Saturday, April 20, 2019

When Local Control Turns Toxic

I am a fan of local control for school districts, but I'm not going to pretend that under the wrong circumstances it won't produce some terrible results.

EdBuild has just issued a report on a troubling phenomenon-- the secession of wealthy communities from larger school districts. This issue has been reported on before, but this is a report that collects instances of attempts across the nation.

EdBuild is not an organization that I'd ordinarily be promoting. Their reform credentials are deep, from Founder/CEO Rebecca Sibilia who used to be the COO of StudentsFirst to a board headed by Derrell Bradford of NYCAN (among other groups). They do have some actual teachers like Nate Bowling on their board of advisors, but mostly this is another group that runs deep with people without actual experience in education, and most of their policy positions are heavily school choicey.

But neither education experience or complex methodology is needed to collect this kind of data, and the results are not great. Since 2000, 128 communities have tried to secede from their school districts, and 74 have been successful.

A large chunk of those are not hard to explain. The map shows a huge group of seceding districts in Maine. For about a decade, Maine put big pressure on its districts to consolidate, with a plan to turn almost 300 school districts into 26. There were severe financial penalties for keeping your own district, until Governor LaPage eliminated the penalties; at that point, many districts headed for the door. The many secession fights in Maine represent an attempt by districts to maintain their original shape, not surprising in a state that is largely rural and it can take 90 minutes to travel a distance that is 30 miles as the crow flies. The state of Maine accounts for a full half of the 74 seceding districts and so allows EdBuild to inflate their total numbers.

Front of the big beautiful HS Collierville built its students,
once it got them out of Shelby County Schools
Still, the uninflated numbers and the stories that go with them are still pretty troubling. In Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama, what we see are severe examples of school district gerrymandering, and the story, over and over, is of rich white folks trying to get themselves a district that doesn't include so many of those poor Black folks. The Shelby County school districts are a fine example of white flight, district secession, and the hoarding of resources so that wealthy folks don't have to spend tax dollars on Those People's Children.

I presume that this phenomenon can be used to argue that choice has to be implemented to rescue the students left behind, or as another example of the kind of choices that rich families have and poor families don't, though EdBuild does not go there in the report. To me, the phenomenon of secession and resource hoarding is a prime example of the worst of both worlds, showing in one ugly move how both school choice and local control can be used in toxic ways.

Sibilia says the school secession movement illustrates the problems with the way U.S. schools are funded. “Even when there is not explicit racial intent, there is this hyperlocalism approach to education that is driving these secessions,” she said. “Either way it’s emblematic of everything that is wrong with school funding and school borders in this country.”

Maybe, though some states have managed to put breaks on these kinds of shenanigans. But more to the point, choice and charter and voucher systems simply provide an alternative method for achieving exactly the same results. Whether I secede by creating a separate public school district or by a private school alternative to the public system, the effect is the same-- I don't have to send my money to educate Those People's Children.

Call it a side effect of the narrowed view of education that has been sold during the modern reform era-- public education is not an institution or public good that serves all of society by preparing all students to take their place as citizens, but is instead a commodity purchased by a family to benefit their children. Once you start thinking of education as a toaster or new car that you buy for your kids, it's a logical step to ask why you should be buying toasters for other peoples' kids, or why you shouldn't get to shop around till you find the very best toaster that your own money can buy for you. We'll offer a couple of toaster scholarships to deserving families to show we're not heartless, but otherwise I've got mine, Jack-- why should I be shelling out toaster money for Those People. It's the same ethos as the sports parent who insists his child is not there to serve the needs of the team, but the team is there to get his kid a scholarship or a contract.

Once you separate education from its value to the country as a whole and just keep talking about how schools are supposed to serve the families and the children and the money belongs to the child and the rest of the arguments that define education as an individual consumer good, then you can expect this kind of foolishness and resource hoarding-- a foolishness that is facilitated equally well by either school choice or local control of public schools.

It doesn't have to be this way. Consider this story from NYC, where parents have taken it upon themselves to push for de-segregating schools in their communities. District 3 and District 15 will take on more social and economic diversity this fall because of measures crafted and proposed by parents:

“Part of why we did this is we felt very strongly that you couldn’t improve just one school,” said Kristen Berger, who helped create the plan for Manhattan’s District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and Harlem. “That’s not very useful. It’s really a system. We really wanted to see movement at high- and low-demand schools.”

We can do better.

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