Ezra has encouraged me to jump in to what has become an energetic debate on vouchers for poor urban public schools, so here I go. Quick run-down: Megan McCardle seethes with rage over rich liberals who essentially practice "school choice" by picking up and moving to expensive suburbs, but who don’t support vouchers so poor parents can also get their kids out of bad schools. Ezra responds that vouchers aren’t the answer, because they won’t do away with concentrated poverty, which he considers the root of educational inequality. Kevin Carey swings in to say they’re both wrong: Schools that educate poor kids can be great schools in spite of concentrated poverty, and school choice is okay when choice is confined to the public system. Carey also takes a jab at The American Prospect for prioritizing longterm poverty fixes and downplaying the importance of education reform. To this, I’d only respond that there is a variety of opinions on education at TAP, and that I, for one, have argued again and again for serious attention to be paid to our schools as engines of equality, and will continue to do so.
But back to the issue at hand. Kevin is right that private vouchers aren’t a systemic fix for urban education. As he writes, "Voucherizing a whole city like DC wouldn’t work. There aren’t enough good private schools to teach all those students in the short run, and–more importantly–there wouldn’t be enough in the long run." Nor is busing city kids en masse to the suburbs a great solution, since that would be unworkable politically and logistically. Poor kids certainly do deserve top-flight schools within their own communities. And although it’s not necessary for those school buildings to be race and class integrated for children to receive a good education within them, it would be preferable if they were. Integrated schools do a better job of readying children for the workforce, tend to have more resources at their disposal in terms of money and parental investment, and perhaps most importantly, teach kids tolerance and comfort around people different from themselves.
What I would like to see is public school choice that regionalizes education in such a way as to encourage kids from more affluent families to attend high quality public magnet and public charter schools in nearby poorer neighborhoods or cities. This provides a good, close-to-home education for poor kids and integrates schools without having to wait for concentrated poverty and wealth to be wiped off the map. It also encourages average or under-performing urban schools to catch up with better specimens within their system, and provides them with models for success. Alongside suburban transfers into the city could be a program of voluntary urban transfers to the suburbs, with extra funding for the schools that take on the city kids. John Edwards has proposed basically this plan.
In a city like D.C., with many wealthy, close-in suburbs, this could be a workable model. In New York City, whose geography is much more complicated, public school choice has successfully brought many hundreds of middle and upper middle class families into the system who in not-so-distant times would have almost certainly moved to the suburbs or rented out their basements for private school tuition. We shouldn’t be afraid of educational choices, but we should ensure that they bolster the public system and are equally available to everyone. That’s difficult to do, since the most stable families are the first to figure out how to game the system and get their kids into the best public magnets or charters. Lotteries are a good work-around. To sum up, there’s so much that can be done to make public schools better without resorting to sending kids to private schools. So let’s not give up.