It’s not public if you can’t go

well-to-do Baton Rouge neighborhood wants to secede from the city school district, reports Margaret Newkirk on Bloomberg News. “Local control” would mean more money per student and fewer problem kids.

It’s a myth that public schools are public, writes Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias. It’s not public if you can’t go.

The way the word is used a school is “public” if it is owned by a government entity and thus part of the public sector. But a public school is by no means a school that’s open to the public in the sense that anyone can go there. Here in the District of Columbia anyone who wants to wander into a public park is free to do so (that’s what makes it public) but to send your kid to a good “public” elementary school in Ward 3 you have to live there. And thanks to exclusionary zoning, in practice if you want to live in Ward 3 you have to be rich.

. . . if you proposed randomly assigning students to schools to produce integrated instructional environments, you’d have an epic battle on your hands.

In D.C. at least, charter schools—unlike “public” schools—have to admit (or not admit) students on an equal basis regardless of which neighborhood they live in.

That points to a weird ideological divide, writes Jonathan Chait in New York.

Neighborhood schools are open to children who live close by and restricted to everybody else. Charter schools are open to all children in the city, and their slots are allocated by lottery.

. . . . Moderate liberals and conservatives want to expand and empower the public schools that admit everybody by random lottery. The lefties want to preserve geographic-based restrictions.

A major reason for this is obviously that charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones.

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch, who’s become an opponent of charter schools, “doesn’t favor all public schools — she likes the ones that exclude kids from outside neighborhood boundaries, because they’re also the ones where it’s hardest to fire teachers,” writes Chait. “She opposes the ones that can’t exclude children whose parents lack the wealth to buy property in-boundary.”

About Joanne


  1. But its often claimed that Charter Schools frequently use a cumbersome application process to filter out undesirable students and also use expulsion for this purpose. The blogger EdRealist attributes much of the success of Charter Schools to their ability to select the right kind of students. Do other people here agree with that claim, I wonder?

    • I agree, but Joanne Jacobs, Matthew Yglesias, and Jonathan Chait would rather not objectively analyze the various exclusionary tactics of charters. This treatment is deceptive, in that it implies that charters don’t also have mechanisms for excluding. They also won’t touch on the curious fact the ELL and SpEd students are underrepresented in charters.

      I don’t condone what wealthy public schools do to keep out kids they don’t want. But I am not willing to pretend charters don’t do similar gymnastics in enrolling and then tar and feather all public schools based on what a few do.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Just about all public schools are run on the basis of, “If you don’t live here, you can’t go here.” And every major city has neighborhoods and suburbs where “parents care about education” and the schools are considerably better than in neighborhoods where parents don’t care as much–and show that by not being willing to pay higher housing prices for better schools.

        Wealthy schools don’t have to do anything to “keep out kids they don’t want.” It’s inherent in the geographic model. And as long as you support that, you are condoning vastly different schools,

        But what would happen if all students in a metropolitan area were assigned randomly, so that every school had a population representative of the area? Since how good a school is depends so much on the students who go to it, I suspect the result would be a fairly uniform mediocrity, especially if full inclusion/no tracking were enforced.

        (I agree that in practice, most successful charters also de facto exclude, partially by saying, “If you’re not willing to do the extra work, you probably won’t be happy here.”)

        • There would be a mass exodus from that regular public school system and, consequently, a huge drop-off in public support for same – particularly among those whose taxes have been supporting same. If well-socialized and well-prepared kids are forced to sit in classes and schools with large numbers of kids who are neither, their families will move or they’ll send kids to privates – or vote out the politicians creating/supporting such practices:I understand that it’s happening in the Charlotte area.

        • Actually, in Colorado you can “permit” your kids into any school in the state as long as the school has room and you’re willing to make the drive. The funding follows the students. I know many parents in my city who sacrifice to drive their kids the extra distance to get them to schools that are a good fit. Now that I’ve experienced this kind of freedom, I would have a hard time moving to a place that didn’t allow it; it seems so elitist to trap kids in the neighborhood schools just because their parents can’t afford higher-priced housing.

          • PhillipMarlowe says:

            Get a job that pays more or work longer hours?

          • PhillipMarlowe says:

            Also, the people living in the higher priced housing pay more in taxes, 50% of which usually go to schools.

          • Yes, their houses are nicer/newer/BIGGER, so they pay higher taxes. That’s to be expected. Thanks to Colorado’s choice law, you don’t have to be rich in order to have the opportunity to send your children to a school that will be a good fit for them. Isn’t giving everyone the opportunity of obtaining a good education the point of public education? If we wanted a setup where only rich kids could get a good education, there’d be no point in having anything other than private schools.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            CT, ask any real estate person and they will tell you that a house or apartment in a “good” school district will sell or rent for significantly more than the same house or apartment in a “bad” school district.

          • I know that is true in many states, and it’s self-perpetuating as long as the laws trap kids in their neighborhood schools. In Colorado it is much less true specifically because of our mobility when it comes to public schools. If the main justification for property taxes for school districts is to provide direct benefit for own’s one children, we owe a lot of refunds to retired and childless folk. If the main justification is to promote a well-educated populace, then there needs to be more flexibility to allow kids to attend schools outside of their zoned ones as may be desired and feasible.

      • Let’s also acknowledge that there is a big advantage, in terms of funding, for public schools to identify more kids with a spec ed diagnosis and NO advantage for charters to do so. I’ve always felt that a significant number of spec ed kids (those with SLDs, ADHD etc) are simply “not properly taught” or a consequence of particular instructional/classroom practices.

        • Wrong. Charter schools get the same modest compensation bump for SPED kids that public schools do. If a school decides to play it that way, students with a mild disability can be a financial plus. A student with a severe disability is almost always a huge money loser. Also, if a parent decides to “lawyer up”, even a student with a mild disability can cost the school big bucks. For example, a parent may demand that a child with ADHD be given a full time personal aide.

    • Claims are made about all sorts of things although evidence is a rarer commodity. Any evidence in support of the contention that charters use a “cumbersome application process to filter out undesirables”?

      The claim about charters having high rates of expulsion is also, similarly, unsupported although that claim is interesting in light of a common defense of district schools that many of their problems result from disruptive students.

      So what’s the right policy? Booting out kids that have no interest in learning or retaining them without any regard to their disruptive behavior?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I suspect the right policy is to take “kids that have no interest in learning” (and who thus get very little out of school) and put them in situations that they will get something out of. That might well be something outside of school that doesn’t involve much academic learning. It might also involve things where the young person is doing something useful and getting paid for it.

        • There must be a more compelling reason to keep those disruptive kids in the classrooms because that’s what’s widely done.

          Perhaps a closer examination of why ignoring those disruptive kids, thus saddling teachers and kids with the problem, is warranted?

  2. It’s disingenuous to say that charters are open to all while claiming that district schools are not. Both are more open to students who live nearby, by virtue of the difficulties inherent in attending a school far from home. Families will choose to try a school that is not their neighborhood school whether it be a public magnet or a charter (and for similar reasons), but statistically speaking, even with open enrollment for all publics and charters, they would end up with fewer students from more distant neighborhoods.

    And let me add, there are other public amenities that require you to use the facility nearest to you — most notably, police and fire protection. And let’s not forget that all of these geographical limitations are most obvious in the case of what happens if you move 1/2 block away to a different town.

  3. PhillipMarlowe says:

    Andy posted this yesterday:
    In School Administrator Richard Rothstein takes a look at housing segregation and schools making two important points. First, some residential segregation is a result of deliberate public policy choices – for instance the siting of housing projects. And, second, we don’t do a very good job talking about or teaching this history. Yet while the issues he raises are important there are a few problems that complicate a simple narrative and really make any remedies challenging.

  4. I am in a diverse district in a diverse part of the US. Some administrator in the school district figured out that diversity
    Means less funding for the district. If all of the poor were in the same zoned school, there would be title 1 funding. Since thay arent, there isnt enough funding to remediate all of their learning issues. Therefore the relatively wealthy have ben encouraged to depart…sports cancelled, college prep academic electives cut, etc.
    I am for school choice. Let those who want to learn have the opportunity. They can grow up to figure out how to prevent the disabilities that are crippling their current classmates, rather than be the unpaid personal aides.

  5. Matt Yglesias clearly doesn’t have children in the D.C. school system, because he makes one crucial factual error when he says: “but to send your kid to a good ‘public’ elementary school in Ward 3 you have to live there.”

    This isn’t true. Our kids attend an elementary school in a small, walkable Ward 3 neighborhood in D.C., but there’s still a sizeable car line. Why? Because of the “My School DC Common Lottery,” which gives kids from other neighborhoods to attend this way-above-average school.

    I would never argue that this means our local school system is fair or provides equal opportunity to everyone, but there are many exceptions to his claim that you need to live in the “rich” neighborhood to attend the rich-neighborhood schools. Shouldn’t he know this before writing about the subject?