Would suburban parents send their kids to D.C. schools?
[This is my Local Living section column for Dec. 3, 2009]
A leader in the national effort to raise the achievement of low-income children once told me how she became, to her amused surprise, one of those rare suburban Washington parents who pay tuition to send their children to D.C. public schools.
She grew up in a white, blue-collar family far from Washington. Her children attended economically diverse schools, but when she got a big job in D.C. the people at her new office, despite their shared commitment to improving urban education, told her she would be nuts to put her kids in the D.C. system. Uncertain what to do in a strange new city, she bowed to this unanimous view and bought a house in Montgomery County, never anticipating what happened next.
One of her children didn’t like the Maryland schools. She dreamed of life on the stage and wanted to attend the Duke Ellington School of the Arts on R Street NW. This parent had raised her children to care about the nation’s ethnic and social divisions. She couldn’t say no to her daughter attending a well-regarded public school that happened to have a large number of disadvantaged students, even if it was going to cost her $10,000 a year.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a Montgomery County resident like me and that parent, wants to make those cross-district transfers much more common. In a new report for The Century Foundation, “Turnaround Schools That Work: Moving Beyond Separate but Equal,” Kahlenberg says creating more magnet schools like Ellington (and dropping their out-of-district tuition requirements) would be the most effective way to save children now confined by poverty and housing patterns to our worst public schools.
At a panel in Washington last month, he and I argued about the practicality of his idea. I think we will raise the achievement of impoverished children in greater numbers much sooner if we encourage more high-performing charter schools like those of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the subject of my most recent book. Such charters are usually in low-income neighborhoods. But KIPP is raising disadvantaged children from inner city to suburban achievement levels right now, while it will, I think, take many years to overcome the political and cultural barriers to attracting suburban children to urban magnets.
Kahlenberg, in our panel and his paper, said I was out of date. Well-run magnets with attractive programs are already drawing middle-class students into low-income neighborhoods. Other panelists and audience members said it would help if we let students cross school district borders, just as that Montgomery parent’s daughter had done.
The best public charter schools, Kahlenberg said, educate relatively few children. (KIPP has about 20,000 students in 19 states and the District.) He thinks magnet schools have more growth potential. “Nationally, there were 2,736 magnet schools educating roughly 2 million students in the 2005-06 school year,” he said in his paper. “By comparison, in that year, there were 4,000 charter schools educating about 1 million students. Like charter schools, there are good magnet schools and bad ones — and not all, by any means, are able to attract middle-class students into schools located in disadvantaged areas. But the best ones can serve as models for turning around failing schools.”
He has plenty of good examples, such as the Wexford Elementary School in Lansing, Mich., or the Tobin School in Cambridge, Mass. Research shows that low-income schools don’t need to be integrated to succeed, but it also shows that integration correlates with achievement gains for impoverished children. A study of fourth grader scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test shows that low-income students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of similar students in high-poverty schools.
It remains to be seen how Washingtonians feel about this. Would you be willing to send your child to a neighboring school district, no matter what the socio-economic background of the student body, if the curriculum looked good? If so, or if not, I would be grateful if you posted a comment here telling me why.
| December 2, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories: Extra Credit | Tags: Knowledge Is Power Program, Richard Kahlenberg, Tobin school, Wexford elementary school, achievement gap, charter schools, economic backgrounds, economic integration, magnet schools
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