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 inequities 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? Continue reading