NCLB, School Choice and Segregation
> 7/11/2007 11:38:28 AM

All parties agree, in principle, that the professed aims of the No Child Left Behind Act are commendable and worthy of our time and money: equal education opportunities for all American students brought about by greater accountability (and therefore improved quality) for the institutions housing them. But the level of political infighting over the Act reveals how little consensus exists regarding the specifics of its implementation. As our representatives consider the terms of its reauthorization, opposing ideologies argue their points in the face of new, often contradictory evidence.

One of the key ideas championed by No Child Left Behind advocates is that of school choice - the belief that all students would benefit from policies granting their parents the right to remove them from schools that consistently fail to meet NCLB standards and place them in more desirable locations (as long as the resulting commute is reasonable). This development, they argue, will all but eliminate the segregation/integration debate by creating more diverse schools and greater opportunity for children of all ethnic and socioeconomic subsets to attend high-quality schools. But repeated research both in the United States and abroad indicates that the school choice option actually leads, over time, to more heavily segregated schools, where poorly performing students, many of them minorities, group together in substandard institutions. On the positive side, the NCLB school choice option is conditional: all students in a school labeled "failing" must be informed of their resulting choice and offered transportation to an alternate school within the district. These issues may dilute the divisive results of unconditional choice policy, but differences will most likely be minimal.

While private schools will obviously attract more well-to-do students, and "Private schools in particular have a strong negative impact in the percentages of white students in public schools," this is not a public vs. private school issue. The private school attendance trend is unsurprising, but one would assume that public school choice would not have a similar result, given that economic status is not a factor in public school attendance. In fact, class makeup patterns in instances of public school choice are very similar. The question of why such trends persist (is it because of disparities regarding race or economics?) is all but unanswerable by the data, largely because, in our country, the two variables overlap more often than not. The fact demonstrated by these studies is that wealthier white children are leaving the schools at much higher rates than other demographics and that these students are more likely to leave schools with higher ratios of poor minority students. The conclusion is relatively predictable. Now what do we do about it? While restricting one's right to school choice is not an entirely appealing option, greater opportunity for choice will also, according to this research, result in a higher concentration of similar students in respective schools - and, of course, those with more wealthy white students will probably register higher test scores.

Human nature, irrespective of concerns over alleged racism or classism, indicates a preference to align oneself with groups of similar individuals. But if school choice ends up grouping poor, non-white students together in our lowest-performing schools, we will most certainly not move toward the equal opportunity ideals promised by NCLB. In a perfect world, race and class would play no part in where children attend schools, and all would have an equal opportunity to attend either public or private schools of their own choice in the interest of receiving the best possible academic experience under given circumstances. But that world does not exist, and current research indicates that, regarding the issues of integration vs. school choice, we can select only one.

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