Intra-District School Choice: Where Futures are Determined by Formula

Jan 4, 2012Amy Baral

Flawed policies intended to break down barriers to a good education are perpetuating other forms of inequality.

School choice has a troubled history in the U.S. It was first employed as a policy option to thwart desegregation efforts. Parents in the South, facing court-mandated school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education, began enrolling their children in "whites-only" private schools. Yet now proponents of school choice argue that it is a solution to integrate schools, raise student achievement, or both. The achievement rationale is based on the idea that all parents deserve a choice in which school their child attends, especially poor and minority parents who may not have the financial option to move to a better school district or send their children to private school. The integration rationale is based on the fact that because many neighborhoods are racially segregated, eliminating neighborhood schools removes this de facto segregation of students in schools.

School choice policy takes several different forms, including inter-district choice, intra-district choice, charter schools, magnet schools, and voucher programs. To begin evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of these programs, let's take a look at how intra-district school choice policy has been implemented in my home city of Boston.

It's the start of a new year, so parents in Boston are beginning the process of registering their children for school in the fall. But this registration is not as simple as filling out a form at their school district office and sending their child to the neighborhood school. The Boston Public Schools system uses a controlled intra-district choice policy to assign students to schools, so where children go depends on a variety of factors, including their parents' ranking of schools. Boston's system is complex, so here is just an overview of what parents are up against.

Intra-district school choice allows parents to move beyond their neighborhood schools by letting them rank the top schools they'd like their children to attend. In its purest form, this policy creates an open district where students are assigned to a school based on a lottery and their personal ranking of schools. In reality, intra-district school choice is controlled and students are matched with schools based on a formula that takes into account priority factors such as siblings and walking distance to the school, as well as controlling factors such as socioeconomic status. In Boston, the priority factors include "walk zone," siblings, and random lottery numbers. This choice may help parents avoid failing schools near their home in favor of higher-performing schools throughout the district in hopes that their children will receive a better education. Additionally, proponents of intra-district school choice note that the policy has the potential to integrate school districts in spite of de facto segregated housing.

Intra-district school choice was first used to integrate schools after the intense outcry against the busing movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While parents were allowed to rank their school choices, the school assignment formulas included controlling racial and socioeconomic factors to achieve integrated schools while still presenting the option of parental choice. In Boston, intra-district school choice arose once the federal courts returned power to the district after the drastic desegregation efforts of the '70s led to white flight and race riots. As one of the nation's first intra-district school choice programs, Boston was commended on the policy. However, the ranking system meant to provide parental choice and desegregate schools has not achieved the academic success and integration hoped for. Instead, even today, many schools in the city lack racial and economic diversity and these are often the schools considered to be the worst performing.

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The criticisms of intra-district choice are numerous:

First, as with any policy, intra-district school choice has led to the creation of difficult-to-understand and often unknown placement formulas. Most school districts do not release their placement formulas, leaving parents wondering why their child is not enrolled in one of their ranked schools. This secrecy means that some intra-district school choice policies lack the accountability needed to ensure confidence in the policy. Further, most school choice formulas limit the options actually available to the parents. In Boston, requiring parents to only select from schools within their home zone or that operate citywide narrows the list of available schools. Further, Boston schools fill 50 percent of their seats from students within walking distance of the school, leaving only half of the seats open for children who live outside the walk zone. While intra-district school choice was designed to eliminate neighborhood schools segregated by race and socioeconomic status, home zone and walking-distance factors keep schools partly neighborhood-based. On the one hand, this limits the effectiveness of school choice, but on the other, it ensures that the schools remain tied to the area and that communities take ownership of their schools.

Second, intra-district school choice requires strong parental engagement and involvement, as parents need to know they have a choice and understand the different school options available for their children. In Boston, before making their school selections parents often visit schools and talk with teachers in addition to attending school information fairs. For middle-class parents, this level of engagement may not be difficult. But for poor families, immigrants, or students without stable homes, the amount of engagement and information required to make an informed decision is difficult to come by. While Boston does provide information fairs throughout the year and support through Family Resource Centers, informational asymmetries still remain. As Professor Curt Dudley-Marling notes, the intra-district school choice system is "rigged for parents who have the most resources." In fact, one of the strongest criticisms of Boston's intra-district school choice is that often parents do not make any choice at all, because if the paperwork is not filed in time, students are automatically placed without any ranked schools in their formula.

Finally, intra-district school choice has often failed to achieve equal access to schools for poor and minority families. Middle-class parents are often better equipped to deal with the realities of an intra-district school choice policy. They have the education, skills, and resources necessary to make an informed choice. More importantly, they often have the financial resources needed to remove their child from the district and enroll him or her in another school when the child is not placed in one of their ranked schools. On the other hand, poor, minority, and immigrant families are often forced to remain with the school their child is assigned to, as no other public school option is available.

The many flaws in intra-district school choice point toward much needed reforms. These reforms include providing easily accessible information for parents on their choices as well as curtailing the effects of home zone and walking priorities and improving schools throughout the district in order to increase the number of schools parents can choose from. In Boston, the school assignment formula has been modified throughout the years to make the effect of the parental rankings more prominent in the assignment of children to schools. Currently, the city is working to overhaul the school assignment process with help from a federal grant. While a change in the school assignment formula and the structure of the home zones was rejected because the policy would provide fewer options to poor and minority students in the city, the process of developing an improved assignment formula continues. Still, for parents in the process of registering their children for the fall 2012 school year, the old formula remains. They have to deal with the system as it is, improved slightly over the years by district and school quality policies but still limited in terms of true choice and effectiveness.

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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