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Julia Steiny: Breaking Up the Economic Segregation in Our Schools

Thursday, May 24, 2012

 

Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcester Education Contributor

The highly-regarded school system in Barrington has empty seats they’d like to fill. So, they’re inviting non-resident families to pay $12,800 in tuition for up to 10 kids, spread through the grades.

Student populations are declining in many school districts in Rhode Island, as in most of New England, and certain other non-sun-belt states. Running schools at partial capacity is wasteful, expensive, and usually requires cuts – arts, sports, student support.

In tight fiscal times, prudence demands using existing resources well. So why not fill up the best schools?

Tuitions at local private schools are pushing $30K, so Barrington’s offer is a bargain for families that can pay. The district will get takers. The private-tuition kids will blend in easily with Barrington students. The rich will get richer, not more diverse.

Oh, and special-needs students need not apply, since they can be a drain on school finances. Many commentators found this restriction infuriating. The ACLU is on it.

However.

Far more important to me is Barrington’s willingness to take in outsiders. This is a golden opportunity to pilot a cross-district public-school choice program. Actually, if they do it right, Barrington would make even more money on each of those seats, which I’ll get to.

Cross-district choice programs allow students to attend public schools beyond their local school district’s boundaries.

It's a program that has been in place in Massachusetts since 2003. Parents can send their children to any school district in the state, provided that the district accepts school choice students. The local school committee has to decide whether or not to accept choice students, and then holds a lottery for the available seats.

For each child accepted, the receiving district receives $5000, and the sending district loses that money from its state aid for schools.  More than 8000 students participated in the first year; there are almost 13,000 school choice students this year.  

Transportation is not provided, which can be an issue. However, once a child is admitted to a district, he is guaranteed a spot in the district until high school graduation.

Similarly, Minnesota's statewide law allowing families to go wherever schools had room inspired all sorts of creativity and innovation, as well as collaboration and consolidation among districts. Like Massachusetts, Minnesota did not provide busing across district lines -- again, no big favor to the low-income kids.

So a Rhode Island cross-district choice program would offer new options to frustrated parents. But more importantly, it could start to desegregate the schools economically – a research-proven strategy for school improvement. When we de-ghettoize schools with concentrations of poor kids, also predominantly minorities, we see significantly stronger performances among precisely those students who have struggled historically. (Note a recent New York Times opinion on racial desegregation.)

Actually, research has a magic number: 40 percent. The percentage of students who qualify for federally-subsidized lunch, the big poverty indicator, should never exceed 40. More than that creates a critical mass of kids growing up with “street” values and limited perspective.

The middle-class background of the 60 percent steeps low-income students in a cultural environment that helps them achieve at higher levels than their peers in segregated schools. Yes, middle-class parents often enable their kids in silly, helicopter ways, but generally they also expect decent performance from them. And they definitely demand the best from the school itself.

Frankly, you’d think a guy like Obama would know something about the research on the 40 percent and the harms of segregation in America. When the feds published their four “turnaround” models for “persistently low-performing” schools, I searched in vain for the obvious: desegregation. It works.

Take, for example, the impressive story of Wake County, North Carolina. In 1979, the suburban County school system absorbed the school district of gritty inner-city Raleigh for the express purpose of economic desegregation. Over time, using a choice program instead of forced busing, the merged district shifted student populations towards the 40/60 balance.

And lo! The biggest winners were low-income Afro-American males. Books have been written about Wake County's success with challenged students. Middle-class kids were in no way harmed.

Quite the opposite. At the time, the booming economy allowed Wake County to build super-attractive school programs in Raleigh, to attract the 60 percenters back into the inner city. The suburban middle class hated the 45-minute bus rides, but loved the high-tech high, engineering magnet, or fabulous performing arts program at the other end. (Sadly, some of that middle class recently elected a school board to dismantle this good work.)

So back to Barrington.

Only 4 percent of Barrington’s students are poor. If Rhode Island allowed a public, cross-district program aimed at the 60/40 balance, Barrington’s incoming 10 students would be low-income.

Low-income families crave another schooling option for their kids since the charter-school waiting lists are humongous.

And actually Barrington’s progressive community might welcome more diversity and color. Surveys show that suburban kids are generally more involved with drugs and alcohol than urban kids. So the only “danger” is that these students might depress the blasted test scores, initially. Big deal.

The state's new funding formula adds extra money to the per-pupil allocation for low-income kids, which is how Barrington would make more money on each seat than their asking tuition.

Rhode Island already has a cross-district busing system, originally designed for the charter schools and special-needs kids.

Yes, Barrington’s student gain would be urban systems' loss. Dead-broke Rhode Island is not likely to pump big dollars into an urban school to attract an influx of middle-class kids, no matter how beneficial desegregation. Weirdly, the feds invest their dollars in the “lowest performing schools” as if it's okay that they remain concentrations of poverty.

In truth, we can no longer ignore that economic desegregation in schools would do wonders for many kids.

So start the process of pulling down the walls between districts. Carefully. Slowly. Ten students at a time, per district, is a good way of thinking about it.

But use cross-district choice to maximize the value of what we’ve already got and improve outcomes for more kids. Plucky Barrington could lead the way.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 

 

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