Is Neighborhood-Based Education Liberal?

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U.S. President Barack Obama visits the classroom of teacher Elizabeth Slagal, during a visit to the Clarence Tinker elementary schoolchildren while at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY EDUCATION) --- Image by ? LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/Corbis
Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

Hillary Clinton’s official campaign announcement video is a charming pastiche of ordinary people describing changes in their lives. One woman featured in it says, “My daughter is starting kindergarten next year, and so we’re moving, just so she can belong to a better school.”

This is a completely ordinary account of how parents manage their children’s education. When they approach school age, you usually need to move to a better school district, which in most cases means a wealthier one. Having to pick up and move entirely for the purposes of locating in a more affluent district is such a venerable feature of neighborhood-based public education that few people even question its logic or fairness. It’s so ingrained that it can be treated as the background premise in a cheerful campaign video.

In lieu of a competitive presidential primary, the Democratic Party has instead taken the form of liberal interest groups firing pleas at Hillary Clinton. There are certainly fissures to be found between the party’s activist base and its all-but-certain nominee: on foreign policy, social insurance and long-term deficits, the finance industry, and others. The deepest cleavage may run through education policy. The Obama administration has pursued an aggressive reform agenda, provoking deep opposition from teachers’ unions. The primary _ or, perhaps, the quasi-primary — is their opportunity to try to force Clinton to the left. The Nation has an interesting feature with 15 questions trying to pin Clinton down to the left. The education-policy question was outsourced to pro-union activist Diane Ravitch, who asks, “Secretary Clinton, would you please state where you stand on the expansion of privately managed charter schools, which drain funding from public schools that accept all children.

The wording of Ravitch’s question is misleading in two ways. First, she implies that charter schools do not accept all children. I’ve found this to be an extremely widespread belief. If charter schools were allowed to cherry-pick the best students, the way private schools do, it would be a disaster. But in fact, nearly every state requires them to be open to all students, either within their district or in the entire state. (A state-by-state list of charter admission requirements can be found here.) Charters have to accept all applicants, and if applications exceed openings, they hold random lotteries for admittance. It is true that charter schools tend to get students whose parents have the wherewithal to find a charter school for them, which does skew their enrollment pattern slightly. It is also true that charter schools expel students at a slightly higher than neighborhood schools rate, but the rate is still very low.

The even more misleading part of Ravitch’s statement is her claim that traditional public schools “accept all children.” It would be more accurate to say that they accept all children whose parents can afford the property fee. In my city, like many cities, the most desirable neighborhood schools are located in expensive neighborhoods. If you want to improve your child’s neighborhood school, like the woman in Clinton’s video, you have to save up to move to a more expensive neighborhood. One of the things you pay for when you buy an expensive home is the right to live in a school district where most of the children will come from highly educated two-parent families. Schools that are tied to residential property patterns will inevitably reflect the racially and socioeconomically segregated pattern of American housing. Having to move in order to enroll in a “better” school is reflection of a system that turns public education into an adjunct of private property rights.

The bizarre thing is that this system is the Nation-magazine-approved “progressive” style of education. Traditional, neighborhood-based schools are limited to local residents and pay their teachers based on length of service. Charter schools are open to students regardless of what property their parents can afford, and (generally) have non-unionized teachers with more flexible, merit-based pay scales. Unions care a great deal about preserving traditional tenure systems, so they lionize the neighborhood-based system that comes alongside it. But it’s a very strange value system for the left to embrace.