Kevin Carey has offered up a thoughtful response to my MLK Day post on school segregation, calling integration-focused school reform impractical. Although integration doesn't work in every region–some are just too residentially segregated for it to be possible–there are wide swaths of the country where far more partnerships could exist between high-poverty school districts and geographically contiguous low-poverty ones. Think about the regions surrounding the mid-size northeastern cities, such as Providence, Albany, Hartford, New Haven, Newark, and so on. There is also a lot of racial and socioeconomic diversity within the suburban counties outside major cities, such as Westchester and Nassau counties in New York.
But Kevin also wonders whether inter-district transfer programs in such regions are too politically thorny to scale up: "What if, for example, a large number of minority students enroll in a neighboring district where their parents have no electoral representation? On some level, political accountability, resources, and attendance have to align," he writes.
The fact is that where such programs exist, they are oversubscribed–parents don't seem to mind sending their kids out-of-district (sometimes just a 5 minute drive away) into a town where they do not enjoy political representation when the result is a better education. (See: Kelley Williams-Bolar.) For more information on how this works when it's not illegal, check out this powerpoint by Teachers College researcher Amy Stuart Wells, or read The Children in Room E4, Susan Eaton's absolute call-to-arms book on educational inequality in Connecticut.
There is also the option of states or counties overseeing experimental schools that draw from zones larger than the typical suburban district. This strategy avoids problems of political representation because the state or county, not the small municipality, runs the school. There's a great example of this in Rensselaer, New York, outside of Albany, where the New York State legislature created an innovative career and technical education high school, Tech Valley High, that draws students from across two counties and has quite a diverse student body. (I'll be writing more about this particular school in an upcoming Nation magazine feature.)
With the proper state and federal funding incentives, these strategies are no more politically challenging, I think, than opening vast numbers of new charter schools and finding space for them within public buildings. If you've been around New York City recently, you know that stuff gets really damn nasty. So if we're willing to challenge existing public education structures and funding streams to support the charter sector, I think we should be willing to experiment just as broadly with reforms that challenge traditional district boundaries.