A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, by Tim DeRoche (Redtail Press, 280 pp., $26.95)
In his new book, Tim DeRoche critically reviews a concept often taken for granted: that students should be assigned to public schools based on their home addresses. It’s an important idea to unpack. In my years of advocacy for school choice, I have found that the biggest pushback comes from those who raised their children either in good school districts or within the attendance zones of good public schools inside larger districts. Local schools worked for them, they argued, so why do we need school choice?
We’ve always had school choice and always will; it’s the availability of that choice that stimulates so much debate. Since 1925, when the Supreme Court unanimously upheld their right to do so, families with means can send their children to private schools. Such families can also gain entry to desirable public schools by purchasing homes in those school districts.
Over time, this selective process has become a brutally effective sorting machine. Census data indicate that the nation’s wealthiest school districts—those with median incomes above $166,000—are 70 percent white and only 13 percent black and Hispanic. In these districts, 70 percent of the families earn more than $100,000 per year. Almost two-thirds of these districts’ adult residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, providing their children with crucial social capital. At the bottom of the distribution—those districts with median incomes below $55,000—close to 56 percent of residents are black or Hispanic, and only 12 percent of adults hold a four-year college degree. In these districts, 62 percent of families earn less than $50,000 per year.
This divide between rich and poor isn’t the subject of DeRoche’s book, though one senses that he wants it to be. A Fine Line presents heroic stories of people who challenged the public school monopoly by enrolling children in districts where they didn’t live. But as DeRoche accurately chronicles, the legal validity of school-district boundaries has been well established; he doesn’t see a viable route for challenging them. The boundaries are also political; typically, each school district has its own elected board of education and, in most cases, its own revenue base. Local school taxes levied by the district, or on its behalf, support the schools in that district. Thus, when families try to falsify an address to gain admittance to another district’s schools, they are considered in theft of services, to the extent that district-level taxes support schools.
DeRoche focuses his analysis on a different type of boundary—school-attendance zones, drawn within districts to assign home addresses to specific schools. Most savvy parents study these boundaries—considered sacrosanct—before selecting a house or condominium to purchase. These boundaries are administrative, not political, in that all schools within the district are governed and financed by the same revenue base. DeRoche argues that slightly over half the states have constitutional wording or judicial rulings that could challenge the validity of school-attendance zones.
His well-reasoned argument is grounded in a concurring opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia in Freeman v. Pitts (1992). In considering the path of jurisprudence in school-desegregation cases, Scalia observed that the fight had run its legal course without meeting its goals. He then suggested that “an observer unfamiliar with the history surrounding this issue might suggest that we avoid the problem by requiring that the school authorities establish a regime in which parents are free to disregard neighborhood-school assignment, and to send their children (with transportation provided) to whichever school they choose. . . . The constitutional right is to equal racial access to schools, not access to racially equal schools.”
DeRoche believes that advocates should take up Scalia’s 28-year-old challenge and outlaw school-attendance zones. Their opponents might respond that students should attend the school closest to their home. But any attendance-zone system will leave some children just over the line, or even across the street, from a desirable school. Or children could be assigned to schools not even near their homes.
Historically, public policy didn’t consider the possibility that school-attendance zones would assign some students to good schools and others to bad ones. The concept of quality wasn’t even part of the original discussion, since public schools supposedly met professional standards and provided equal opportunity to all children. Before the late 1970s, differences in student outcomes were generally attributed to student aptitude, behavior, or family background. Since schools were considered equal—and students were unequal in their achievement—boundary lines and attendance zones received little scrutiny beyond matters of administrative convenience and efficiency.
Today, policymakers understand that school quality varies in ways that affect student outcomes, and parents put a premium on the peer groups that their children will find in different schools. Thus, the divide between the wealthiest and poorest school districts continues.
DeRoche falls short not in his legal arguments but in the limited applicability of his analysis. Even if many states followed his recommended path, most children would still be kept out of the best public schools. Families insist on placing their children in the best school possible, to the extent that they can afford to do so. Outlawing school-attendance zones within districts would compel parents to enroll in suburban school districts or private schools. In larger and more diverse school districts, the best schools will be over-subscribed, which will necessitate turning away many youngsters and admitting students based on a lottery. Will affluent parents be willing to roll the dice with their children’s education? Not likely; they have options and they will use them.
DeRoche underestimates parents’ determination to exercise some control over their children’s school placement. Unless a large school district can convince parents that its schools are equally excellent, risk aversion will push families elsewhere. Nothing will be gained by eliminating school-attendance zones beyond inconveniencing families who bought homes under the old rules. True equity for the less fortunate will happen only when we stop treating educational quality as a zero-sum game. It will require a sustained effort to create excellent schools in all neighborhoods and in all sectors—public, private, and charter.