Senator Warren’s Neighborhood

The New Yorker has excavated a 2003 plan from Senator Elizabeth Warren to “shock” the public school system through universal vouchers. Warren’s plan would strengthen school choice by letting public funding follow a student to any public school of his or her choice, uprooting the attachment between schools and neighborhoods.

Vox notes that this idea is not new or even ideological, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor raised a similar idea in a No Child Left Behind amendment last year. The idea that Warren and Cantor support would grant universal vouchers to every student for their cost of public education. These vouchers could then be used to attend any public school in their school district. While it may not be a partisan controversy, this idea nonetheless raises a thorny debate over the autonomy of school choice and the virtue of neighborhood schools.

The appeal of Warren’s plan is two-fold: it severs the relationship between residential patterns and schooling, and it expands school choice to working-class and low-income families. Our school system’s dependence on our housing choices has long had pernicious results. Most communities still have racially-identifiable housing patterns due to economic barriers, self-clustering, vestiges of discrimination, and other factors. This residential segregation gets reflected in our schools when we base school assignment entirely on neighborhood. Hence, residential segregation perpetuates school segregation.

Warren aims to upend this. She wants to democratize the public school system by undermining the ability of middle-class families to “purchase” a good public school. “Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,'” she writes, “but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district.”

The school choice movement is often debated in terms of government-provided vouchers or public charter schools, but this ignores the degree to which middle-class and wealthy families already enjoy school choice. These families are able to afford opting out of the public school system altogether by paying for private school tuition. They also have the mobility to pivot their housing choices around the best public schooling option for their children. School quality tends to be one of the most significant factors in a middle-class family’s decision about where to live. Debates over school choice plans like Warren’s, then, should be recast as a debate over whether to extend to low-income families an opportunity that relatively well-off families already enjoy.

But school choice comes at a cost. Those who resist this movement lament the loss of the traditional ideal of neighborhood schools as a focal point for civic community. They also fear that school choice will weaken our drive to fix all public schools and might produce private choices that lead to even more socioeconomically stratified schooling.

These fears have come to the fore in Washington, D.C.’s debate over whether to enact citywide school choice. Mayor Vincent Gray’s plan there would enter all students into a citywide lottery untethered to their neighborhoods to determine where they will go to school.

Families living in middle-class communities in D.C. fear that their children would no longer be walking distance from their schools, and that they would lose communal connections to their neighbors. One mother told the Washington Post that, “You get to know all your neighbors and all the kids who surround your house. The community thrives on that.”

Others fear crippling losses in property values and a middle-class exodus from the city. If the cost of attending a good middle-class school is baked into the value of a family’s home, then this value would be destroyed by a plan that disconnected school assignment from neighborhood. Well-off families might flee the city limits for suburbs offering greater local school autonomy, leaving only working-class and low-income families in the city to do the work of desegregation and school improvement.

Still others predict that expanded school choice will undermine the will to improve public schools as a whole. Because D.C. has created so many alternative choice-based “escape hatches” from traditional public schools, one parent told the Post, “you don’t have to invest. [. . .] Maybe they’ve got to close those hatches.”

But perhaps D.C. is unique. Since the vast majority of families already take advantage of choice options, only 25 percent of students go to their neighborhood schools as it is. Few other localities have so wholeheartedly committed to broad school choice.

School choice advocates push back against these arguments. Withholding school choice is dishonest and inequitable given the persistence of failing schools in low-income neighborhoods. “It’s unfair to low-income families, I think, to promise them that we can make a great neighborhood school,” choice proponent Andy Smarick told the Post.

Choice might also lead to greater community-wide solidarity in the public school system. If school assignment is based on a random lottery, parents would have a stake in the school system as a whole, rather than just their neighborhood fiefdom. “If a child from Northwest goes to Southeast, the parents will care about the overall school system, not just their own part of it,” one parent told the Post. “It would hold everyone accountable.”

Severing the reflection of inequitable housing tracts in inequitable schools is certainly a laudable goal. But it does come at a real cost. School choice proponents cannot simply dismiss the neighborhood school as a provincial artifact or a coded defense for resegregation. The neighborhood school comes with real civic value as one of the last remaining and important spaces where families can reliably gather as a community. The anxiety that families feel about losing this is real and valid.

Reconciling this anxiety with the need for equity – balancing the neighborhood school with school choice – often leaves communities tied in knots. Boston just abandoned a convoluted semi-citywide choice plan crafted under a desegregation order in favor of a convoluted semi-neighborhood plan. Employing a complicated algorithm, Boston’s plan tries to preserve both school choice and preference for a nearby school. But maybe convolution and indecipherable algorithms are what’s required to reconcile these dueling principles.

The dilemma we face is how to push from a present of persistent de facto community segregation to a future of social integration while limiting the upheaval in the interregnum. The neighborhood school is not the intrinsic problem. The core problem is housing segregation. Our hopes have been that diverse schools and equitable access to good schools would tear down prejudices and promote social harmony, producing integrated communities in the next generation. Maybe by pursuing school choice today, we can enjoy fair, equitable, and truly democratic neighborhood schools tomorrow.

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