Within the present system the most common way for parents to choose the schools their children will attend is by establishing residence within the attendance area of the desired public schools. The reputation of the schools in a given area is typically one of the primary considerations of families with children, when they choose a house or apartment. Enrolling their children in a private school is an option for parents who can afford to pay tuition. Voucher plans and charter schools offer additional choices to parents in some cities and school districts.
Parents, quite naturally, want their children to attend the best school possible. For most parents, as well as for educators and politicians, the primary indicator of “quality” in a school is student achievement as measured by standardized test scores. A “good school” is a school that has a student body composed primarily of students who perform well on standardized tests of achievement. The climate within a school is also an important consideration for parents. There are significant differences between schools in terms of student behavior, and the degree to which teachers and administrators tolerate misbehavior. The attitude of students with regard to learning also varies from school to school. In terms of school climate, a “good school” is a school where the students are well behaved and have a positive attitude toward learning.
Although it is seldom discussed or admitted openly, avoiding contact with minority and/or lower-class white children has been the primary concern of many parents in choosing where to live and what school their children will attend. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent efforts on the part of federal courts to fully implement that decision, have had an enormous effect on our society. Parents who want to avoid sending their children to integrated schools have been left with two means of escape: Moving to a different school district or enrolling their children in private schools. For most families, moving to the suburbs is more affordable and has, therefore, been the most common means of exercising “school choice” over the past fifty years. White families moved en masse from cities to the suburbs. As a result of “white flight,” most urban districts in large metropolitan areas are now predominantly black. A significant increase in the number of white students within urban districts attending private schools has further muted the effects of Brown v. Board of Education. More recently, middle-class black families have joined the exodus from urban districts. Consequently, some suburban schools are somewhat more integrated in terms of race, but segregation on the basis of class is still quite common.
Segregated housing patterns did not originate with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Wealthy families have always managed to wall themselves off from the rest of society. Poor families have always been kept relatively isolated. Our public schools, operating with public funds, have an obligation to bridge these barriers.
Within the present system, the range of choices parents have with regard to the schools their children will attend is directly related to the income level of the family. Wealthy families can easily afford to establish residence in any school district or enroll their children in private schools. Middle class families are able to afford housing in almost any school district and can usually afford tuition at a more limited selection of private schools, typically those operated by, or affiliated with, churches. Low-income families do not have the option of moving into the attendance area of most of the “best” schools since they cannot afford a house or apartment within those districts. Enrolling their children in private schools is not a financial possibility.
Some suburban areas are more affluent than others. There are pockets of poverty within the suburbs. Increased attention to discrimination with regard to housing has made it more difficult to keep minorities out of suburban schools completely, but with little or no low-income housing available within their boundaries, many suburban school districts have been able to limit racial integration to middle class members of minority groups.
Parents cannot be faulted for wanting to protect their children from bad influences or for wanting their children to attend the best school possible. However, when the decision to move to a particular school district or to remove children from the public school system is based primarily on the desire to avoid contact between one’s own children and children of another race or class, that decision cannot be condoned and should not be supported with public funds. Students attending public schools should not be segregated by race or class.
Issues related to student achievement and the climate of a school are painfully intertwined with issues of race and class. There are significant differences between schools in terms of climate and achievement. Unfortunately, these differences are largely attributable to the socioeconomic status of the student body. Since a disproportionate percentage of minority families are poor, race is also an issue. Examining each of these factors individually can help us better understand the exact nature of the interactions between them. That understanding will point the way to providing all students with “good” schools.
A considerable body of research related to academic achievement has consistently shown a strong correlation between success in school and two closely related factors: the income level of a student’s family and the level of education of a student’s parents. These variables are closely related for the obvious reason that individuals with more education tend to have higher incomes. In most of the studies, the percentage of the students within a given school who are considered to be from “low income families” is determined by reporting the percentage of the student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guide- lines. Schools with a higher percentage of students from middle and upper-income families consistently have higher standardized test scores, a lower drop- out rate, and a higher percentage of students going to college.
There are a number of factors related to the socioeconomic status of a student’s family, that can affect the probability of success in school. Students from middle and upper-income families typically enter school with a much larger vocabulary than students from low-income families. (Common estimates put the gap at approximately 5000 words versus 2000 words.) There are a number of rea- sons for this disparity. Well-educated parents are more likely to read to, and with, their children. Books, newspapers, and magazines are more common in the homes of students from upper and middle-income families. Middle and upper-income parents also utilize a larger vocabulary and often include their children in discussions of current events or other topics of interest. The advantages of beginning school with a larger vocabulary are compounded throughout the school years as some students are able to progress at a normal rate, while others are handicapped by limited comprehension of written materials.
Parents who have graduated from college are more likely to appreciate, model, and promote the value of a college education. Children from low-income families are less likely to have college-educated adults in their lives as role models and are more likely to rule out the possibility of college, for financial reasons. Students from low-income families are also less likely to have a quiet place at home to study, or to have easy access to a computer. Their parents, who in many cases are not well-educated themselves, may be less capable of helping with homework. While there may be some differences between schools in terms of the overall quality of the faculty, administration, and facilities, the socioeconomic status of the families of the student body is far and away the most important factor affecting student achievement.
The primary concern of many parents with regard to the climate of a school is protecting their children from “bad influences.” Differences between schools with regard to school climate and student misbehavior are more subjective than standardized test scores and the correlation between these factors and the socio- economic status of the families of the student body is, therefore, more difficult to quantify. While the differences in student behavior and school climate may be smaller than commonly perceived, significant differences are observable. Here again, there is often a correlation between the socioeconomic status of a student’s family and the behavior of the student.
There are some students at nearly every school who drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, buy and sell drugs, use vulgar language, skip classes, bully and threaten other students, and start fights. Offensive behavior and the use of vulgar language have become much more commonplace in our schools and in our society in recent years. Many of the songs, movies, video games, and television shows, that are popular with teens and pre-teens glamorize and promote various types of anti- social behavior and the more common use of profanity. It has become increasingly difficult to protect our children from “bad influences.” Our schools have been the victims, not the perpetrators or instigators, of this change in our society. Very few schools have been immune. Some schools, however, do a better job than others of addressing and controlling these types of behaviors.
The perception of many parents is that their children are more likely to be exposed to other students with these types of problems if they attend urban schools or schools with a greater percentage of minority or poor students. Some urban schools and other schools serving a predominately low-income student body do seem to tolerate a greater level of inappropriate behavior than schools in more prosperous districts. The frequent use of profanity, incidents of harassment, violence and intimidation, rude and obnoxious behavior, and a general disdain on the part of many students for the benefits of education can create a climate in some schools that is not conducive to educational activities, and in extreme cases, may be dangerous as well. The decision by parents to move to a different school district or to enroll their children in private schools is often motivated by the understandable desire to get, or keep, their children out of this type of environment.
The solution to this problem is to give our public schools much more latitude in dealing with these types of behavior. We must insist on effective discipline within every public school. No student, including those who live in impoverished, crime-infested neighborhoods, should have to attend school with individuals who engage in lewd, criminal, or disruptive behaviors. All of our public schools should be safe havens from these types of misconduct! We must protect the right of every student to learn and study in an environment that is conducive to learning and as safe as possible! In some cases that will require removing disruptive students from regular programs or schools. No school should be forced to accept unruly, disruptive students. When a student commits a criminal act within a school, or is a clear and present danger to others, the juvenile justice system should take responsibility for that student. In less-extreme cases, we should provide alternative programs for students with behavioral problems.
Isolating dangerous or disruptive students is the only form of segregation that should be allowed within our public educational system. Unfortunately, that is not the case at the present time. The vestiges of segregation on the basis of race and class remain deeply entrenched throughout public education. Nearly fifty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we are still operating school systems that are separate and unequal. While there has been some improvement, there is still a great deal of segregation based on the economic status of a student’s family. The majority of students from poor families are trapped and isolated in less desirable schools and school districts. Since a higher percentage of minority children come from low-income families, this system has had the added effect of limiting racial integration. Dividing schools into districts and the concept of “local control” of schools have been the vehicles for frustrating attempts to fully integrate our schools.
If a “good” school is one with high scores by students on achievement tests and a climate free of distractions and disruptions, and if both of these factors are directly related to the socioeconomic status of the families of the student body, then the best way to insure “quality” in a school is to locate that school in an area filled with families headed by well-educated, prosperous individuals and to exclude low-income families. This is relatively simple to achieve by gerrymandering district boundaries and/or passing restrictive zoning ordinances to prevent low-income housing from being constructed within the boundaries of a given school district. Dividing schools into districts controlled locally has provided a smokescreen and a refuge for individuals who do not want their children to attend schools with students of different races or classes. The ugly truth behind much of the continuing concern for local control of schools is that it has provided a fairly effective means of retaining some degree of segregation within our public schools.
If good schools, offering a variety of programs and educational practices, are available in every neighborhood, most students will choose to attend a neighborhood school. Under ideal circumstances neighborhoods would be integrated in terms of race and class, and as a result, neighborhood schools would also be integrated. In situations where that is not the case, we should allow students and their parents to decide whether or not to enroll in a school outside of their community.
Tolerance, and respect for people of different backgrounds, is essential in a nation as diverse as ours. Integrating our schools in terms of both race and family income is the best way to promote this sort of understanding. Our public schools should provide our children with the opportunity to interact with children of different races, religions, and economic classes in an environment that promotes harmony and respect for others. Our schools are our best hope for accomplishing the vitally important task of helping members of our society learn to live together in harmony, celebrating our diversity, instead of letting it divide us.
Low-income families make up a relatively small percentage of the overall population in the United States. If their children were distributed more equitably throughout our public schools, and if effective remedial programs were in place to help them keep pace with students from more affluent families, they would be much more likely to adopt the habits of effective learners. Overall test scores would rise. Behavior problems would be minimized. All of our schools would be “good” schools.
At the present time voucher plans are the most common method of providing parents with a greater choice of schools. There are several problems with most of the voucher plans that are in place or are being proposed. One basic flaw that has been debated and discussed at length is whether or not schools that offer religious instruction should be included in voucher plans. While the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” most voucher plans are being proposed and enacted by state legislatures, not by the Congress of the United States. This fact, combined with the Supreme Court ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) upholding a voucher plan in Cleveland which included religious schools, makes it likely that the issue of including church-sponsored schools in voucher plans will be decided on a state by state basis. Some states have prohibitions that are stronger and more explicit than the First Amendment regarding the use of taxpayers’ money to promote religion, others do not.
The most common argument put forth in support of the idea of including religious schools in voucher plans is that, since most private schools are affiliated with churches, excluding religious schools will severely limit the choices available to parents. While this may currently be the case, if private schools are allowed to accept vouchers for the full amount now being spent per pupil by public schools, there will be plenty of secular private schools established in short order. While offering students and parents the widest possible range of choices is an important goal, there are ways to do that without breaching the wall of separation between church and state.
A second problem with many voucher plans is that they do not cover the full cost of tuition. While these plans make it more affordable for middle class families to exercise choice, low-income parents are left with no alternative but to leave their children in the public schools that everyone else is fleeing. For voucher plans to be equitable and effective, the vouchers should cover the full cost of tuition at any school that chooses to accept them. The value of a voucher should be equal to the average amount of money spent per pupil in public schools within a state. Students with special needs (learning disabled students and students who are still learning to speak English, for example) should be awarded vouchers that cover the extra costs involved in meeting those needs. If vouchers for low-income students were for a slightly higher than the average amount, it would provide an incentive for schools to enroll them, since they might also require extra attention.
Even these measures will not insure a full range of choices. Some of the best private schools charge more than $10,000 per year for tuition. It is highly unlikely that any voucher plan is going to cover tuition at these schools. If a family can afford to pay that amount of money to avoid contact with public school students, they don’t need subsidies from the taxpayers. These schools should be encouraged to provide scholarships to low-income students but should be allowed to accept vouchers only if there is no additional charge to the family utilizing the voucher.
The most serious problem with most of the plans involving vouchers, as well as with plans that include charter schools, is that they operate only within, rather than across, school district boundaries. Although it is seldom stated openly, the reason for this limitation is that most affluent school districts have no interest in any plan that would allow low-income and minority students to attend their schools. Suburban school districts have been very active and very successful in fighting off any choice plan that would allow significant numbers of urban students to attend their schools. Advocates of choice plans that include private schools often talk about forcing public schools to “compete” for students and funding. Suburban schools want no part of this “competition.” Choice advocates have no interest in leveling the playing field by distributing under-performing students more equitably among urban and suburban districts.
The present system is deeply entrenched. It is also a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Fourteenth Amendment. When public funds are involved, equal access and opportunity is the right of every citizen. With the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, our schools were pushed to the forefront of the struggle to integrate our society. Now our schools are lagging behind. Members of minority groups, including those with limited incomes, can visit any public park, shop at suburban malls, eat at any restaurant, yet they remain largely trapped and isolated in segregated schools.
The solution is to simply eliminate school districts and attendance areas. We should deregulate education by making every public school a “charter” school with “site-based” management. Within guidelines representing reasonable, but minimal oversight from a state’s department of education, each school should be free to offer a variety of educational activities derived from the full gamut of educational practices and philosophies. No publicly funded school, including charter schools or private schools receiving vouchers, should be allowed to refuse admission to students based on their race, or the income level of their parents. Students should be free to enroll in any publicly funded school within a state and in any program within a school. Our public schools, if they were truly integrated, could perform a vital public service by increasing contact and understanding between people of different races and classes within our society.
Finding the proper balance between regulation and over-regulation of schools within a system offering a broader range of choices will not be easy. Tax revenues should not be distributed without proper oversight. Any school receiving public funding is to some extent a “public” school. Taxpayers have a right to expect that private schools accepting vouchers meet the same standards expected of public schools. This does not mean that schools should be prohibited from experimenting with new ideas. Keeping regulations to a minimum will encourage experimentation.
Public school choice is a simple and cost-effective means of offering students and parents of all income levels a meaningful choice of schools. The details might vary from state to state, but our primary concern should be that, to the greatest extent possible, programs representing the entire spectrum of educational philosophies and practices should be available to every student. The inclusion of innovative and truly alternative approaches is essential if parents and students are to be given a full range of alternatives. Allowing parents to select the school their children will attend is the most basic and most important choice of all.