Controlled choice and an integrated school system

October 25, 2009 

— Wake County voters delivered a sobering wake-up call to supporters of diversity in the Oct. 6 school board elections, sweeping opponents of Wake's existing policy into office. But a system of neighborhood schools -- in which wealthy children go to one set of schools, and poor and minority students to another -- would be an enormous step backward and damage Raleigh's enlightened reputation.

Fortunately, there is a third way, which would honor school integration, minimize mandatory reassignment and maximize parental choice to neighborhood and non-neighborhood schools.

As the new school board moves from campaigning to governing, this third avenue would seek to avoid compulsory busing and mandatory assignment of students on the one hand and resegregation of Wake County public schools on the other.

Wake County already provides parents a great deal of choice among public schools through the extensive magnet system in Raleigh, but it could go even further. Even limited mandatory reassignment has proven disruptive and politically unsustainable, particularly when children are forced to attend year-round schools.

But turning the clock back to a system of neighborhood schools would reduce rather than enhance choice and make management of growth even more difficult. Magnet schools are politically popular, and mandatorily reassigning students to neighborhood schools would be hugely disruptive.

Moreover, separate neighborhood schools for rich and poor would inevitably be unequal, as experience in Wake County itself suggests.

Currently, there are five public elementary schools that are significantly out of compliance with Wake's guideline that no school have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. These five schools, which have more than 60 percent of students receiving subsidized lunch, are all performing below the district average overall and among various subcategories of students: low income, middle class, black, white and Hispanic. That is Wake County's future -- a Durham-type system -- if resegregation occurs.

Instead of giving up on efforts to integrate, and on popular magnet school options, Wake County could universalize the magnet school approach.

Dozens of school districts across the country turn all their schools into magnets and employ "controlled choice," a system devised by Michael Alves, an education consultant and Charles Willie, a Harvard professor, to marry choice and integration.

In places like Cambridge, Mass., Champaign, Ill., and in Lee and St. Lucie counties in Florida, parents choose among a variety of magnet school options, and choices are honored with an eye to promoting socioeconomic integration. Parents rank their preferences among schools with different themes (like math and science) or pedagogical approaches (such as Montessori or back to basics). Popular, oversubscribed programs can be franchised while underchosen programs can be discontinued.

In Cambridge, for example, a school that was chronically underchosen, particularly by white and middle class parents, was turned into a Montessori school and has since seen an explosion in popularity.

To help satisfy parents for whom having their children attend the neighborhood school is the most important criterion, a proximity preference can be provided, guaranteeing admission. What parents should not be allowed to do is exclude others from also choosing that school.

In practice, roughly 50 percent of parents in controlled choice districts choose a non-neighborhood school because they are interested in a program that will meet the individual needs of their children. Normally, almost 90 percent of parents receive their first choice of schools. In order to minimize driving times, demographically balanced choice zones can be created within a larger school district.

Much of the anger over mandatory reassignment and compulsory busing in Wake County had nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with explosive growth in the student population. New schools required constant redistricting of school boundaries. But importantly, controlled choice programs can accommodate growth and minimize disruption. When new schools are opened, district boundaries do not need to be redrawn because the new building is filled with students from across the zone through choice.

Wake County has gone through a wrenching and divisive period in which opponents of the status quo made clear they wanted more voice and say in where their children attend schools and greater stability in the system. Moving forward, controlled choice offers a way to accommodate those concerns, without giving up on the larger goal of equitable, integrated schools that have won Raleigh a national reputation for excellence and equity. New means can be used to achieve the existing diversity goals, and in so doing, the board can make a good system even better.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice."

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