Should suburban fears drive school choice policy?

Rick Hess made some fair points when he argued yesterday that I was wrong to “lecture” Louisiana’s Zachary Community School District for not participating in Governor Bobby Jindal’s school choice plan. It’s certainly true that suburban parents and taxpayers have legitimate concerns when they worry about opening the floodgates to disadvantaged students coming into their schools. Even in rich suburbs, resources aren’t unlimited, and working with extreme academic diversity is no easy task.

It just looks callous to reverse an effort that would have placed no financial burden on the district.

What Hess probably doesn’t know is that the situation in Zachary is more complex. There the superintendent and school board embraced a plan to take in just thirty low-income and low-achieving students from other districts under the state’s new voucher program before the school community told them to back down. A flood of new students this was not.

Zachary schools are Louisiana’s best. And Republican Governor Bobby Jindal had schools like that in mind when he pushed for legislation awarding more public and private options to low-income kids in schools rated C, D, or F. In late April, Zachary schools Superintendent Warren Drake said his district could “make a difference” for these kids and devised a plan to accept fifteen kindergarteners and fifteen first-graders using vouchers. That would have come to just 4 percent of the district’s current kindergarten and first-grade enrollment of 769.

Drake scrapped that plan less than two weeks later, citing a need to focus on Zachary students first as the state placed higher expectations on academic performance. What changed? Parents and others in the community demanded that school leaders renege on their pledge. And in a statement that followed, Drake acknowledged “the sacrifices many of our own families make to provide their students with a first-rate education.”

Suburbanites aren’t going to willingly erode the quality of their schools and the value of their homes.

This reluctance is not unusual among parents and property owners who fear that open enrollment policies would weaken schools and neighborhoods that demand their hard work and sacrifice. And I concede I should have more fairly acknowledged this concern. But it just looks callous to reverse an effort that would have placed no financial burden on the district—full public funding would have accompanied each voucher student—and would have increased its total enrollment of 5,235 by less than 1 percent.

Beyond Zachary, the larger question is worth asking: Do we believe in “zip code education” or not? Do the public schools belong to everybody, or just to the parents and taxpayers in their catchment zones?

Hess clearly sees this as an issue of property rights—and pragmatic politics. Suburbanites aren’t going to willingly erode the quality of their schools and the value of their homes. The question for the school choice movement is whether we should take such realities as a given. What do you think?

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