Analysis: The underlying meaning of ‘school choice’ and ‘neighborhood school’

“School choice is a civil rights issue,” Texas’ governor declared at a recent rally that promoted legislation for education vouchers.

These proposed vouchers would provide tax dollars from the state’s public education funds to all parents, including upper-income, who choose to send their children to private school or homeschool them.

Low-income students already have the choice to attend one of the dozens of charter schools in and around Dallas on the state’s dime.

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Dallas ISD, in competition with these options, offers “public school choice,” which aims to provide curriculum approaches like Montessori or personalized learning that parents can opt into.

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DISD also practices school choice by default, with a pseudo open enrollment system. One in five DISD students elects to transfer to a district school other than their neighborhood school. This is a popular option in Oak Cliff, as we noted in a February magazine story focusing on Rosemont Elementary, to which hundreds of families transfer.

There was a time when nearly everyone sent their children to the neighborhood school, but these days, the “neighborhood school” often is a last resort in terms of top choices, as illustrated February’s cover story. When homeowners, people with means, do send their children to a neighborhood school, this choice speaks volumes, at least to their peers, of a school’s quality. When upper-income parents don’t make this choice, if they steer clear of the neighborhood school, that also speaks volumes.

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But it may not speak the truth. The truth is that people don’t necessarily steer clear of a school because it’s a “bad” school. State evaluations over the past several years show that our best neighborhood elementary schools are Botello, Bowie and Kahn. But these three aren’t widely known for being  “good” schools.

That term — “good” school — is reserved for public schools where upper income and typically white families send their children to school. For everyone else, there is “school choice.”

This understanding is based on the reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Anyone familiar with her work knows that she is one of the country’s foremost experts on school segregation and integration. She reported extensively on it for ProPublica, received tons of publicity for her two-part series, “The Problem We All Live With,” on This American Life, and told her family’s own story in The New York Times Magazine.

And recently, she had this to say:

She went on to tweet that “if neighborhood schools are white, white parents demand neighborhood schools. If schools are black/brown, they demand choice.”

It’s tough to argue with this (though we welcome attempts) as we review the facts. The fact is that most everyone in Dallas sent their children to neighborhood schools until desegregation began in 1971. The fact is that several Dallas private schools, coincidentally, opened in 1971. The fact is that Dallas ISD was 60 percent white before desegregation and is 5 percent white now, a percentage that doesn’t line up with the 30 percent of white people who currently live in the City of Dallas.

The fact is that white middle- and upper-income people have fled to the suburbs for “good” schools and have largely abandoned urban schools, which are “bad.” The fact is that any public school in Dallas generally accepted as a “good” school is one that is predominantly white or at least chosen by a substantial percentage of white parents (in our neighborhood, Rosemont Elementary consistently is awarded this label).

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If affluent parents across the city suddenly decided to send their children to their  neighborhood public school, would all of our schools be “good” schools? And would the demand for school choice decrease?

Rosemont Principal Rachel Moon noted in February’s story, “I see what a difference parents can make … If all parents get involved with their neighborhood school, every school can be like Rosemont.”

Not just the perception of a school changes when affluent parents opt in; studies show that the reality changes, too. Middle- and upper-income students and their parents can have a strong impact on a school’s lower-income students. That’s the theory of socioeconomic integration, about which Hannah-Jones has reported and written extensively and, interestingly, which DISD’s “schools of choice” practice. If DISD families opt into one of the district’s choice schools, they automatically opt into an enrollment formula that ensures a socioeconomically diverse student body.

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School choice is, indeed, a civil rights issue, as Gov. Greg Abbott said last week. But if parents’ preference for “school choice” over their “neighborhood school” is dependent on their neighborhood school’s racial and socioeconomic makeup, then it’s a different civil rights issue than he claims.

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  • Keri Mitchell

    GeneP54, thanks for your feedback. I’ll try to respond to as much as I can.

    First, I love a good grammar or punctuation conversation, so thanks for the invitation! (And I’m a proud product of Tulsa public schools, if that gives you any consolation.) On double vs. single quotations, we default to AP style, which calls for double quotations surrounding words or phrases that may be unfamiliar terms or that point out irony. In this piece, I used quotations as emphasis for terminology that we think means one thing but may mean another. Commas — well, we could argue all day about commas, but I’m glad to know someone else out there cares about punctuation and the meaning it attempts to convey.

    Second, the article does have some inherent bias; the word “analysis” in the headline was meant to indicate that this is not straight reporting. I disagree with your assessment that “this isn’t about race.” I understand what you’re saying — this is an economic issue — but unfortunately, because of our history as a city, not to mention as a state or a country, class is inexorably tied up in race. Not exhaustively, of course, but enough that we would be foolish to ignore it.

    I think you’re right that there are other reasons people move to the suburbs. I would venture to guess, however, that suburban schools, if they have population demographics similar to Dallas ISD, might have challenges similar to the ones you listed. DISD officials also know that they haven’t done a good job telling the stories of the district’s options and successes (more on that in a future story). But even in cases that they have, people often make decisions based on perception instead of reality. One reason is because it’s very hard sometimes to separate perception from reality, which is one reason I wrote this piece. I think it’s important for us to allow research to challenge our assumptions.

    Thanks again for reading and for your thoughtful critique. We appreciate readers like you.

  • GeneP54

    As far as the writing, there are inappropriate uses commas and of quotation marks, double and single. Double quotations are used for direct quotes or to reference a point of sarcasm from a quote.
    Single quotation marks are used for reference, emphasis, indirect quotes (such as using the context of a statement as reference), etc.
    I feel that the content is biased if for no other reason than the statements of whites fleeing inner city schools (in the ‘good vs bad’ argument) is misleading. First, this isn’t about race, and second, there are many Hispanic, Black, Oriental, and other ethnicities that choose to move their children to schools other than those in their neighborhoods. It’s more a matter of economic division than race.
    In actuality, whites who choose to move their children have the exact same set of rules as everyone else. “For everyone else, there is ‘school choice'”. No. For everyone else the rules are the same.
    A good topic of conversation would to be examine the difference between the socio-economic influences of school choice vs the racial influences, if we really need to go there. As long as we keep making race an issue instead of assuring it isn’t something else, race will be THE issue.
    Maybe there are other reasons why people are moving to the suburbs besides school choice. This article gives little opportunity for any other perspective. DISD is horribly screwed up and it seems that there is very little desire to make it into something better. When given the chance, it is rejected and we turn further in the opposite direction. Maybe THAT is why so many choose to leave. Issues like truancy, lack of discipline, giving a student a minimum grade just for showing up, directed attention on occupation instead of education, and the lack of support by the school board for the educators are just a few reasons why people choose other school systems.
    According to this writer, we already are providing what the proposed school voucher program will offer. If so, then make a statement saying so and let’s move on to other important topics. This seems to be ‘much ado about nothing’.
    Thank you for noting my comment and asking for clarification. Again, the content is good, but in my opinion, a bit misfocused.

  • GeneP54, thanks for the comment. Can you let us know what parts of the article you found to be biased and what parts of the “writing” are horrible? We’re always looking for ways to improve, but we need more specific criticism if we’re going to improve our publications. Thanks.

  • GeneP54

    Did you attend public school in Dallas?
    This article has some good content, biased, but good, but the writing is horrible!