The Michigan Legislature is toying with the idea of allowing students to enroll in schools outside of the districts where they live. It is a utopian concept rife with the possibility of unintended consequences. Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers should resist forcing the failures of core cities on the suburbs.
The educational choice issue could be complicated by whether it is voluntary or mandatory. The current program gives better-performing districts the option to decide whether they want to participate in the state’s schools of choice system. That should not change.
Local control remains the most acceptable standard. Cross-district choice dredges up the same fears that cross-district busing did in the 1970s. White flight from Detroit was accelerated by the 1967 riots. Civil rights groups believed black kids were incapable of learning without a critical mass of white children in the classroom. The federal district court was petitioned to impose a cross-district plan to bus black students into suburban school districts for the purpose of desegregation. The court ultimately found that suburban school districts had not deliberately engaged in a policy of segregation. Detroit ended up with a plan in which black students were transported to the outskirts of the city where most of the white students lived, and vise versa.
Black parents, it should be noted, were no more receptive to busing their children outside their neighborhoods than whites were to busing their children into the inner city. What court-ordered busing accomplished was to drive all but the poorest white families out of the city. In the end, black children were no better off educationally. And Detroit school officials proved incapable of addressing the district’s administrative deficiencies, operational inefficiencies or bridging the learning gaps with neigborhing districts.
In the ensuring years, Detroiters moved into near suburbs like Oak Park, Grosse Pointe, Harper Woods, and Southfield. Their arrival was acccompanied by a decline in academic achievement in schools where their children were enrolled. The Grosse Pointe school district, for example, opted out of the state schools of choice program. But at Grosse Pointe North High School, black students score significantly lower on MEAP tests than other students. It is an unfortunate fact of life that where there is a large influx of low-income residents into middle-class neighborhoods, we soon see neighborhoods in decline. Section 8, a federal housing subsidy that guarantees landlords payment from low-income tenants, is another good example of bad government intervention.
This social engineering experiment allows low-income residents to move into better neighborhoods where they are expected to magically acquire middle-class values. However, expecting a stable neighborhood to thrive after transplanting people into it who have an inner-city mentality and accompanying “underclass behavior” is destructive. Why? Middle-class social status is earned, not a designation awarded by government’s manipulation of the social environment. The transplanted under-class generally has no experience buying a home, maintaining a home, managing a home budget, or successfully adjusting to new neighbors with different values and lifestyles. No less is true for trying to force-feed inner-city students who are apt to bring a lot of baggage and few socialization skills to suburban school environments.
The best chance for long-suffering urban students is through in-district school choice. With local choice, parents would have the power to remove children from dysfunctional schools and have more voice to introduce creativity into the learning process. Non-functioning Schools would be liberated from top down bureaucratic controls that stifle effective organization, achievement and competiton. Lansing’s flirtation with education policies to meet the special needs of urban youth does not inspire confidence that it recognizes its limits.
Equal opportunity and access to good schools should be the objective of educational policy. To that end, local schools of choice and charter public schools offer the best hope of shifting resources, investments and returns from the failed school governance model to students and parents where it belongs.