drawing the line

In Ohio, suburban school districts close themselves off from city students, study finds

PHOTO: The Fordham Institute
Map of Ohio districts that participate in open enrollment program

Leading up to Betsy DeVos’s confirmation vote as earlier this year, CNN’s investigative team unearthed some provocative comments she had made in 2015.

“Many Republicans in the suburbs likes the idea of education choice as a concept, right up until it means that poor kids from the inner cities might invade their schools,” DeVos said in comments she described as “politically incorrect” at SXSWedu. “That’s when you’ll hear the sentiment, ‘Well, it’s not really a great idea to have poor minority kids come to our good suburban schools,’ though they’ll never actually say those words aloud.”

This sentiment wasn’t surprising to many in the education world, and now a new study suggests that the education secretary was right that suburban schools want to keep students from the city out, at least in Ohio. (The analysis was funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The report, released by the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, examines Ohio’s open enrollment system, which allows students to attend schools from outside their own district if the receiving district opts into the program. Most in the state did — perhaps because new students meant additional money — but some chose not to, as shown in the map above.

Notice a pattern? The districts that declined outside enrollment were predominantly ones surrounding major cities, like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, all of which serve a large number of low-income students and students of color.

Suburbs might close their doors to city students simply because their schools are at capacity and accepting more students would place a strain on the system. But the study authors say that’s not the case: enrollment in the districts that don’t participate in the program actually declined on average.

On average, districts that refused open enrollment had higher achievement levels and lower poverty rates. While the largest eight cities in the state were composed of more than 70 percent students of color, the surrounding districts that declined transfers had fewer than 30 percent non-white students. This suggests that the suburbs’ decision not to take students from other districts may perpetuate school segregation.

“Whatever the reasons underlying district participation decisions, the decision of many suburban districts surrounding the [eight largest cities] to opt out of Ohio’s interdistrict-choice program removes some of the highest-quality educational options in the state from potential open enrollers,” write study authors Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma and Stéphane Lavertu of Ohio State University.

Perhaps in part because of the limited options for students in large cities, the students who do cross district lines were disproportionately white and economically advantaged.

The researchers also found some evidence that students, particularly black students, who attended school in other districts through open enrollment saw gains in achievement compared to similar students who chose not to participate. But these findings were inconclusive and the improvements were not necessarily caused by their choice of schools.

Students from high-poverty urban districts appeared to see the largest achievement gains from participating in open enrollment — precisely the students who often don’t have such an option.

“These findings create something of a paradox: those who are most likely to benefit from interdistrict choice are least likely to have access to the program,” the study concludes.

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on Change.org calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”