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.

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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.

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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:

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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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