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Is Geography Destiny? The Debate Over Boosting K-12 Quality

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 15, 2019 5 min read
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Politicians, educators, and parents believe and say all kinds of things about schools. But it’s hard to find people in the public sphere who will eagerly proclaim that the quality of students’ education should be determined by where they live and their socioeconomic status.

In fact, if you glance through speeches and articles about education in America, it’s easy to find statements declaring the opposite.

They come from Hillary Clinton, who said during her 2016 presidential campaign: “I am committed to making sure every child in this country receives a world-class education with good schools and good teachers no matter what ZIP Code they live in.”

They come from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose boss defeated Clinton in the race for the White House: “No child, regardless of their ZIP code or family income, should be denied access to quality education.”

They come from pretty much all quarters.

What might explain the pervasiveness of this sentiment is the belief that things like ZIP codes and household income often have an outsized impact on not just the type of education children receive, but their outcomes later in life.

In Massachusetts, which has the highest grade on Quality Counts’ Chance-for-Success Index, 73 percent of children live in household incomes of at least 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Yet in New Mexico, which has the lowest grade, just 48 percent of children fit that description.

Seeing a Connection

It’s easy to see a connection between those childhood numbers and outcomes later in life: In Massachusetts, 65 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 earn an income at or above the national median, while in New Mexico, just 45 percent of adults reach that benchmark.

It’s virtually incomprehensible to most people that a wealthy community could or would have bad schools, said Michael Griffith, a principal contractor with the Education Commission of the States who studies school finance.

“What they are receiving would look, to a lot of outsiders, almost like a private education” in their public schools, Griffith said.

Yet there’s no universally agreed-upon set of solutions to this challenge. Two large (though not totally mutually exclusive) camps have arisen.

Some analysts and advocates say that fixing huge disparities in school spending, and boosting that spending on a broad basis, is the key to breaking the “ZIP code education” dynamic.

Others, however, say that rather than pushing more resources into certain ZIP codes, the real solution is to allow students to leave those areas to pursue a better education. This can involve everything from open enrollment in public schools to vouchers and virtual education.

A complex and politically challenging issue at the heart of these disputes, Griffith said, is the dual-engine system for funding schools, in which one engine is often not in sync with the other.

State and local funding each typically make up about 45 percent of total spending on public schools. Wealthy communities paying relatively high local property taxes ultimately expect those taxes to benefit local schools. Creating a system that blunts or disappoints that expectation is difficult at best.

In many cases, that leaves decisionmakers with the option of creating new systems for state funding that direct more resources to students from low-income households and English-language learners who have greater educational needs.

Some states, like New Mexico, have pushed hard in recent years for just such an approach, Griffith said. And due to a requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act that districts publish how much individual schools spend per student, communities might soon be able to ask tough, more-informed questions about funding disparities between schools not too distant from each other.

Bringing equity to state school funding is a complex process that involves trade-offs, he stressed, but it can be done. Even then, he said, “You’re going to have differences because there are differences in local resources.”

‘Not God-Given’

So to what extent is such an approach worth it? And to what extent is a fundamentally different approach to ZIP codes best?

In states like New Jersey and Massachusetts, policymakers (sometimes at the direction of the courts) have not just invested more money in education. Leaders have worked to see that the additional money is equitable and goes toward important classroom resources, such as a strong curriculum and a well-trained teacher, said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that focuses on teacher quality and early learning.

“You have to think about: How do you spend that money? It’s not just throwing money at schools,” Darling-Hammond said.

At the same time, a successful state like Massachusetts can use school choice to promote innovation, but also place strong regulations and accountability measures around a limited number of such schools, she added.

Since the 1970s, she stressed, the nation has retreated from more sweeping federal pushes to reduce poverty (such as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs). To reverse the growing racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools, she said, requires that kind of holistic approach that also takes schools’ needs into account.

“It’s not God-given that it has to be this way,” Darling-Hammond said.

Different Approaches

Others argue that, ultimately, such protections and solutions imposed through traditional government channels shield the system, but hurt students. They have their own success stories to share.

The popularity of Florida’s varied school choice programs, such as open enrollment systems, private-school scholarships, and education savings account, and the state’s successes on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (including its students from low-income households) testify to choice’s political and educational viability, said Tori Bell, a policy analyst at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit research group that supports vouchers and other forms of school choice.

“Resources are important, but there’s a limit to what you can do. An endless supply of money doesn’t solve some of the nitty-gritty issues that these students face on the daily basis,” Bell said.

Choice itself is not a panacea, she stressed. But she said the popularity of such programs shows that changing state-run systems is slow and difficult, even as children from disadvantaged backgrounds stagnate in traditional public schools. One way to reduce or nullify the power of zoned attendance areas and resource-poor schools is to give people the chance to escape them, Bell said.

“Once families have access to that choice and their students are receiving an educational opportunity that best meets their needs, they wouldn’t want to go back to a system that’s one size fits all,” Bell said.


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