Inter-District School Choice: Is the Grass Always Greener in the Suburbs?

Jan 18, 2012Amy Baral

If our goal is to improve educational opportunities for everyone, funneling urban students into suburban school districts won't guarantee better outcomes.

In my last post, I traced the development of school choice from its use to thwart desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education to its present use as a tool for education reform and school improvement. To further our analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of school choice programs, let's take a look at another variation: inter-district school choice.

Inter-district school choice allows for students to attend suburban schools without requiring the students to physically change their residence. As most fans of '90s pop culture remember, after a little fight on the playground, Will Smith got sent from his home in West Philadelphia to live and study with his family in Bel Air. Even though Bel Air is now considered a part of the enormous Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the underlying assumption is still widespread. Parents often think that the way to improve their children's education and lives is to send them to school in the suburbs. Some parents have even gone so far as to illegally enroll their children in suburban school districts in the hope of a better education.

By removing residence-based school district assignment, inter-district school choice allows students from a school district to go to schools in another district. Typically, inter-district school choice programs feature either statewide open enrollment, which allows any student in the state a choice of school districts, or urban-suburban choice systems, which allow urban students to enroll in suburban schools and vice versa. Supporters of inter-district school choice programs note their ability to make strong school districts accessible to students who live outside their borders and to increase diversity in schools. For example, under New Jersey's inter-district school choice program, the districts receiving the most applicants were those with high-performing schools.

One notable inter-district school choice program in the Northeast is Greater Boston's Metco program. Metco is funded under a grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and enrolls over 3,000 students from both the Boston and Springfield metro areas. Most of the students in Metco are African-American (75.2 percent). Notably, very few students from the suburbs attend schools in the city. Instead, the urban students take advantage of the program and attend school in the suburbs. This highlights the major issue with inter-district school choice programs: the one-sidedness of the student exchange.

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As Susan Eaton notes in her book The Other Boston Busing Story, most of the students participating in the Metco program and inter-district school choice programs in general are those trying to flee failing poor and urban schools, rather than suburban students seeking out a more diverse educational experience. This makes sense. Families who have the financial capacity to move from the city into the suburbs often do so in order to gain a safer, more middle-class lifestyle for themselves and their children. As school funding and desegregation debates have shown, suburban schools are often more segregated, better funded, and higher achieving than their urban counterparts, in part because of the higher socioeconomic status of the town's population and the cost of living in the suburbs. Urban families seeking to escape their school district without having the resources to move to the suburbs rely on inter-district choice programs as one option to improve their school choices and the educational outcomes of their children.

The one-sided student exchange leads to greater issues in terms of diversity and the student's acceptance in the suburban schools. Eaton's study shows that the educational outcomes of urban students participating in Metco vary, with some performing extremely well while others struggle to survive in their suburban schools or drop out entirely. It would be wrong to say that these urban students fail to succeed in suburban schools because of the different values suburban schools place on education or that the suburban education is too difficult for urban students. Instead, Eaton's results highlight the difficulties of a diverse population entering a non-diverse school. As a 1997 study of Metco by Harvard found, parents whose children participate in the Metco program are most concerned about improving the program through more minority teachers and a multi-ethnic curriculum.

Additional issues with inter-district school choice include not only the population the programs serve, but also policy implementation issues. First, the programs are often voluntary, meaning that districts can choose to reject incoming transfers. Second, with increased accountability through No Child Left Behind, school districts are often unwilling to potentially compromise their school and district Adequate Yearly Progress by taking in students from other districts. Finally, funding for bus transportation across district boundaries is often not provided, presenting financial problems for low-income parents who want to take advantage of the program.

While providing the opportunity for urban children to experience school in the suburbs is a desirable goal, it is important to remember that policy limitations along with the one-sided transfer of urban students into suburban schools reduce the effectiveness of the policy in increasing student achievement. And as with all types of school choice, while providing parents, families, and students a choice of schools is important, it is more important that the schools that exist provide high quality educational opportunities for those students who are not provided a choice.

Amy Baral is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow performing legal and policy research on the Boston Public Schools, focusing on access to quality education and school choice. She is also a 1st year law student at Boston University School of Law.

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