On Political Books

June/July/August 2014 Making School Choice Work

Two D.C. schools, a traditional public and a nonunionized charter, are experimenting with socioeconomic integration.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Chaltain does not suggest that socio-economic integration is easy. He acknowledges that it takes a skilled teacher to educate students who come to schools with differing levels of academic preparation. But a mix of students is far less overwhelming than a classroom of highly needy students, and the burnout level of teachers is much lower than in high-poverty schools.

That is what is so exciting about charter schools like Mundo Verde (and magnet schools throughout the country): by virtue of location and an enticing academic program, they have been able to attract a broad cross-section of students. The bilingual program, in particular, vividly illustrates how diversity helps everyone. Spanish-speaking students help English speakers learn Spanish and vice versa. Students from different backgrounds become a resource for one another.

But Chaltain notes that choice, by itself, will not promote equity, citing Michael Sandel’s research on “the moral limits of markets.” Integration often slips away, Chaltain says, and Mundo Verde’s founder worried that “there was no way to guarantee that new families would maintain a healthy mix between English and Spanish speakers.” Weighted lotteries to promote integration could help, but in D.C. that was not permitted.

Some people worry that public school choice can destroy a sense of community as neighborhood children head off to different schools and make different sets of friends. But at their best, if choice programs are designed to support integration, they can create new school communities that transcend the race and class divisions that define so many of our neighborhoods. Chaltain suggests that, in fact, this is a big part of what public schools in America are designed to do—move us beyond segregation to a place where students can celebrate diversity and learn what they have in common as Americans.

This democratic message of integrated schools—that we are all social equals—can be reinforced if school administrators treat their teachers well, as professionals who can contribute to the strength of a school, rather than as factory workers who must be closely supervised. As Chaltain notes, giving teachers and parents and students a say in school affairs can “model democratic principles, practices and policies”—preparing students to be self-governing citizens, which is, after all, the primary rationale for public education in the first place.

Richard D. Kahlenberg , a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."


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