What if school choice intensifies inequality?

What do you as a parent do if have go-to high schools and get away from high schools?

(Portland Public School) District officials admit that the combination of their liberal school transfer policy, declining enrollment and the No Child Left Behind law that requires failing high schools to offer transfers have led to more segregation of students by race and class.

Most high schools serving students of color and low-income students offer fewer electives and advanced classes and have lower achievement. Students and families have fled those high schools, crowding classrooms at popular schools and eliminating classes at smaller schools because of low enrollment.

Well, the Portland Public School district administration, PPS families, and the community at large are facing more difficult times in their ongoing attempts to address the structural inequality of the de facto sorting of poor and minority youth into ‘low performing’ schools where there are fewer advanced choices and fewer electives.

PPS was heavily on board with the Gates Foundation a five years back and converted their low performing high schools into small schools, however, converting the struggling high schools into small schools only made the differences more stark.

And now they are attempting to reverse that restructuring full-scale with,  fewer, bigger neighborhood high schools that serve 1,200 to 1,350 kids each and offer more equal access to college-level coursework, higher-level world languages as well as music and drama.

With this change they hope to offer more uniform access to advanced course work, as well as more uniform access to electives.

The district wants fewer, bigger neighborhood high schools that serve 1,200 to 1,350 kids each and offer more equal access to college-level coursework, higher-level world languages as well as music and drama.

But one might note, this is precisely the model the small schools were designed to reject. The small schools movement which claimed relevance, relationships, and rigor were the three keys to education reform pointed to the large-scale high school as fundamentally bankrupt.

I wont argue that it is not. I will however suggest that the elephant hiding in the living room of this situation has always been ‘school choice’ and self-selection – self segregation. I sat in on a year of discussion, design and pre-transition to a small school conversion here in Eugene. And in the end, because ‘relevance’ and unique designs are key elements of small schools (they each require a name, a theme, an identity) the small school founders suggested it was necessary to allow student choice to drive enrollment in each small school.

And student choice, family choice, parent choice assumes all the programs are educationally equal just as it assumes all parents are equally informed about educational choices and equally have the mobility and access to make any choice available. That is one big set of assumptions – and you have to ask yourself, what if none of them are true?

What if some schools offer less – across the board? And those schools (big or small) are most often located in the low-income and minority regions of a city? What if some parents have less education themselves, and are less knowledgeable about how schooling works, what courses are needed for particular future opportunities etc? And those parents tend to be lower-income parents, (and minority parents are disproportionately lower-income so they get hit twice here). And what if some families struggle more with housing security, job security, and long hour low wage work that makes school contact more limited and less accessible?

Now those free school choices – the choice between a high school that offers more electives and more advanced course work, and the one that offers the bare bones seem a little less benign.   If you take away the assumed ‘equal access to equal choices’ that ignore all of these inequalities – then offering easy access for more advantaged families to programs that are far superior to other programs you can certainly assures unequal outcomes.  I mean sure you can point to people exercising a personal choice to attend either a high quality or low quality high school.  And then everyone can shrug and say – but hey everyone had a choice.  But when even your most socially disadvantaged catch on and begin to  ‘flood’ the good schools…then what?

Two glaring questions come to mind for me at this point.  First, what is a district doing offering low quality educational programs? And second, how much willful ignorance does it take to pretend there is a level playing field when it comes to ‘school choice’  while designing programs that are meant to address the uneven playing field (a.k.a. the achievement gap) ?!

The answer to question number one is of course complicated.  Why does school quality vary so much within most ‘urban’ school districts?  Why are high schools in the low-income and people of color neighborhoods within any city generally of such poor quality?  This ugly fact of public schooling is a question reformers like Jonathan Kozol have spent a lifetime trying to expose, to comprehend, and to address in some meaningful way.  This is a persistent social fact of our time, that those socially segregated from this injustice can and have avoided or ignored for generations. 

As far as question number two goes, PPS’ observation of intensified segregation related to school choice, this fits perfectly within the trend among ‘urban’ school districts across the nation.  Study after study documents the visible social fact that school choice exacerbates racial and social class segregation. 

And so PPS has concluded that another logical ethical step may be to eliminate school choice.   The notion put forward with this new initiative is that school choice, a nearly 30-year legacy of allowing Portland parents to choose any high school in the district for their students — flexibility that has contributed to the inequities.

And it would appear that PPS can no longer ignore the stark inequalities between programs for the haves and those for the have-nots – and so they are arguing that the de facto segregation both racially and economically – that is taking place through school choice is going to have to be eliminated.  The district now wants kids to stay in their neighborhood, attending the closest high school unless families choose to transfer into a magnet program.

Well sort of eliminated:  Though some campuses will close, they’ll likely be reborn as specially designed magnet programs, but without the full complement of clubs and sports.

There you have it, an escape clause. One designed I suspect to deal with the, thousands of parents (drawn) to public meetings across Portland over the past month, many worrying that their favorite high school will close or beloved programs will become diminished.

Given the potential for specially designed magnets, has school choice been eliminated?  No. 

But given that the primary driving concern was unequal programs – lower quality high schools – it would seem that magnets in low-income and minority communities targeting low-income and minority youth would be proper at this point.  This is who was getting the raw deal up to this point.  As is evidenced by all of the data on who gets stuck in the ‘failing schools.’ 

How about a plan in which the district offers high quality magnets strictly for low-income and minority youth?  Or even one with enrollment caps for the socially and economically advantaged?  Will that happen?  Or are we talking about your regular ‘urban’ middle class magnet.  Stacked with high performing, upper income, white and Asian youth who got there the fair way, through free choice and open enrollment?  Because if that is your plan…I’ll see you back here in five years.

And one final thought… following reform after reform, PPS parents have really honed in on the most important question at hand:

And ultimately, families want to know how the reorganization will increase achievement for students and help the district improve its graduation rate. That’s the real test of whether education reform and high school changes work.

My question here is similar, but a little larger, can we keep treating high school and the social inequalities laid painfully bare during these years of a person’s life as if it were an isolated institution? Can we keep offering tinkering structural and curricular reforms to vast social, economic, and political inequalities and truly expect them to succeed?  Can we as professional educators keeping offering magic reform bullets all the while suggesting that schools can single-handedly establish a level playing field for children living within layers and layers of social inequality?

I think the idea of eliminating poor choices is great – no one is really prepared to stand behind the school that is offering less and producing less. And I’d go further to say that eliminating self segregation is fine.  With all schools offering equally excellent education, families could be expected to attend an assigned school.  I mean, once the choices are equally educationally excellent – what good reason could a parent have to suggest their child needed to be at one particular school over another.  So those two moves seem effective if they are done in that order. 

But beyond this, it really seems necessary for school officials to regularly highlight that education exists within a web of social networks including housing options, work force options, health care options, community security options etc.  School educators must become public educators – not simply responsible for teaching content in a single room, but for educating the public with regard to the students and families they serve.

To suggest that some school reform will create a counter narrative to the overall inequality of the greater society is more than optimistic. It is self-defeating. One would do better to consider the most ethical moves at any given moment all the while acknowledging and highlighting to the greater public the concentric circles of social inequalities that must be addressed for any real reduction in the ‘achievement gap.’

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