Re: Flipping Out

By 01/29/2014

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Checker thinks that Sam Chaltain, Rick Kahlenberg, and I are engaging in “nanny-statism” when we propose a form of “controlled choice” in strategic locations of Washington, D.C., which he likens to “forced busing” and “social engineering.”

Has Checker been watching That 70s Show? (Or maybe American Hustle?) Those are fighting words from the age of Nixon. But they have nothing to do with what we’re suggesting today.

As Checker himself acknowledges, a sizable proportion of parents—rich, poor, white, black, and Hispanic—would like to choose diverse schools for their children. Stress the word “choose.” The question is, without an assist from public policy, will these parents have any diverse schools among which to choose?

Here’s the dilemma: most of the schools in D.C., as elsewhere in the country, are socioeconomically isolated—either uniformly upper middle class (west of Rock Creek Park) or uniformly poor (everywhere else). That’s no surprise—most neighborhoods in Washington are highly segregated, too, and the schools reflect this unfortunate fact.

What’s new, and interesting, is that neighborhoods are starting to change—in some cases, rapidly. Capitol Hill has already gentrified; Columbia Heights, Petworth, Logan Circle/Shaw, and Takoma are on their way. This is great news from a “diverse-schools” perspective, because it means that people of different socioeconomic backgrounds are living close enough to one another that socioeconomically diverse schools are feasible—without busing.

So why not just “let the river run freely,” as Checker proposes? Let schools change naturally, as their neighborhoods are changing naturally, rather than try to “change the direction of the river”?

It’s a classic collective-action problem. Lots of people would choose a diverse school, defined as, say, roughly split 50/50 between poor children and middle-class peers. (In reality, most people, rich and poor, probably prefer a 70/30 split in favor of the middle class.) But few middle-class parents will agree to be the first ones to “integrate” an all-poor school. Once a school starts gentrifying, though, many middle-class parents will join in—creating a “flood,” in Checker’s parlance. But without flood walls, the school will inadvertently become uniformly middle class, and we’ll have missed the opportunity of diversity.

I’m not spouting theory. Look at Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill or Ross in Dupont Circle. Several years ago, there was an intentional effort to recruit middle-class families into these schools. Once that process started, word got out that the schools were safe for affluent kids, and the floodwaters opened. Now if you look at their upper grades, they are reasonably diverse. But their lower grades are almost uniformly white and upper middle class. Meanwhile, less than a mile from each of these schools are DCPS campuses that are still uniformly poor (and black). (The middle schools in these neighborhoods, by the way, have barely gentrified at all, as middle-class parents wait for someone else to go first.)

Now, I understand the argument that says, “Stuff happens.” If parents who live near Brent or Ross want to claim the right for their kids to attend their neighborhood school, why stop them? (Particularly as someone who famously studied the issue of diverse schools and them vamoosed to the wilds of Bethesda.) If Capitol Hill or Dupont Circle schools end up looking like those in Ward 3—uniformly white and upper middle class—c’est la vie.

But let’s get back to the question of choice. What if some of those Capitol Hill parents or Dupont Circle parents would like to choose a diverse school? They are out of luck.

That’s where “controlled choice” comes in. The notion is to eliminate a “property right” to the school closest to your house (what some choice advocates call Zip Code Education), while guaranteeing a school in reasonable proximity. Design an algorithm to match parental preferences with schools, while considering socioeconomic backgrounds at the same time. In doing so, we can ensure that at least some schools in the city are diverse—and are there for the choosing.

For sure, there’s another option, and it’s basically what’s happening naturally in D.C.: allow charter schools to meet the demand for diverse schools. Most of the diverse schools in Washington today are, in fact, charters: Capital City, LAMB, Yu Ying, E.L. Haynes, Washington Latin, BASIS. They have a natural advantage in creating a diverse student population, in that they can locate themselves strategically (and centrally) and design a program that appeals across socioeconomic lines. (Eventually the flood of middle-class parents could become a problem for them too, which is why we recommend allowing the use of “weighted lotteries,” which the U.S. Department of Education just green-lighted today.)

But if DCPS wants to have diverse schools among its ranks, it’s going to need some help from public policy. Controlled choice is one way. Perhaps there are others. But inaction, in the face of a flood, will lead to predictable results, with an historic opportunity washed away. D.C. can do better.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, in response to this piece, which was a response to this piece.

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