Which school do you want to support?
When it comes to where kids go to school, zip code is usually destiny, especially for poor families without the economic means to move. Many families don't know whether they have a choice of school.
Where you live generally determines where your kids go to school. Try to enroll them elsewhere and you could end up in jail. Wealthier families, by contrast, often have options. If they are dissatisfied, they have a choice of schools. Money can buy school “choice” in the sense that parents with the means can pack up and move to a home near a school they prefer.
Residential property values can be very sensitive to differences in school reputation. This fact is not lost on real estate professionals, who are attuned to the local rules for determining school attendance areas. Changes in those rules can have a direct impact on housing values. According to research by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the effect of school quality on real estate is "non-linear"; when a school is perceived as excellent, the value of homes in its attendance area rise quite significantly.
Yes, charter schools also have district-wide attendance boundaries – more on those in Lesson 5.5
Districts can set open enrollment policies to give parents a choice of schools within a district. School choice systems can take many forms, and they can be very confusing if poorly implemented. If your district is considering changes in the school assignment process it makes sense to find examples to work from. For example, Oakland Unified asks all parents to participate in a choice process that includes both district and charter school options.
Some schools are designed to serve students from throughout a school district. Magnet schools, for example, are set up to attract enrollment from throughout a district by offering something different and attractive – most commonly an unusually rigorous curriculum, or a curriculum oriented toward a particular interest such as art or science. The first magnet schools were established in high-poverty neighborhoods in the 1960s. After rapid initial growth, such schools settled to less than 3% of California enrollment by 2011. (Charter schools also have district-wide attendance boundaries - more on those in Lesson 5.5.)
A small number of public "exam schools" in California (nine, by one estimate) have an application-based selective admission process. These schools also define their "attendance area" broadly, accepting students throughout their sponsoring district. A prominent example is San Francisco's Lowell High School.
When parents have a choice of schools, where do they send their children? The answer is individual and complicated. Parents may prefer one school over another for all kinds of reasons, from ambition to proximity to a feeling of "fit." In the early days of the school choice movement, many expected that parents would abandon low-scoring schools, flocking to better ones and in the process leading to more integration. In practice, it turns out that school choice systems tend to make schools somewhat more segregated rather than less.
The biggest real-world test of this question comes from New Orleans, which implemented a massive school choice program in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Writing for the Brown Center Chalkboard, Tulane University researcher Lindsay Bell Wexler summarizes the findings: "In general, research on both charter- and voucher-based school choice has found that these programs are more likely to lead to small increases in segregation than to improve integration. These results are not entirely surprising, given research on parents’ preferences showing that families tend to choose schools with students from similar backgrounds."
In California, state law also makes some formal provisions for how students can transfer to a regular public school outside of their local district. For example, in certain circumstances a parent's place of work may be used as a basis for a student to attend a school. The state education code specifies that working parents have a right to enroll their children in the district where their workplace is located under certain conditions, but under most circumstances both the sending and receiving district must agree to the transfer.
Some education reform initiatives rest on the premise that families should be allowed a a choice of school to best meets their needs. Districts providing a system-wide career pathway approach to high school are one example. Nationally, a cadre of large urban school districts are involved in developing "Portfolio Strategies" to broaden school choices for low income families.
When it comes to school choice, the other side of the proverbial coin (there always seems to be an “other” side) is the argument that schools define communities. When children from a neighborhood all attend the same schools and families identify with those schools, it can build connections that bring more support into schools and create a powerful safety net for children. Lesson 5.7 will look at a movement working to do just that.
But first, in the next few lessons, we'll look at some of the other ways that students are placed into schools and into classrooms.
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