Why Middle Class (and Poor) Families in Suburbia Deserve Real School Choice
Certainly one could have expected some response to Thomas B. Fordham Institute research czar Mike Petrilli’s compelling and intelligent argument for expanding charter schools and other forms of school choice in suburban districts (an argument made ad nauseam by Dropout Nation and its editors since its revival three years ago). What one wouldn’t have expected is the piece from Kristen Amundson, Education Sector’s communications boss (and former Virginia legislator). Buying into the traditionalist thinking that middle-class families already have school choice — and conflating the housing gamesmanship that typifies life in D.C., New York, and Boston, with what happens in the rest of the country — Amundson declares that those families “are never going to be the drivers of this innovation” because choice seemingly exists for them.
Unfortunately for middle class families — especially first-generation black, Latino, and Asian households who are entering the middle class for the first time — throughout the rest of the country (including the supposedly tony Virginia and Maryland suburbs outside of D.C.) — school choice doesn’t really exist at all. Certainly, as Amundson notes, some suburban districts offer a limited form of intra-district choice in the form of magnet schools. But those options are often limited. Because magnet schools are often efforts to meet federal desegregation orders — and fulfill the belief of ivory-tower civil rights traditionalists such as Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg that socioeconomic integration is some elixir for what ails American public education – those choices are limited by the quotas on the number of students from each race, ethnicity, and economic background who can get in (and more often, depend on the political clout of families, of which black and Latino families regardless of income generally have little). And given that in many districts, teachers and other school personnel get first dibs on those prime spots as part of collective bargaining agreements, there are even fewer choices for the families who pay the school tab.
In any case, magnet schools generally make up a smidgen of schools in suburban districts, and zoned schooling (along with other Zip Code Education policies) remain the norm. Considering that the average middle-class household in America (and not just well-paid folks living in the D.C. suburbs such as your editor) earns an income of $54,442 (that’s with two people working and two kids who don’t), most middle-class families can’t “just move” in order to get a desired school. Even for middle-class households with the wherewithal to relocate, the reality that districts often arbitrarily change their zoning policies — especially based on the clout of the families who live in a particular area — means that simply moving residences doesn’t guarantee that those families will get into one of the few high-quality traditional schools for which you made such a move.
But these aren’t the only restrictions on choice in suburbia for middle-class families. Just the most visible. Because of both Zip Code Education policies that predominate today, and the cultures of low expectations for minority children regardless of race or class, many suburban parents find themselves battling condescending school leaders and teachers who think that black and Latino kids don’t deserve access to high-quality curricula. As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the suburbs surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs. And throughout this country, these families are often not informed about their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life, including opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses or participate in the growing number of dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education.
But it isn’t just about academics. Particularly for black, Latino, and even the few Native middle-class families, they want their kids to both get college preparatory curricula and still be around peers of their own race and ethnicity — especially those who are also doing well in school — in order to build self-pride. While folks such as Amundson may not understand this because, well, they aren’t racial or ethnic minorities, this is an important thing for those who are. (This is why HBCUs and tribal colleges exist in the first place.) As a result, these families — and white counterparts who either have kids labeled as either special ed or placed on the general academic track — seek out private schools at great expense, even when they are paying out $5,000 or more every year to support traditional public schools their kids won’t attend.
But most middle-class families don’t have either the means or the easily-accessible data on schools to make that decision. As a result, they are restricted to warehouses of mediocrity whose shiny new buildings hide laggard instruction and curricula. This is especially true even in the suburbs surrounding D.C. And it shows in the analysis of the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card, which has revealed how mediocre suburban districts really can be. Just 30 percent of students in Fairfax County would outperform peers in Singapore in mathematics, and only 41 percent of them would perform better than peers in Canada and Switzerland, two other top-performing nations. Meanwhile just 31 percent of Montgomery County, Md. students would outperform peers in Singapore, and only two in five of them would outperform peers in Canada and Switzerland.
This isn’t the only example of mediocrity. Twenty-eight percent of suburban fourth-graders were functionally illiterate in 2011, no better than the levels four years ago; this compares poorly to the one- and two-point declines, respectively, among big-city and rural districts. Given that the one out of every eight white suburban fourth-graders not on free-or-reduced lunch are struggling with reading is equal to the levels in big-city districts — and the rate of black fourth-grade suburban counterparts who are functionally illiterate is only four percentage points lower than that of big-city peers — suburban districts are actually falling down on their jobs. This isn’t shocking. Thanks to the unwillingness of most suburban district leaders to embrace the underlying tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act — and their efforts to perpetuate the myth that traditional districts in the ‘burbs are doing just fine — they have ignored the innovations (including in the area of revamping teacher compensation) embraced by more reform-minded districts in big cities. So middle class kids in suburbia have lost out on the benefits of innovation.
But expanding school choice into suburbia isn’t just about the middle class who populate the well-manicured subdivisions. Suburban districts also serve plenty of poor families, especially Latino emigres and other first-generation Americans toiling for their piece of the streets of gold. Thirty-three percent of suburban kids — and three out of every five black and Latino kids in suburbia — attend schools where more than half their peers are on free and reduced lunch (which essentially means that there is at least a one-in-two chance that they are poor themselves). When it comes to choice, they get none at all, lacking both the clout to get into magnet schools or the income needed to locate into any of the better school zones. Which is problematic given that suburbia districts have proven to be as terrible as many urban districts in providing high-quality education. If they can scrounge up the cash, they may be able to send their kids to one of the few Catholic or parochial schools that are still open in their communities. Otherwise, they are even more out of luck than their middle-class peers.
The reality is that all families need — and deserve — to have a lead role in shaping the education of their children. Not only are they charged with this role through their natural role as mothers and fathers of kids they love, they are effectively required to play their part thanks to state compulsory school laws. Limiting the access of middle class families to wide-ranging school choices (and even more-expansive Parent Power) just because they have the perceived financial means to buy homes and send kids to private schools is just as intellectually and morally indefensible as limiting the choices of the poor. More importantly, it is politically counterproductive to boot. It is the very limitation of vouchers to poor families is one of the reasons why middle class families haven’t always been ready to support expanding school choice. After all, why should they offer kids that aren’t their own an opportunity they cannot get themselves? Neither middle class or poor parents should have fewer or no choices in the array of schools whose teaching and curricula are critical to the futures of their children and communities, than in restaurants to which they should never have to go.
By expanding school choice in suburbia, school reformers can break down opposition to what should be the ultimate goal: Ending Zip Code Education policies by forcing states to fully fund education and voucherize those dollars so they can follow every child to whatever school option they choose. Expanding choice also ends the myth that the more-expensive housing equals better schools, which we know by now isn’t so.
There is no reason why the vibrant choices in schools starting to come in our big cities isn’t also happening in suburbia. All families should be able to choose schools fit for the futures of their children.