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.

Sorting the Students

An Indianapolis private school touted by DeVos is adding 400 more seats

PHOTO: Provided by the Oaks Academy

An Indianapolis private school that is dedicated to promoting racial and economic integration is planning to grow by 50 percent in the coming years.

The growth, which school officials say was made possible by larger-than-expected donations, will set the Oaks Academy up to potentially bring in even more in voucher funding from the state.

The Oaks is a private Christian school with three campuses in the city’s urban core. Leaders plan to expand the school to educate 1,224 students, up from its current enrollment of 815, according to a release.

The school consistently earns top marks from the state because of students’ test scores and, unusually, has a racially and economically diverse student body. Chalkbeat visited the Oaks in 2015 as part of a series that documented how widely segregated Indianapolis schools remain decades after students began being bused to township schools.

The Oaks, which was founded in 1998, was designed to draw middle-class families with options back to the city.

The school’s three campuses are set in low-income, heavily black, urban neighborhoods. But the aim of the school has always been to serve not only the children of those neighborhoods but also families that had migrated to the suburbs, said Andrew Hart, CEO of The Oaks schools.

“The origin of the idea of The Oaks was — ‘Let’s start a school that provides an education of such quality that families will pull their kids up from the finest, most elite private or suburban schools,’ ” said Hart, who started volunteering at the school in its early years. “But also let’s actively serve and reach out to neighborhood children.”

Because the Oaks enrolls a high number of low-income students, it is also one of the largest beneficiaries of Indiana’s voucher program, which gives state money to eligible low-income and middle-class families to pay tuition at private schools.

The school decided to expand after exceeding its fundraising goal of $4 million by $1.5 million, Hart said in a statement last week.

“Originally our plan was to grow to 870, but we were overwhelmed with the support of the community and interest from families,” Hart said. “We are now seeking an additional $2 million in donations to fund infrastructure, hire new teachers and make modest facility improvements to accommodate 1224 students total over the next several years.”

The Oaks has also won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who mentioned the school in March when asked whether school choice policies should be structured to promote integration.

“I clearly think that having diversity, racial and socioeconomic measure of diversity, is a real benefit in schools,” DeVos said. “I think about a school I visited in Indianapolis, The Oaks school. The mission is to really have a wide range of diversity school economically, racially. And it’s a successful school model.”

Follow the money

Rich PTA, poor PTA: New York City lawmaker wants to track school fundraising

New York City is home to some of the richest PTAs in the country, while other schools struggle to even recruit parent volunteers.

To better understand the disparities, City Councilman Mark Treyger on Monday will introduce legislation requiring the education department to track the membership and fundraising of schools’ parent organizations. The law would require an annual report to be posted to the education department’s website.

“We need to make sure all of our kids are receiving the same level of opportunity across the board,” Treyger said.

In the city and across the country, powerhouse parent organizations raise vast sums of money to boost the budgets of schools that tend to serve wealthier students — widening the gulf between them and schools with needier students.

For example, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report this year by the Center for American Progress. At a school where just 9 percent of students qualified as poor in 2013-14, the parent organization raised almost $1.6 million that year, according to the report.

In the very same district, P.S. 191’s PTA had about $11,000 in the bank as of January 2016, according to meeting minutes posted on online. About 78 percent of its students are poor.

Some districts have tried to reduce such disparities by requiring PTAs to share their wealth or restricting how the organizations can spend their money. But such limitations are not without controversy. In California, for example, parents have pushed for their own school district rather than pool their fundraising dollars.

The bill will be introduced at Monday’s City Council stated meeting.