Analysis: The underlying meaning of ‘school choice’ vs. ‘neighborhood school’

“School choice is a civil rights issue,” Texas’ governor declared at a recent rally that promoted legislation for education vouchers.

These proposed vouchers would provide tax dollars from the state’s public education funds to all parents, including upper-income, who choose to send their children to private school or homeschool them.

Low-income students already have the choice to attend one of the dozens of charter schools in and around Dallas on the state’s dime.

Charter and private schools currently aren’t huge competitors with Richardson ISD schools. Most families opt to send their children to district schools. But that doesn’t mean they opt to enroll in their neighborhood school. RISD has several magnet schools that families can take advantage of, and a policy that allows for elective transfers as long as a campus isn’t overcrowded.

This chart given to the Lake Highlands Reflector Committee shows transfers to Lake Highlands schools.

These days, the “neighborhood school” is often a last resort in terms of top choices. Our February Lakewood/East Dallas magazine featured a story on Dallas ISD’s Dan D. Rogers Elementary with a headline asking, “Why does one of the best neighborhood schools lack neighborhood kids?”

Even that headline wording (which I confess to writing) is presumptuous, however. There are plenty of kids who live right around Rogers who attend the school; it’s just that most of them live in apartments and very few live in single-family homes.

When homeowners, people with means, do send their children to a neighborhood school, this choice speaks volumes, at least to their peers, of a school’s quality. When upper-income parents don’t make this choice, if they steer clear of the neighborhood school, that also speaks volumes.

But it may not speak the truth. The truth is that people don’t steer clear of Rogers because it’s a “bad” school. Everything about the school — its principal, its ratings from the state, its curriculum approach — is not just good, it’s stellar. And certainly families in the homes nearby are paying attention; some are even planning to send their kids to Rogers.

It’s not bringing them back in droves, however, and people are not knocking down the door to get in. And that’s because of a hard but simple truth: Rogers, as amazing as it is, is not seen as a “good” school.

That term — “good” school — is reserved for public schools where upper income and typically white families send their children to school. For everyone else, there is “school choice.”

This understanding is based on the reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Anyone familiar with her work knows that she is one of the country’s foremost experts on school segregation and integration. She reported extensively on it for ProPublica, received tons of publicity for her two-part series, “The Problem We All Live With,” on This American Life, and told her family’s own story in The New York Times Magazine.

And this week, she had this to say:

She went on to tweet that “if neighborhood schools are white, white parents demand neighborhood schools. If schools are black/brown, they demand choice.”

Any public school generally accepted as a “good” school is one that is predominantly white or at least chosen by a substantial percentage of white parents. That’s the case not just in Lake Highlands, in Richardson and in Dallas but across the country in urban school districts. In our neighborhood, White Rock, Moss Haven and Merriman Park elementaries (75 percent, 67 percent and 41 percent white, respectively) consistently are awarded this label.

In contrast, predominantly minority schools often are labeled as “bad” schools. For example, Sarah Greenman, the PTA president at Skyview, has had to work to convince homeowner parents that the school,which is 8 percent white and 88 percent low-income, is not a bad school. In fact, she says, it’s “stellar.”

If affluent parents in Lake Highlands suddenly decided to send their children to their  neighborhood public school, would all of our schools be “good” schools? And would the demand for school choice decrease?

No doubt, the perception of a school changes when affluent parents opt in. And studies show that the reality changes, too. Middle- and upper-income students and their parents can have a strong impact on a school’s lower-income students. That’s the theory of socioeconomic integration, about which Hannah-Jones has reported and written extensively.

School choice is, indeed, a civil rights issue, as Gov. Greg Abbott said last week. But if parents’ preference for “school choice” over their “neighborhood school” is dependent on their neighborhood school’s racial and socioeconomic makeup, then it’s a different civil rights issue than he claims.


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  • Jared Heath

    The issue with school choice for poor minorities is they won’t have a choice with vouchers either.

    The schools are not going to bus kids in from south Dallas to RISD. The people won’t be able to afford to drive up here. And that assumes they can even get in, which right now they would not be able to since all the “good” schools up here are full with in-zone kids already….and any voucher system will have to keep transfers out unless there is space for locals.

    It’s my opinion the voucher system is an illusion….for things I won’t type.

  • Regular Guy

    Why not vouchers/choice for all families, too? There are a number of people stuck in the middle who would prefer alternatives to the public school but make too much to be on scholarship and perhaps too little to send multiple kids to a private school when they’re already paying hefty taxes to the ISD. If the purpose of school is to educate the future leaders, then why not let the parents more readily choose? Robust choice and competition have helped advance so many aspects of our society – why not education?

  • Keri Mitchell

    DB, I personally would be all for a voucher system that specifically aims to help poor minorities. However, the system (or systems) being proposed by our current legislature don’t appear to be driven by that goal. You seem to be making the assumption that studies about socioeconomic integration are driven by politics. Here is a recent article (which I unfortunately hadn’t read before writing last week’s piece) that discusses vouchers and critiques recent Obama administration tactics that refused to acknowledge research showing that integration works. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/01/can-vouchers-save-failing-schools/515061/

  • DB

    Everyone I have ever spoken with about school choice sees it as a way for poor minorities in terrible public schools to get out of those schools. Period. There will always be people like Hannah-Jones who see every problem through a racist lens, and come up with a study to prove it. As President Obama proved, some parents will always choose private school, no matter what they profess publicly regarding the merits of the public school system. That will never change. But we can make a difference for parents who do not have the wealth of the Obamas but are stuck in a poor performing schools, and school choice might make that difference. If nothing else, over 40 years of public education going from bad to worse should be enough for reasonable people to say it’s time to let go of failure.