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October 24, 2007

The Progressive Case for Public School Choice

Ezra has encouraged me to jump in to what has become an energetic debate on vouchers for poor urban public schools, so here I go. Quick run-down: Megan McCardle seethes with rage over rich liberals who essentially practice "school choice" by picking up and moving to expensive suburbs, but who don't support vouchers so poor parents can also get their kids out of bad schools. Ezra responds that vouchers aren't the answer, because they won't do away with concentrated poverty, which he considers the root of educational inequality. Kevin Carey swings in to say they're both wrong: Schools that educate poor kids can be great schools in spite of concentrated poverty, and school choice is okay when choice is confined to the public system. Carey also takes a jab at The American Prospect for prioritizing longterm poverty fixes and downplaying the importance of education reform. To this, I'd only respond that there is a variety of opinions on education at TAP, and that I, for one, have argued again and again for serious attention to be paid to our schools as engines of equality, and will continue to do so.

But back to the issue at hand. Kevin is right that private vouchers aren't a systemic fix for urban education. As he writes, "Voucherizing a whole city like DC wouldn't work. There aren't enough good private schools to teach all those students in the short run, and--more importantly--there wouldn't be enough in the long run." Nor is busing city kids en masse to the suburbs a great solution, since that would be unworkable politically and logistically. Poor kids certainly do deserve top-flight schools within their own communities. And although it's not necessary for those school buildings to be race and class integrated for children to receive a good education within them, it would be preferable if they were. Integrated schools do a better job of readying children for the workforce, tend to have more resources at their disposal in terms of money and parental investment, and perhaps most importantly, teach kids tolerance and comfort around people different from themselves.

What I would like to see is public school choice that regionalizes education in such a way as to encourage kids from more affluent families to attend high quality public magnet and public charter schools in nearby poorer neighborhoods or cities. This provides a good, close-to-home education for poor kids and integrates schools without having to wait for concentrated poverty and wealth to be wiped off the map. It also encourages average or under-performing urban schools to catch up with better specimens within their system, and provides them with models for success. Alongside suburban transfers into the city could be a program of voluntary urban transfers to the suburbs, with extra funding for the schools that take on the city kids. John Edwards has proposed basically this plan.

In a city like D.C., with many wealthy, close-in suburbs, this could be a workable model. In New York City, whose geography is much more complicated, public school choice has successfully brought many hundreds of middle and upper middle class families into the system who in not-so-distant times would have almost certainly moved to the suburbs or rented out their basements for private school tuition. We shouldn't be afraid of educational choices, but we should ensure that they bolster the public system and are equally available to everyone. That's difficult to do, since the most stable families are the first to figure out how to game the system and get their kids into the best public magnets or charters. Lotteries are a good work-around. To sum up, there's so much that can be done to make public schools better without resorting to sending kids to private schools. So let's not give up.


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Brilliantly written. Thank you.

Thank you, Enslaved! You made my evening!

Well said, Dana.

Good post! Some lengthier comments forthcoming at my place, but I do think you're selling the importance of integration to a good education slightly short.


You must be Dana's dad or something. Admit it!



Public magnet schools are certainly a good idea, but they oftentimes have the same problem that any voucher program does - they pick out the best students who oftentimes need the least help. And in a city that is more racially diverse than DC (ie with large minority populations that aren't black) this can be a problem.

The best example is Lowell High School in San Francisco. It's a public magnet school that is one of the best in the state. Originally, its admissions criteria was a combination of test scores, GPA, writing and extracurricular activity. In the 1980s, however, the school became dominated by Asians, leading to a lawsuit by the NAACP to make the school more diverse. The end result was that Asians had to have more "points " to get in than Cacausians, who needed more points than blacks and Latinos.

Lowell's experience shows that even public magnet schools and vouchers aren't the best way to achieve diverse, effective public schools. Lowell, because of its strict, narrow meritocratic admissiosn, could not achieve the integration that one expects public schooling, even in a magnet or voucher context to give. And its new policy lowered the quality of the school and increased racial mistrust. I guess the import of this example is that having good, equitable public education in the midst of racial and economic inequality, as well as residential segregation is very, very hard.

Here's the wiki on Lowell's admissions controversey.

I'm really pretty astonished that you bring up all these ideas as if they haven't been tried for a decade or more--and the results haven't been pretty.

Matt brings up Lowell, but the entire SF school district, as well as the midpeninsula in the SF Bay area, have been trying these solutions for a long time. And they don't work.

I have a longer response here:

Limiting education "choice" programs to only government-run schools discriminates against low-to-moderate income families. Under such a system only affluent families have *true* educational choice as only they can choose from the full range of schooling options. I'm all in favor of having good charter and magnet schools but there should also be vouchers for private schools and tax credits for homeschooling. Let all families have true freedom to choose whatever type of education *THEY* deem best for their children, not only certain types.

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