Worth a Read: Educational Delusions? Why Choice can Deepen Inequalities and How to Make Schools Fair

Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA have collaborated once again on a weighty book, one that looks at the civil rights implications of choice.  Just published this month by University of California Press it makes a central contribution to the policy analysis field.
I will give more space to selected excerpts here than I will consume with my own observations.  Two facets of the book I would highlight, however, are that it includes important new empirical studies, and also that it is not anti-charter and choice.  Indeed, the authors provide many examples throughout the book of ways that choice has always held integrative potential, and still does – if policymakers pay careful attention.  
The authors write:

Our intent was to produce a volume that would be accessible and based on clear evidence, to help readers critically assess assumptions about school choice and the civil rights implications of the choices and decisions being made in their communities. Because much of the debate in this arena is ideologically driven, we grounded our examination in specific cases as a way to illustrate the relationships between policies and their effects on segregation and opportunity for poor and minority families, evidence from which readers could draw their own conclusions about school choice (pp. ix-x).

 
The authors have largely achieved this goal.  One chapter that ought to be assigned reading for education law and policy students, by Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, focuses on the lack of directives at the state level to regulate charter school segregation levels.  In the absence of clear federal policies about preventing segregation in charters that receive federal funding, states also feel little pressure to enact such policies.  This is not only a dereliction of responsibility, but a missed opportunity:

Aside from diversity requirements and nondiscrimination obligations, there are other, seemingly race-neutral decisions about charter schools that could have significant consequences for their ability to attract a diverse student enrollment. For instance, the lack of legislation extending charter transportation across district lines undercuts one of the sector’s integrative strengths: the opportunity to attract a diverse student body across such boundaries. Since most school segregation today exists between districts, charters represent an important opportunity to override the lines dividing school systems. (p. 134)

 
Case studies from Louisville, Hartford, and Berkeley show such integrative possibilities and explain the policy tools used to achieve them (i.e. controlled choice, magnets, and use of planning zones), while Amy Stuart Wells and colleagues update what is known about the outcomes of inter-district transfer programs.  A recurring theme throughout is that parents are still eager for diverse schools for their children, as evidenced by competitive admissions for many urban-suburban interdistrict plans, and demand that exceeds supply for magnets in just about every metropolitan area. 
 
Barus Gumus-Dawes, Tom Luce, and Myron Orfield of the Institute for Race and Poverty make a sound contribution to the gridlocked debate about charter school outcomes in New Orleans, which ought to be read widely -- but probably will not be.  First, they examine achievement data to show that the achievement differences among sectors – Recovery School District (RSD), Orleans Parish Schools, and suburban schools – outweigh those between RSD charters and the city’s regular public schools.  In the RSD, the authors write, “charters can use admission requirements, enrollment processes, discipline and expulsion practices, transportation policies, location decisions, and marketing or recruitment efforts to shape their student bodies clearly implies that selection bias is almost certainly working to make pass rates in charters, all else being equal, greater than those of traditional schools” (p. 175).  They encourage a consideration of the use of magnet schools as an addition to the current almost exclusive focus on charters.  Also viable, they write, would be to explore a regional plan, similar to Raleigh’s or Louisville’s:
 “In 2009 there were three times as many students in suburban public schools as in the city system. The racial and income mix of the full regional school system clearly provides much more potential for integration efforts than the city alone. An effective regional system would also likely fare better in competition with the private system than the city alone” (p. 179).  If, that is, there are constituencies left there who would embrace higher levels of integration as a goal.  With Governor Jindal’s private-school voucher plan newly expanded, discussions of racial segregation aren’t particularly lively in Louisiana, unless you are a federal judge noting that it interferes with a standing desegregation order
 
I will give Gary Orfield the last word about the application of market incentives, unfettered, to public schools.  He writes in his chapter entitled “Choice Theories and the Schools”:

Getting the best results from competition requires enforcement of the rules of the game by government. When one uses the promise of private gains as the basic engine of change, one must channel that great force to produce real gains and limit harm. The drive for profits is a powerful motivator, and if it is possible to get more while doing less by cheating, the market will be corrupted…It is ironic that the same ideology that assumes people are inherently inclined toward evil and corruption in politics and therefore need to be watched and limited somehow believes that people in markets are not subject to the same temptations. What we see in many discussions of school choice is a school produced by an ideal type of market instead of the real situation facing the most disadvantaged schools.  (p.47)

 
Lesson learned: Federales necessarii sunt.  Federal regulation is not the answer to every problem in education, but in this case, some ground rules desperately need clarification and enforcement.   

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