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Why do we have school boundaries?
Are they ever fair or equitable? But is there a good alternative?
A quick note first: The DC Council has passed its budget yesterday (Tuesday). While there were plenty of acrimonious debates, as far as I can tell, none involved education and the council made no further changes to school budgets from the last round.
Therefore, 103 of the 115 DCPS schools should be receiving some more funding. There are some administrative steps both on the council side and the DCPS side to get that money into the system so that principals can then use it to hire teachers and other staff — including telling principals exactly how much they get in DCPS budget worksheet numbers, which are similar to but not exactly the same as DC financial system numbers.
An official told me that they do plan on doing this soon so principals can move forward. I’ll follow up with a larger article once this happens, including with some thoughts on the future of the school budget process.
Meanwhile, some more philosophical musings about school boundaries…
Are boundaries totally unfair?
Remember that scandal when some parents paid up to $1 million or more to bribe or cheat their kids into highly competitive colleges? What if people could do that, but legally, for high school — pay, say, $1-2 million to guarantee a spot at a high-demand public school? And even get the money back later? Maybe a lot more later? And banks would loan them the money? And they even get a free house in the meantime?
That’s totally how it works. I wrote an April Fool’s article about the Varsity Blues scandal that year, making this point.
So are boundaries abhorrent? Should DC follow San Francisco, which not only doesn’t have neighborhood boundaries, it has a sort of anti-neighborhood preference system? There, all schools fill by a citywide lottery but people who live in Census tracts with lower test scores get preference. That often means that someone in a lower-test-score area farther from a school (even if the kid themselves has high academic performance and/or high income) can have higher preference for a more in-demand school than people who live next door.
However, San Francisco found that the system has worsened, not relieved, the segregation the policy aimed to combat. “In 2008, the district found that about a quarter of its schools were racially isolated — at least 60% of its students were of a single race or ethnicity,” wrote Nami Sumida in the San Francisco Chronicle. “But fast forward over a decade later, and the district has even more racially isolated schools,” with 28% being racially isolated. And simulations found that if “students were assigned to their neighborhood schools, they found eight fewer racially isolated schools.” For that reason, San Francisco is changing its system.
So boundaries are unfair, but lotteries are unfair. And people with the means always can go to private schools, or move out of the city, which is also unfair. “Almost 30 percent of children in San Francisco attend private schools — the highest rate of private-school attendance in California, and the third-highest in the nation,” wrote Paul Lorgerie and Jeremy Adam Smith in the SF Public Press in 2015.1
We live in an unequal and inequitable world. (Bad!) A better solution than a complex lottery, many professionals and advocates argue, is to provide programs and resources at all schools so that it’s less consequential which school you go to.
After all, student assignment is fundamentally a matter of allocating people to scarce resources. If the resources can be less scarce, then the allocation is less fraught. But fixing everything with education, not to mention the generational poverty and other challenges from outside school that underlie our educational struggles, is not easy.
Advantages of neighborhood schools
A 2017 article from the Chicago Community Trust lists four effects of neighborhood schools:
Strong schools attract families and businesses, boosting the local economy and driving population growth.
Families build more and better relationships with other families in their community, building neighborhood cohesion and trust.
When students attend a school near their home, families can more easily connect with teachers and contribute as school volunteers and leaders.
More and more, high schools are functioning like community centers, offering opportunities that build the health and well-being of residents nearby.
Item #1 is a real effect, in that many families do choose places to live based on the school’s perceived quality, though that may not be an effect DC wishes to magnify further. However, the other three are relevant (and, I would add, #4 applies not just to high schools).
In addition to the neighborhood school boundaries, DCPS has a proximity preference for families near a school but outside the boundary. These two policies increase the connection between neighborhood schools and neighborhoods.
Finally, parents prefer not to travel long distances to get kids to school, though they will if the difference between schools is great enough. Long trips to school puts pressure on our transportation systems, especially since many schools are not near Metro, and on parents’ ability to get to jobs.
Besides these factors favoring neighborhood schools and proximity, many parents have expressed a desire for continuity and predictability. They want the certainty of knowing what schools their children will go to through high school, rather than having to navigate a stressful college application-type process at each stage.
The 2014 boundary study considered “choice sets,” where families would have a guaranteed right to one of three schools in an area but not a specific one. (San Francisco is switching to something more like this.) The feedback from DC residents a decade ago was fairly strongly negative.
Boundary schools provide both proximity and predictability. However, they are quite inequitable. Are there even other government services which are explicitly only available to residents of a certain area, and where people perceive stark differences between the services in different areas? On the other hand, choice systems may increase segregation (or maybe they don’t), add transportation challenges, and reduce predictability.
One education leader put it this way to me: we don’t really have “school choice” now because if we did, “you would get what you choose.” Instead, people have the right to take a chance in a lottery, or the choice to go to their in-boundary school. But because of our boundaries and the inequity in the system, some families’ choices are very different from others.
It’s not the same as, say, the choice you have of foods in the grocery store. In one part of the city, many families feel they have a great choice of their neighborhood school plus choices for others. In other parts, people don’t think that’s the case at all, and essentially have no definite choices, only chances.
How can we make this system equitable and fair, while also valuing the neighborhood cohesion, transportation, and predictability benefits of neighborhood schools? Can we?
I looked for a source for the “third-highest in the nation” and couldn’t quickly find it, but did see this source listing the SF metropolitan area as having the third-highest private school share in the US, after New Orleans and Honolulu. SF may also be the third-highest among cities, but I advise finding a source before citing that statistic for cities.