Let low-income kids change their schools

May 29, 2001|By Richard D. Kahlenberg

WASHINGTON -- Maryland is at the forefront of a radical educational experiment that Congress is now considering making permanent: Providing a right for low-income students to transfer from failing schools to better performing public schools.

The federal right was established by an obscure provision of the 1999 budget bill. In Maryland, which has been particularly aggressive about implementing the legislation, more than 100 schools have been identified as troubled, the majority of them in Baltimore.

The basic idea is a good one and provides a good compromise on the contentious issue of vouchers. Kids trapped in failing schools are given options, as voucher advocates want, but the choice is provided within the public school system, which has historically played a crucial role in teaching children what it means to be an American and to live in a democracy.

But the current law contains serious limitations that Congress, which is now debating re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, should fix.

For one thing, the law requires local officials to allow transfers only within school districts, a major limitation for students living in urban districts with few high-quality schools to choose among. For another, the law permits good schools to refuse to educate children from failing schools because of space limitations.

This provision seems reasonable on one level, but it creates an enormous loophole for middle-class schools to exclude children who come to school with extra challenges. Suburban schools would never apply the space limitation principle to their own children, as in: "Sorry, you can't register your child for kindergarten because there's not enough space."

Instead, officials take necessary steps to expand capacity. Transfers could be capped at a certain percentage, but receiving schools shouldn't be allowed to bar transfers completely.

Thirty years of social science research suggests that if the federal legislation is properly structured to provide a genuine opportunity for poor kids in bad schools to transfer to higher quality middle-class public schools, that single move could improve opportunity more than has a generation of urban education reform.

Parents looking for schools for their children intuitively know that quality is driven by the presence of a core of middle class families: Peers who have big dreams and value achievement; active parents who insist on high standards; and good teachers, who consider it a promotion to move from a low-income school to a middle-class school. Studies find that the achievement of low-income children will rise and the achievement of middle-class children will not fall, in economically integrated schools, so long as the school is majority middle class.

Nationally, about two-thirds of students are middle class (defined as not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), so it is eminently possible to pursue a goal of ultimately making all schools majority middle class through public school choice.

The concept of requiring local school officials to give children in failing schools a right to transfer to a better public school is an important first step and represents a dramatic departure for conservatives who, during the racial desegregation era, championed the neighborhood school above all else.

Now conservatives concede that for people in distressed neighborhoods, a system of compulsory assignment based on residence is inherently unfair. It is up to Congress to take the outline of a good idea -- more choice for kids stuck in bad schools -- and make it a vehicle for genuine equal educational opportunity.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools through Public School Choice" (Brookings Press, 2001).

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