Sunday, May 16, 2010

School choice and equality

“Anybody who was for Brown v. Board of Education — it baffles me that they would be against vouchers. Brown condemned schools that were separate and unequal. Well, that’s exactly what we’re back to now — schools that are segregated by income, by ZIP code, by race.’’ -- Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams

I've been watching the new season of Friday Night Lights, which largely focuses on the opening of a new high school in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. Rather than one Dillon High School, the community is now split into West Dillon High (the former Dillon High School) and East Dillon High, a formerly shuttered school which has now been re-opened. With attendance determined by geographic boundaries, the process of carving up the town's school district predictably becomes a horribly contentious process as parents lobby to avoid having their children sent to the far less prestigious East Dillon High, a far more ramshackle facility. Coincidentally, the lines happen to be drawn so that children of top school administrators end up at West Dillon High.

In the latest episode, one of West Dillon's top football players is discovered to actually be residing in an area zoned for East Dillon, with his stated address revealed to be a mailbox on an empty lot. When confronted about this, he breaks down and admits to the deception, pleading to remain at West Dillon and asks if there is anything he can do to stay at the school. He is informed that he only has one option to continue as a West Dillon student: have his parents move.

Anyone who thinks that these kinds of situations are simply products of television writers' fevered minds are kidding themselves. I recall during my high school days some grumbling about the relationship between district school lines and where top education officials happened to live. I've seen news programs where school officials actually go to residences to ensure that children indeed live at their stated addresses to avoid going to a less prestigious public school.

It's an insane system which caters to education bureaucrats and almost nobody else. If we had a system where the education dollars were tied to the students and the schools they chose, and then attempted to switch to the current system based on geography (which almost invariably reflects divisions based on income and demographics) people would justifiably scream bloody murder. Instead we perpetuate such a system because, well, that's the way it's always been done and we wouldn't want to upset the teacher's unions. Simply mind-boggling.

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