Category Archives: Diversity

When is advocating for a diversity of school models immoral?

In many cities I work in, education reform leaders bang the drum of needing more diversity in school models in their cities.

“Choice isn’t choice if all the schools are the same,” is a common statement.

I get where these folks are coming from, and I hope the breadth of effective school models continues to grow. There are still too many kids who don’t thrive in the schools that exits today, and I’m glad there are entrepreneurs who are developing new models, as well as investors and intermediaries that are supporting them.

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At the same time, in many cities, two conditions are present:

1) Tens of thousands of children are attending failing schools.

2) Effective high expectations / high support (formerly called No Excuses) schools have waiting lists.

In other words, families are stuck in failing schools and existing high-performing schools could expand to help them.

Of course, just because these conditions exist doesn’t mean that it’s immoral to invest in new school model design.

But the “choice isn’t choice” refrain feels pretty privileged.

When your child is in a decent school, diversity of school model might be exactly what you’re looking for in a better option.

But when your child is in a failing school, you’re often just looking for an effective school who will nurture your child’s academic and personal growth – and if that school already exists in your city, you’re simply trying to get in.

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To put a rough marker on there, if the aforementioned conditions exist in your city (many students in failing schools, many good schools with waiting lists), I think you should be devoting a good ~80% of your philanthropic funds on getting kids out of failing schools and expanding schools that are working.

If you’re allocations are reversed, and you’re spending the majority of your resources on new school models, I think you’re actions are not in the best interests of the children who are being harmed in failing schools.

If I had to argue against myself, I’d say that increasing the diversity of school models will increase the diversity of parents sending their children to public charter schools, which will strengthen the pro-charter political coalition. I’d also argue that new entrepreneurs and new models might pressure the incumbents to continue to adapt. Moreover, I’d argue that a real new school model breakthrough might prove to be more scalable than existing models, so investing in new models might help more kids sooner than scaling existing models. Lastly, I’d argue that all children, not just children in failing schools, deserve great school options.

I do agree with these counterarguments, but, for me, the near term weight of the moral good still sits with helping the children who are currently stuck in failing schools.

Hence my 80% / 20% calculation.

So yes, let’s keep on trying to develop new school models, but let’s make sure to check the privilege of making this argument with too much force, especially in cities where existing good schools have room to serve more kids who are stuck in terrible situations.

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.

Reconciling Baltimore and the Desire for Diverse Schools

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Over the past few years, socioeconomic integration has been gaining support as a key method of school improvement.

I’m very supportive of this vision, but I think it’s important to recognize its current limits.

Recently, I had a conversation with Chris Gibbons where he raised an important point on this issue. He noted that, in cities with deep concentrations of poverty, socioeconomic diverse schools will generally require students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods.

Chris is right: there are not a lot of wealthy families that will bus their children into economically depressed neighborhoods.

Additionally, there may also be a limited supply of families who will voluntarily send their children to diverse schools, regardless of the location. This will make it difficult to achieve socioeconomic diversity at scale.

The events in Baltimore, for me, served as a stark reminder of the real limits of the integration strategy. Unfortunately, I do not think that large numbers of middle and upper income families will send their children to schools into the most economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, nor do I suspect that enough Baltimore families will voluntarily (by school choice or via enacting enrollment policies) integrate all the public schools in the city, regardless of school location.

Of course, I might be wrong. But the lack of integration in most urban cities offers at least some evidence that achieving integration at scale will be difficult to accomplish in the near term.

This is why I think we need to maintain a strong focus on opening excellent schools in neighborhoods with high poverty rates.

Even if the schools are not diverse, they can still be excellent.

Additionally, we should significantly expand choice so that, to the extent the government fails to provide excellent schools in any given neighborhood, families can still access the schools that they deserve.

Hopefully, over time, integration will increase.

But we can’t stop opening up great schools in high-poverty neighborhoods while we wait for this integration to occur.

As it happens, most leaders of diverse schools that I talk to agree with the above. The most vocal integrationists, however, insinuate that the effort to build more high-poverty schools is off the mark.

This, I think, is a mistake.

I don’t in any way mean to argue that excellent high-poverty schools will solve all of the complex issues that lead to severe social injustice. Rather, I just think that, done right, they can be a part of the solution.

Lastly, for a powerful read on Baltimore that touches on some of these themes, see Derrell Bradford’s essay.

What a Car Seen Parked in Uptown New Orleans Tells Us About the Future of School Choice

This picture was sent to me by a regular relinquishment.org blog reader.

The reader will get a free tote bag.

Conservatively, the picture is worth at least a thousand words:

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I blurred out the license plate and added the red circles. For those not familiar with the branding of New Orleans schools, the sticker on the left is from Ursuline Academy; the sticker on the right is from Bricolage Academy.

Ursuline Academy is a private school that charges about 10K a year. Here’s a brief description from their website.

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Bricolage is a free public charter school with a focus on enrolling a socio-economically and racially diverse student population. From their website:

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Reflections

1. Private schools serving upper-middle class families will increasingly be competing with diverse by design charter schools.

2. In states without universal voucher programs, diverse by design charter schools will have a 10-15K annual cost advantage.

3. The revealed preference of middle and upper-middle class families appears to be that (1) most of them will spend 10-30K a year in enrollment or mortgage costs to not send their children to schools that exclusively serve poor, minority students (2) but that many of them will send their children to free public schools if the poor, minority enrollment percentage is in the 30-50% range.

4. If there were a betting market for school sector market share, I would be very bullish on diverse by design charter schools that serve students in liberal urban areas. I would be bearish on middle tier private schools serve students in liberal urban areas.

5. I view the growth of the diverse by design charter school sector as a positive development in the school choice movement. Done well, I think it will be good for children, good for families, and good for the politics of the choice movement as a whole.

6. I think there is some risk that this market demand will be filled by lower-quality school operators that do not provide an excellent education to all of the children in their buildings. I hope this does not occur.

7. I thought about titling this post: the New White Flight. A change in values, choices, and economics might be driving white families back into public schools. I didn’t title the post the New White Flight, because I didn’t want the post to have disparaging feel, as I’m genuinely excited about these trends. That being said, I find the phrase to have some explanatory value, so here it appears in reflection #7.

8. The New White Flight, if it occurs, will have tax implications. Right now public schools are in-part paid for by families who send their children to private schools. An increase in public school enrollment without an increase in tax revenue will lead to lower per-pupil funding amounts. Or not. Perhaps if wealthy people are sending their children to public schools, they will support an increase in taxes to fund the schools where they enroll their children.