Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

The Potential of Interdistrict School Choice

By Richard D. Kahlenberg — June 07, 2011 7 min read

Originally, one of the more talked-about provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act was one that gave students in “failing” Title I schools the right to attend a better-performing public school within their district. Many conservatives supported the provision as a way of promoting competition among schools. Meanwhile, some liberals supported the idea as a way of liberating low-income students from segregated high-poverty schools.

Today, the public-school-choice provision is widely seen as an example of one of the ways in which NCLB is “broken.” Very few eligible students—fewer than 2 percent—take advantage of public school choice under NCLB, and the rates are even lower among African-American and Hispanic students than white students. Some believe that low transfer rates suggest that parents want neighborhood schools, even if those schools are weak. In a Washington Post op-ed essay on Jan. 3, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan criticized “federally dictated ... school-transfer options” as doing little good. Conservatives remain more supportive of choice for students stuck in failing schools, but want to expand the right of transfer to include private school options.

But there is a better way to fix the NCLB transfer provision than privatization. New research from the Century Foundation suggests that the right to transfer within the public school system should be altered to give meaningful access to high-performing schools across district lines and provide powerful financial incentives to receiving districts. The newly released Century Foundation research, conducted by Meredith Richards, Kori Stroub, and Jennifer Holme of the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that parents of students in low-performing schools may fail to utilize transfer rights not because they are necessarily satisfied with their local schools, but because other schools within the district are not much better.

Using comprehensive data from the most recent year available, the American Institutes for Research databases for 2004-05, the authors examined 61,000 schools in 45 states educating 65 percent of the nation’s students. They found that under current intradistrict-choice policies, students in 94.5 percent of failing schools have “no meaningful access to higher-performing schools,” either because other schools in the district do not perform better or they have no capacity for transfers.

One obvious solution—to allow students to cross school district lines to attend better-performing public schools—raises an empirical question: Do schools in neighboring districts, within a reasonable driving distance, have the space to accept transfer students?

A 2008 study published by Education Sector, a think tank that advocates charter school expansion and online learning, suggested that interdistrict choice wouldn’t help many students because of space and distance constraints. But Richards, Stroub, and Holme point out that the study was deeply flawed by the arbitrary assumption that receiving schools could expand student populations by no more than 10 percent and that driving distances could not exceed 20 minutes. The latter assumption was undermined by evidence from existing programs in Boston; Hartford, Conn.; and elsewhere that suggest that students are willing to travel substantially farther if what is at the end of the bus ride is sufficiently attractive. The 10 percent capacity assumption, Richards, Stroub, and Holme note, had no empirical basis whatsoever.

Richards and colleagues have produced a far more sophisticated analysis, drawing upon a “gravity model” used to predict traveling behavior and to model accessibility to such resources as grocery stores, bus stops, and health clinics. The gravity model considers both distance and the attractiveness of the destination. In the case of schools, the model assumes that families will be willing to travel farther for very high-performing schools than for those that are only marginally better than a sending school. In contrast to the earlier Education Sector study, Richards and colleagues calculate school capacity not by assuming an arbitrary amount of space, but by examining the actual student-teacher ratio in schools and considering a facility full when it reaches the 75th percentile of student-teacher ratios for the state.

Most policy debates today are focused on trying to improve high-poverty schools by giving low-income students access to better teachers, but this approach ignores the other problems in economically segregated schools."

Using this more sophisticated model, they find that interdistrict choice would vastly expand options for students in failing schools. Richards, Stroub, and Holme conclude: “Contrary to the findings of previous research, the current study finds that an NCLB interdistrict-choice policy, if implemented nationally, has the potential to meaningfully expand access to higher-performing schools for students in over 80 percent of eligible sending schools.” The average number of slots available to students in struggling schools would increase by 128 percent. Most importantly, the average sending school’s “accessibility value,” a measure which incorporates both increased access to receiving schools and the comparative quality of those schools, would increase fivefold.

Moreover, interdistrict choice would disproportionately benefit students in schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students, the research finds. For example, a school with a low-income population of 95 percent would see a gain in access under interdistrict choice “more than twice as large” as a school in which 45 percent of students were low-income.

This finding is important because civil rights groups and scholars have long been interested in expanding public school choice to reduce concentrations of school poverty. Four decades of research suggests that low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools will benefit from having the chance to attend economically mixed schools with middle-class classmates, who on average are more academically engaged; a cadre of middle-class parents, who on average are more involved in school affairs; and high-quality teachers, who have high expectations.

A 2008 review of eight interdistrict intgration plans, by Jennifer Holme and Amy Stuart Wells, found that these programs generally produce higher achievement and graduation rates for students. And a 2010 Century Foundation study of Montgomery County, Md., found that low-income students in lower-poverty neighborhoods and schools performed far better than comparable students in higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools even though the latter received $2,000 extra funding per pupil for reduced class size, high-quality professional development, and extended learning time.

Most policy debates today are focused on trying to improve high-poverty schools by giving low-income students access to better teachers, but this approach ignores the other problems in economically segregated schools—such as higher levels of disorder and lower levels of parental involvement. Those conditions, in turn, make it very hard to attract and retain excellent teachers. A recent University of Washington analysis, for example, found that a $10,000 bonus program for National Board-certified educators who agreed to teach in high-poverty schools prompted less than 1 percent of teachers to move each year.

Of course, just because interdistrict choice is logistically feasible and educationally sound does not make it politically palatable. The study’s authors acknowledge this reality and propose strong financial incentives for receiving schools to take in NCLB transfers across school district lines. Just as the right kind of magnet themes or pedagogical approaches have successfully drawn affluent students into schools in tough neighborhoods; programs which “magnetize” low-income students can overcome opposition to interdistrict choice. In the St. Louis area, for example, Republican suburban state legislators were among those who backed an interdistrict-choice program that allowed substantial numbers of African-American students to attend suburban schools—bringing school funds with them in the bargain.

The Obama administration is correct to suggest that the current intradistrict-transfer programs aren’t working. But rather than junking the right to transfer—or moving in the direction of private school vouchers—research suggests policymakers should embrace a third path: providing substantial financial incentives for middle-class suburban schools to accept low-income student transfers. In an era of tight budgets, this approach may prove attractive to middle-class school districts while also providing a highly cost-effective way of reducing the achievement gap.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Potential of Interdistrict School Choice

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