in the Cambridge system, though, may be that it is confined to Cambridge public-school students. With eight highly competitive private schools siphoning 1,000 mostly upper-income students from the 7,175-pupil system, and many other middle-class families choosing to live in the suburbs, the city is chronically short of affluent students and wary about attracting any more low- income ones. That probably explains why Cambridge's social conscience stops at its borders: The city consistently refuses to open the school gates to transfer students from other districts. "We would be flooded with people from Boston who are just like the kids we already have," explains Superintendent D'Alessandro.

FIGHTING BACK

Still, tempting as it might be to poke holes in Cambridge's strategy, other communities may soon find themselves wrestling with similar issues. That's because choice is popular with parents. "Choice is like billboards along the side of the road," says the Oak Park school district's Superintendent Alexander Bailey. "It's here, and there's nothing we can do about it."

That's not entirely true. Schools in low-income neighborhoods may have trouble dealing with choice, but many affluent schools have shown they can shelter themselves from choice altogether. Schools in the middle--in transitional, inner suburban neighborhoods that some upwardly mobile families are leaving and others from farther down the social ladder are entering--face the biggest opportunities and risks. These schools will stay out of the choice game at their own peril.

Michigan's Southfield School District, which lies immediately west of the Oak Park City School District, illustrates the challenge. Like its neighbor, Southfield a few years ago found itself losing students-- about 120 a year--when nearby districts farther from Detroit started advertising for students. The problem appeared to be a perfect example of the kinds of "legends and myths" that school officials in Cambridge bemoan. Southfield, a commercial hub, is one of the wealthiest school districts in the country. But even though the school district has a strong academic program--an operating budget of $11,817 per pupil, one computer for every three students and a 15-to-1 student/staff ratio--a majority of its students are African American, and many parents automatically assume that means its schools have lots of poor people. In Southfield's case that is absolutely untrue. Indeed, the average African-American family living in the district earns more than the average white family. Unfortunately, many parents didn't know that. "There is a prejudice, among black as well as white parents, against sending children to a school that is majority minority," says Ken Siver, the district's director of public information.

Concerned about middle-class flight, Southfield officials reluctantly decided to fight back. They didn't want to open their doors to Detroit kids for fear that would heighten the perception that the district has mostly poor students, but they were willing to try to attract nonresident students from other suburban jurisdictions. So the district gave Siver a $100,000 marketing budget. He used the money, among other things, to advertise on a "smooth jazz" radio station, reasoning that would be the best way to reach a racially mixed, sophisticated, middle-class audience. Because mothers often take the lead in making family decisions about schools, he also ran commercials on a local television station that carries a lot of women's programming. Part of his pitch was that parents should "see for yourself," rather than jump to quick conclusions about Southfield.

Middle-class families looked, and liked what they saw. Last year, when Southfield opened its doors to other Oakland County residents, 400 families applied to fill 252 slots.

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