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Strange Bedfellows? Tedesco and the Professor

We now have the first inkling of what the new student assignment plan [1]is going to look like in the Wake County school district. The buzz phrase is ‘smart choice’. There looks like there will be five zones and 18 assignment areas. In general, students living close to a school will receive high priority if they prefer to go there. There will be the creation of a so-called “promise zone’ covering east Raleigh that will get extra resources. It all sounds pretty similar to Charlotte’s assignment system in many respects. The difference is, John Tedesco insists, that parental school choice will be within the context of ‘equity opportunities’ and ‘achievement’ considerations. What are these exactly? We await more information.

The question is how much will these other factors, the ‘equity opportunities’ and ‘achievement’, play in the design of the new assignment choice system? Or will neighborhood, as we all suspect, be the determining factor and the one that matters when all the students are finally seated?

It appears that the assignment mechanism will be designed with at least some consultation with Duke University Economics Associate Professor Atila Abdulkadiroglu [2]who has had a hand in several student assignment re-designs around the country, including Boston, New York and recently, San Francisco.

This has the potential to be an odd couple. Abdulkadiroglu has said constantly and consistently that when school choice is not constrained by other factors it is a recipe for segregation. For instance, in an April 7 comment on one of his own blog posts, [3]he writes:

I think school integration is extremely important…I know that “choice” is a dirty word. It has the potential to re-segregate schools.

Confused? There’s more. Abdulkadiroglu appeared last Friday at Tedesco’s presentation of the contours of the new plan. His remarks at that meeting are summarized on his school choice [4]blog. In the post he refers to a study of the effects of Charlotte’s assignment policy since 2002 that demonstrates the negative consequences of neighborhood-driven school choice policies. His conclusion is that:

It has to be noted at the outset though that choice may yield segregated schools in socioeconomically segregated districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg provides a good approximation to Wake. A recent study shows that parents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg tend to prefer schools with higher concentration of their own race. This partly explains why almost half of the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg were racially segregated after the introduction of the new choice plan in 2002-03.

The conclusion of the recent study to which Abdulkadiroglu refers is that “public school choice may widen rather than narrow the gap in achievement.” Conducted by Professors Hastings (Yale, Department of Economics), Kane (Harvard, Graduate School of Education) and Staiger (Dartmouth, Department of Economics) the study [5]examined the choice assignment system in Charlotte after 2002 and makes the very fundamental point that in preferring a school that is close to home over one that has a good achievement record, minority and low-income parents face far larger trade-offs than middle-class white parents. That is, white middle class parents don’t lose much in terms of education quality (if at all) when they send their children to the nearest school, whereas black parents usually do.

Since low-income families face transportation challenges that other families do not, choosing a better school further away presents difficulties that make that choice less attractive. It is clear that school choice may be great for middle-class families, but somewhat of a broken promise for low-income ones.

The tension between school choice and education equity that the Hastings and co paper highlights is evident in Professor Abdulkadiroglu’s blogs and papers. While he advocates for a school choice assignment system that can’t be gamed and is fair in that it is rule-bounded (a design too arcane to go into here, but for the curious wonk check out a 2004 paper here [6]), he is consistent in his reminders that choice and segregation are bedfellows unless low-income students get some degree of choice priority. Whether that would sufficiently solve the problem in view of the evidence provided by Hastings and Co. is still to be resolved.

The intriguing question is this: Since Professor Abdulkadiroglu is anti-segregation, will he assist the Wake school board majority when the indications are that neighborhood schools are their preferred outcome?