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In January, Kelley Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail for trying to get her kids a better education — or at least that’s what mainstream coverage of the story would have you believe. National Public Radio’s Kyle Olson christened Williams-Bolar the Rosa Parks of education, and Teach For America’s Kevin Huffman jumped on the bandwagon with a sanctimonious op-ed in The Washington Post. Of course, Williams-Bolar also committed a few felonies along the way—falsifying documents and lying about her address so that her children could attend schools in a different district. The punishment of jail time may have been disproportionate to the crime, but the popular support for Williams-Bolar’s cause reveals a fundamental problem with how Americans think about educational inequality.
For some, Williams-Bolar’s case demonstrates basic inequities in what Nancy Flanagan of Education Week has described as America’s “economically segregated” school system. Williams-Bolar was simply attempting to overcome this system, which is at its worst in districts like Akron, Ohio, where she lives. Sixty-nine percent of Akron students receive free or reduced-price lunch; the three schools in Williams-Bolar’s zone received the second-lowest ranking (“Academic Watch”) on Ohio’s six-point scale used to evaluate its schools. The Akron schools stood in sharp contrast to the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn district, where Williams-Bolar sent her children. Here, low poverty rates (16 percent FRPL) and high test scores enabled the district to attain Ohio’s top rating, “Excellent with Distinction.”
The existence of gaping inequities in neighboring districts is viscerally disturbing, and this explains why part of the response to Williams-Bolar’s case has been to call for greater use of “interdistrict plans.” Under these plans, states would pay for underperforming urban students to be transported to excellent suburban districts. For example, Jennifer Holmes and Amy Wells have studied eight cities that successfully undertook such plans, and blogger Halley Potter reports that interdistricting greatly increases diversity in suburban schools. Moreover, “students who won a lottery and became transfer participants scored higher than those who lost in the lottery.”
Which is exactly the problem.
Those who advocate for school choice extol its ability to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity while reducing egregious disparities between schools separated by only a few miles. School choice would undoubtedly do both of these things, but that doesn’t make it the solution to underperforming schools—especially because choices would, in effect, have to be limited. School choice can’t be treated as the “free market” solution to education, in which parents would have unlimited control over where to send their children regardless of district boundaries; otherwise, students would flood out of underperforming urban schools and flock to their excelling suburban neighbors.
So school districts have come up with practices like lotteries and interdistricting plans that either distribute spots in better schools by chance or specifically allot them to the lowest-performing students. Last year’s documentary “Waiting for Superman” evocatively demonstrated the flaws of the first system, in which students’ life chances are literally lotteried off while tearful parents and children stand by helplessly. Allocating the spots to low-income or underperforming children avoids the lottery problem, but it creates a new one: It leaves our highest performing students in poor districts where their skills can’t be nurtured. American K-12 education fails its best students just as egregiously as it fails its worst, and the National Research Council has reported that “performance of the top 5 percent of U.S. students is matched by the top 50 percent of students in Japan.” Other international comparisons are equally disheartening—which is partly why we see an increasing proportion of foreign-born students attending our top universities. Like all American students, our highest performers deserve the best education we can provide, and some interdistricting plans condemn them to the worst.
Overall, the effect of interdistricting plans would be to cover up current underperformance by distributing low-performing students more equally; instead of being concentrated in poor urban areas, they’d now also be found in wealthier suburban schools, while test scores in urban districts left with their best students would seem higher on average. But moving students around—switching them from school to school in the hope that one will stick—isn’t the solution. Instead of providing urban students with a way out of underperforming districts, we need to improve the quality of urban education itself.
Indeed, we need to refocus the national education debate by choosing to raise performance instead of decrease inequality. We can choose either to lower the standards of great schools just as we raise the standards of poor ones, or we can simply work to bring our lowest-performing districts up to the level of their high-achieving neighbors.
I am a proponent of school choice, and parents should have as many options as possible in choosing where to send their children. But we can’t pretend that school choice is the solution to our education crisis when it’s only a solution to inequality. If we want to improve student performance, we need to look at teacher quality, at curriculum standards, and at socioeconomic conditions. If we’re focusing on school choice, we’re aiming at the wrong target.
Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government conce
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