School & District Management Opinion

Suburban Districts Shouldn’t Hire Detectives to Keep Students Out

By Joe Nathan — June 18, 2015 3 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss how market principles can work against students from low income families, including the practice of suburban districts hiring detectives to keep some students out. Joe begins and Deborah responds.

Deborah, you and I have agreed that we cannot just rely on market mechanics to help all students achieve their potential. So I’m disappointed that there is so little criticism by many traditional district advocates about some practices that seem to reinforce, rather than reduce inequities.

One inequity is the ability of district schools to use standardized tests and auditions to keep out many students who apply. We’ve agreed that’s a bad idea (although many district defenders are fine with district schools doing this, while they criticize charters that they say are screening out students) You and I have agreed that k-12 public schools should be open to all, whether district or chartered.

A second example of bad market principles are the barriers that many suburban districts have created to keep out students.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that for the most recent year where data is available (2010-11), 34% of all public school students attend suburban districts. That’s a higher percentage than city (29%), town (12%) or rural (24%).

While suburbs vary, many spend substantially more per pupil than urban districts. I think that’s wrong, as I know you do. It’s an example of how markets provide more advantages to affluent families.

But some suburban districts hire detectives and even take families to court, to keep out students, often low income and students of color, from nearby urban districts. I think this is awful. I found many status quo defenders (and I don’t see you as one of them) who believe this is perfectly ok.

I think Minnesota has the right approach, allowing cross-district public school choice. If suburbs have room (and many do), students from neighboring districts may attend - and transportation often is available. Minnesota also provides extra dollars to school districts enrolling a high percentage of low income and non/limited English speaking students.

A quick “Google” search reviews dozens of examples of affluent suburban districts hiring detectives and creating other barriers to keep out students who don’t live in the district. This is unheard of in Minnesota.

Keeping out students from other districts seems like an example of markets working against low-income students. But I’ve looked at literally hundreds of posts over the last year of people who say they are opposed to charters and other forms of school choice. They don’t seem to have any problem with hiring detectives, and taking families to court, to “protect” their district.

Here’s an example from California, where a district kicked out the daughter of a live-in nanny. Congratulations to Robert Reich who made clear what’s going on: “The point is Vivian is Latina and poor, and Orinda is white, Anglo and wealthy. And Orinda vigilantly protects itself from encroachments from the large and growing poor Latino and Hispanic populations living beyond its borders.”

Here’s a New Jersey example: Referring to Millburn High School in New Jersey, the reporter writes: “This is a public school, but the price of admission is steep. The average house in the tony township of Millburn, N.J., sells for $1.3 million, and the real estate taxes run about $20,000 a year. There’s no designated affordable housing in Millburn, and only 12 of Millburn High School’s 1,492 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.”

An article in an Indiana paper begins, “CALUMET CITY | Like other school districts in the region, Hoover-Schrum Elementary District 157 will have two detective agencies investigate instances when a student’s residency may be suspect.”

Suburban districts enroll millions of youngsters. They represent a form of market that gives more opportunities to kids from affluent families. I strongly oppose allowing districts to erect walls like those described above. I hope you agree.

Deborah Meier responds: Oops. I somehow didn’t remember that this piece of yours was mostly on keeping kids out of particular districts, not selective schools.

Joe, I’m always horrified at how people can bear to stand in the doorway to keep less advantaged students out of their advantaged schools.

Joe responds: Very glad we agree on this. I think the principle that a public school should be open to all is fundamental.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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