Issues

School Choice: the Fastest Track to Integration

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By Virginia Walden Ford

Access to a quality education shouldn’t depend on where you live, where you came from, or how much money you make. As a mom who fought like heck to make sure my son was in the right schooling environment for him, I believe education is a basic American right that keeps our nation on the right track.

But recent history has shown that public schools are increasingly segregated not just by race, but also by income. Families too often are forced to send their child to a default school, regardless of the quality of the education or the achievement level of their peers. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka—a unanimous decision that ended the deplorable “separate-but-equal” statutes that had been in place—turned 63 in May. In the 1960s and 1970s, the decision worked to integrate schools, especially as neighborhoods became more racially integrated.

But by the 1980s, while neighborhoods continued becoming more integrated, public schools went in the opposite direction.

Between 1970 and 2009, income-based segregation more than doubled, with the percentage of families residing either in “affluent” or “low-income” neighborhoods going from 15 percent to 33 percent.

When it comes to residential real estate, schools often wind up linked to property values. That means the price of renting or owning in a “good” district continues to rise, making economic integration an impossibility for many families.

Worse, there are those who use the economic segregation of education to reverse the original intent of the justices in Brown.

Take, for example, the recent case of Gardendale, Alabama, a predominantly white suburb that’s attempting to separate itself from the much more diverse Jefferson County school district to which it belongs.

A number of minority students from other parts of Jefferson County have taken advantage of intra-district school choice to attend school in Gardendale. Instead of embracing these students, families in Gardendale want to create their own district, and some have openly admitted their motivation is race-based.

The Jefferson County students may soon be denied the access to a quality education that we have repeatedly said defines our nation.

The reality is that Brown didn’t get us where we need to be: It broke down barriers but failed to establish new pathways. That’s why I strongly believe that we must have a robust system of state-based educational choice if we ever intend to empower every K-12 student in America.

School choice addresses the problem of deepening segregation in two ways: First, it uncouples the decisions about where to live and where to send children to school. Second, it allows schools to provide different educational offerings to different audiences, empowering families to choose schools based on what their students actually need.

If we truly want to desegregate our schools and promote academic achievement, here are three easy ways to get started:

First, enact universal school choice programs that allow all families to access the funds that are set aside by state governments to educate their students. Programs can be scaled to ensure greater access for lower-income and special needs families, but universality helps erode non-economic barriers and makes sure all families have shared interests in the sustainability of these programs.

Second, work with education providers, community groups, policymakers and other stakeholders to promote accountability and prevent fraud using a common-sense system of checks and balances.

Finally, make sure families are aware of and understand the schooling options available to their students, including information available in multiple languages, outreach from community groups and services to help with application forms along with other administrative support.

We know this approach works. State-based choice programs across America have been proven to improve academic outcomes, raise parental satisfaction and produce more civic-minded, tolerant students.

As Congress asks Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about the Trump administration’s education budget, Members should consider the importance of school choice policies made at the local and state level as opposed to being dictated by the federal government.

Two decades ago, as a single mom trying to find the best educational fit for my kids, I didn’t know where to turn. My son was only able to access a great education because he received a private scholarship that paid his private school tuition. I know how drastically different—and worse—his life would be without that education.

When the Supreme Court unanimously decided on Brown more than six decades ago, the justices surely didn’t anticipate desegregation followed by intense re-segregation and self-segregation.

Until the system of haves and have-nots, historically and presently defined by race and money, is upended, American K-12 education will continue to exist as a separated, unequal enterprise.

True school choice—making sure all students can get in where they fit in—will help solve the K-12 integration dilemma.

Virginia Walden Ford is a K-12 education advocate who founded D.C. Parents for School Choice in 1998. This article first appeared in The Hill. Reprinted by permission.

This is an excerpt from CATALYST Magazine Summer 2017

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