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'Controlled choice': Does mixing kids based on family income improve education?

Published: Thursday, April 10 2014 12:20 p.m. MDT

Two students walk in a high school hallway in this Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, photo. A prominent group of educators is pushing a concept known as "controlled choice," which allows parents to choose schools by ranking their preferences, especially in urban areas. The district then assigns the kids to schools based on those preferences to achieve a balance of poor and better-off students in each school.

Danny Johnston, Associated Press

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A prominent group of educators is pushing a radical reform that could change schooling in urban centers.

The model was first used in the Boston suburb of Cambridge in 1981, and since then it has been used successfully from Florida and North Carolina to Illinois and California.

The concept, called "controlled choice," allows parents to choose schools by ranking their preferences, but kids are then assigned by the district to achieve a balance of poor and better-off students in each school.

“We have diversity everywhere, except in schools,” says Michael Alves, an educational consultant who is the godfather of the approach, working on it since 1979. “Where you live, you live. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to school strictly based on where you live.”

Students from low-income families benefit from going to schools with more affluent students, says Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., policy think tank that supports the proposal. Schools with higher-income kids tend to attract better teachers, Kahlenberg says. They also have more conscientious parents and peers with higher aspirations, both of which change the social dynamics and aspirations of kids from less privileged backgrounds.

Controlled choice rests on two seemingly incompatible notions. First, supporters argue, diverse schools are beneficial to all involved. Second, when parents are given power to choose their own schools, parents are happier and schools perform better.

Controlled choice balances parental choice and socioeconomic integration by allowing parents to rank their school choices within a district. The school then uses a formula to balance low-income children through the schools while accommodating parents to the greatest extent possible.

The largest city currently employing controlled choice citywide is San Francisco. Now controlled-choice advocates hope to put Washington, D.C., in that column. Washington has long had one of the nation’s poorest and worst-performing school districts and has been the subject of recurring waves of controversial reforms.

A recent increase of white residents in the city, from 30 percent to 38 percent over the past decade, has coincided with a jump of over 23 percent of median income over the past 12 years, while the national average fell nearly 7 percent. This demographic shift creates an opening for integration before neighborhoods begin to resegregate, Kahlenberg and two colleagues argued in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

But time is of the essence, they argue. The city is currently redrawing its boundaries, and if the standard neighborhood schools remain in place, the newly gentrified schools may soon lose a historic shot at diversity. The answer, they say, is controlled choice.

But not everyone thinks this is a great idea. “This is not a good answer for anyplace,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational policy think tank. Finn calls it “a social engineering scheme that superimposes someone else’s notion of what mixture would be good.”

An atypical case

Perhaps the best working example of controlled choice is in Cambridge, Mass., where parents of entering kindergartners rank their choices from among 12 elementary schools citywide. The school district then assigns kids by balancing parental preference against a rule that every school have a similar ratio of “free or reduced lunch” students.

They’ve been doing it in Cambridge since 1981. Most years, between 85 and 90 percent of parents get one of their first three choices, says James Maloney, and parental satisfaction is high.

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