Long Distance (From DC) Thoughts on the Accidental Genius of Boston’s Public School Lottery

Washington DC is rethinking its school boundary policies that determine which schools students might be able to attend. Unlike Boston’s current plan, where students can choose from the six ‘closest’ schools-but two of those ‘closest’ schools must be of high quality (and thus not necessarily close at all), other than charters (and some other schools), DC, like most places, has boundaries for each of its school. I’ve described what happens under these systems before, but Conor Williams makes the case against boundaries in DC (boldface mine):

Ward 4’s middle school coordination problem offers some lessons for the school boundary fight, as well as the broader project of improving education in D.C. It’s going to be tough to get young families to unite around protecting existing in-boundary school privileges. After all, many middle- and low-income parents see boundaries as barriers: They prevent us from sending our kids to good schools nearby. By contrast, many parents with fewer resources see citywide lotteries and open enrollment as ways to access a quality education even if we can’t purchase a high-quality public education by means of a half-million dollar (or more!) mortgage. Yes, lotteries are frustrating—only about 60 percent of lottery participants wound up in one of their top three choices this year. Still, they offer more hope than an ironclad link between my paycheck and my children’s public schools. Whatever else these lotteries do, they give families of all classes a chance at enrolling at a school of their choice.

This is really important for neighborhoods that are either recovering economically or are on the edge, as Boston’s 2013 mayoral race highlighted:

Walsh does support charter schools, but he is better, as Connolly is the only councilman to vote against the new school districting program which emphasizes neighborhood schools, but still gives children who live in poor neighborhoods a chance to attend good schools:

His opposition to the new school choice plan along with his neighborhood school plan would essentially mean that no low-income or minority children would ever have access to good schools (I’ve described how this would happen here). In addition, property values would become tied to the local school (the ‘quality’ of which, like all schools, is primarily determined by the poverty and English-speaking status of the student body)… in every city where this has happened, property values in wealthy neighborhoods have skyrocketed, as parents attempt to buy their way into good schools. At the same time, middle-class neighborhoods and neighborhoods that have been improving see property values drop and the quality of life in the neighborhood collapses.

The accidental genius of the desegregation order, even though it’s expensive, is that it decoupled housing prices from school quality. In most places, city and suburb, there is an incredibly strong connection between the two. This would devastate those neighborhoods that are just starting to turn around, and make other neighborhoods unaffordable for the upper-middle class (never mind the middle class). So this matters even if you don’t have kids in the schools.

Yes, some families leave under the Boston system, but not all of those families are middle class, which helps preserve middle class neighborhoods, rather than hollowing them out. Something DC could consider adopting, though, as Williams notes, wealthy families are doing what they can to sabotage any kind of equity. Intelligent Designer forbid they live like the rest of us:

What is infuriating to some parents (who are disproportionately white, but I don’t think racial animus really is playing much of a role here) is that they have made all the right moves. They went to the right schools, got the right jobs, bought a house in the right neighborhood. But now, due to the capriciousness of random chance, they might not be able to send their kids to the right school. That sort of thing happens to other people, not them. People like lower-middle class single mothers. Somehow in a city where 68 percent of students qualify for lunch assistance, the right people are supposed to be insulated against the vicissitudes of chance and misfortune.

Random misfortune is for the hoi polloi. And their children too.

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1 Response to Long Distance (From DC) Thoughts on the Accidental Genius of Boston’s Public School Lottery

  1. Abandon the property tax/school link and fund all schools equally (per student). This seems so obvious, which is probably the reason it isn’t done. ALL students deserve a good education.

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