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Leland Kim, one of the San Mateo students at the heart of the Zip Code Education case. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

From school residency laws and district-level zone schooling policies, to efforts by districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to limit the growth of charter schools, voucher programs, and voucher-like tax credit initiatives, to ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model (which keeps families from college-preparatory coursework and gifted-and-talented programs), American public education does plenty to restrict the ability of families to choose high-quality education, effectively condemning far too many children to dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity. As a result, families and caregivers, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds such as Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell, find themselves doing everything — even breaking those “stealing education” laws — in order to help their kids get the safe and high-quality learning environments they deserve.

Yet with the exception of the federal lawsuit being brought by the Connecticut Parents Union on behalf of grandmother Marie Menard (who was charged by the suburban Stratford district near Bridgeport for allowing her grandkids to claim residency in the district), few school reformers have legally challenged Zip Code Education policies. The Obama administration has been particularly silent, failing to use its Race to the Top reform effort to coax states into taking further steps to expanding choice (including taking over full funding of schools and voucherizing those dollars so that they follow kids to any school they want to attend) as well as expanding what choice can be by enacting Parent Trigger laws already in place in seven states.

This makes a probe launched by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against the San Mateo Union School District particularly interesting. Five Chinese families in the district (with help of a local tutor) allege that San Mateo moved their children out of Mills High School, one of the district’s better-performing operations, into the mediocre Capuchino High. This despite the fact that the families are zoned to Mills, and thus, under San Mateo’s own rules, are allowed to attend the school. Families say the district has argued that they don’t live in the zone because they don’t have their names on deeds or leases (which given that many Chinese immigrant families handle their business in informal ways, the lack of such paperwork is understandable), or because the child is a nephew or niece living with them while parents are either living in China or nearby San Francisco. There is also speculation that San Mateo is moving the Asian students in order to bolster the performance of Capuchino, which did poorly in meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, especially in improving performance of Latino students attending the school; shifting more Asian students to the school, goes the theory, would somehow magically improve its performance. (San Mateo officials have said little to the press other than they are following rules and policies in place.)

It is certainly encouraging to see Department of Education officials pry into the state of affairs in San Mateo. Dropout Nation has consistently pushed for reformers to use the courts and other means to end Zip Code Education policies that impede kids (especially those from poor, minority, and immigrant households) from accessing high-quality education. The fact that zoned school policies and restrictions on inter-district choice are also violations of constitutional provisions that require states to provide “free public education” to the kids within their borders and thus, render Zip Code Education policies unconstitutional, can also help reformers expand school choice and Parent Power provisions that can expand such opportunities.

Meanwhile the fact that San Mateo seems to have arbitrarily decided which students can attend its schools points to the reality that districts do plenty to restrict the power of families to choose education, even when they are zoned into what is perceived to be a high-quality school. Because districts can change school zones and policies at will — especially based on the clout of the families who live in a particular area — means that families aren’t guaranteed to get into the traditional school for which they made (an often costly) relocation. Thanks to efforts by districts to track and keep out those families who they believe are stealing education, it can be even more-burdensome for families who are in a district (especially poor immigrant households who support themselves through informal and less traditional means) to provide their kids with the learning they need for lifelong success. San Mateo alone requires families to show property tax bills, homeowner’s or renters insurance information, payroll stubs, and in the case of kids living with aunts and uncles, even an affidavit, just in order to gain clearance from the district to attend schools for which families are paying plenty in taxes.

Even when the district give the okay for a kid to attend school, they still may not get the comprehensive, college-preparatory courses in subjects such as algebra that they need to do well in college and in life. This is particularly clear at Mills, which is the perceived to be the better of the two San Mateo High Schools. Just 30 percent of Mills’ Asian students took Advanced Placement courses during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database, while a mere 14 percent of Latino peers, 16 percent of white students, and 14 percent of Native Hawaiian high schoolers did so. (None of the 20 or so black students at the school took an A.P. course.) Only 13 percent of Asian kids (along with 3 percent of white and Latino peers) took calculus, while only 29 percent of Asians (alongside 18 percent of white students, 14 percent of Native Hawaiians, 9 percent of Latinos and zero percent of black kids) took trigonometry and other advanced math subjects. Essentially, Mills is doing only slightly better at providing all students with high-quality educational opportunities than Capuchino (where no students are took A.P. courses that year, but do have kids taking other college-prep coursework).

This isn’t shocking. As I noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on furthering Parent Power, what is happening in San Mateo is emblematic of the arrogance and condescension of many teachers and school leaders towards families. But it isn’t just about keeping families away from table of education decision-making. Because traditional district monopolies are charged with providing education in a particular municipal area throughout most of the country, they have no incentive to meet the marketplace demands of families. Even if they wanted to do so, the obsolete structure of the traditional district model (which puts decisions about school attendance into the hands of central bureaucrats) means that districts would struggle to allow for such choices. One can see this when looking at the forms of intra-district choices districts do make available such as magnet schools, which end up being geared more toward meeting federal desegregation orders, placating middle-class white families, and burnishing the belief of ivory-tower civil rights traditionalists that socioeconomic integration is some elixir for what ails American public education, than in providing families high-quality options.

The San Mateo case once again exemplifies the need to expand school choice and Parent Power, allowing families the opportunities to escape failure mills, choose school cultures that are better fits for the needs of their kids, and overhaul the dropout factories within their own communities. California and other states in which the bulk of funding comes from state coffers could take such a step by abolishing school residency laws and zoned schooling polices, as well as taking over full funding of schools; for the Golden State, in particular, it will mean addressing the rest of its longstanding fiscal challenges. Those states in which property tax dollars are still the significant funding sources for schools should do the same thing. Further expanding school options, including putting charter school authorizing into the hands of state agencies, should also be done.

Subjecting families, and ultimately, our children, to the whims of districts is unacceptable. It is time to end Zip Code Education policies for once and for all.