School Choice Alone Won’t Solve Educational Inequities Tied to Zip Code

Betsy DeVos advocates for school choice, at least in part, because she sees it as a strategy to address inequities in the public education system and expand access to quality schools for low-income students. But in contrast to many education reformers who speak explicitly about the role race plays in issues of educational inequity, DeVos talks in terms of geography. Her common catchphrase is that “every child, no matter their zip code, deserves access to a quality education.”

This raises two important questions: First, is talking about geography a reasonable proxy for educational inequiScreen Shot 2017-01-23 at 5.16.25 PMties that affect poor and minority students? And if so, are choice programs that enable students to attend schools outside their zip codes enough to disrupt the racial and income-based inequities that are tied to geography?

Here’s what we know about the relationship between income, race, and geography:

  • Growing up in a poor neighborhood is correlated with a host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of depression and obesity, poor academic outcomes, and lower future earnings.
  • Poor black people are five times as likely and poor Hispanics are three times as likely to live in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty compared to poor whites.
  • Children who attend high-poverty schools score lower on standardized tests than children attending more affluent schools.
  • Black and Hispanic children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools.
  • When low-income students are able to attend wealthier schools (where fewer than 20 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program), the achievement gap closes between those students and their peers.

As these data demonstrate, neighborhoods, zip codes, census tracts, and other geographic boundaries are a reasonable proxy for much of the racial and income inequity that policymakers and politicians are seeking to upend.

But does that mean that allowing students to access educational options outside their neighborhoods will ensure equitable access to quality education for low-income and minority students?

No. The policies, practices, and attitudes that shape place-based inequities have a long and deep history in our country and will require significant effort to overturn. “School choice” is too simplistic and cannot be a silver bullet for the racial and income inequities tied to geography.

Most critically, a full choice-based system requires there to be enough seats in quality schools to serve all students living in the city. Unless all of a city’s school options are high quality and have available seats, some students will be assigned to low-performing schools. It may be a school outside of that child’s zip code, thus solving the superficial problem of children being assigned to their low-performing neighborhood school, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem of school quality.

Second, school choice ignores many of the factors, like housing policy, that have created zip codes of deep and concentrated poverty in which many minority children live. Rather than address the chronic place-based challenges that families in poor neighborhoods face, choice assumes that families will opt to send their children to another neighborhood to attend school.

Finally, school choice policies assume that parents will place a school’s academic performance above all other considerations when choosing a school. And while we know that school performance is a major consideration, factors like proximity to home, the availability of before- or after-school care, and extracurricular offerings are equally important for many parents. Requiring a family to leave their neighborhood in order to access a quality school may create financial or logistical challenges that a family, especially a poor family, is unable to bear.

School choice alone cannot solve the racial and income inequities tied to geography. If DeVos and other education leaders and policymakers truly want a future where a child’s zip code does not determine his or her educational fate, they must embrace a much more holistic approach to improvement; one that includes strong accountability for persistently low-performing schools, policies that encourage high-performing schools to open and expand, a network of nonprofit and civil-society entities that support schools, and strategies that address factors like housing policy that are deeply entwined with place-based educational inequities. They will also have to explicitly acknowledge that race and income, as well as geography, play a role in educational inequality. Until Betsy DeVos is able to acknowledge that fact, she is missing a key insight that is crucial to improving education equity for all our nation’s students.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.