Choice & Consequences: The New Two-Class System

July 17, 2015

The prescription, judged by today’s standards, couldn’t be more farfetched.

The old Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) brought a simmering dispute to a head in 1973 by demanding Tucson Unified School District reverse racial imbalances in 28 schools. Two ensuing lawsuits led to court oversight of the district that continues to this day.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry over HEW’s original decree:  “No school within the district may have an enrollment of over 50 percent minority students.”

Fast forward to today.  Only seven schools, two of them by barely a whisker, meet HEW’s initial formula of no more than 50 percent minority. “Minorities” have become the majority in 77 Tucson Unified schools.  Even more striking, if that is possible, 34 of those schools are more than 90 percent “minority.”

Demographics are surely changing but Tucson Unified has managed to get far ahead of the curve.  The city of Tucson, much of which is covered by the district, went from 46 to 53 percent “minority” in the period from 2000 to 2013.  Tucson Unified, meanwhile, went from 59 to 79 percent.

The Legislature has opened the floodgates allowing students to flow from one education choice to another, but it is saying – or doing – little about the consequences.

The difference is school choice, the Arizona education policy which in full review should be known as “choice and consequences.” The Legislature has opened the floodgates allowing students to flow from one education choice to another, but unfortunately it is saying – or doing – little about the consequences.

Two-thirds of school districts in the state lost just shy of 100,000 white students from 2000 to 2011, Bringing Up Arizona has found. And that figure pertains only at the district level. It doesn’t include students transferring between schools within a district, which might be an even bigger phenomenon. Choice, in its various permutations, is causing neighborhood schools to become all the browner all the faster.

Students – not just whites but of all skin colors – are landing in a variety of destinations, including charter and Christian schools.  Even more popular, the figures show, are the school districts serving boom areas on the outskirts of Phoenix and Tucson.  The movement puts opposing stresses on the gainers and the losers.

The districts dealing with an influx of students must do so without construction money the state once provided. This led Vail Unified School District, located on the southeastern edge of Tucson, to close its five high schools last fall to any more non-residents.

On the other side of the fence, the districts losing students have their own financial quandary.

To their great detriment, a lot of money is walking out the door. TUSD would be taking in almost $30 million more per year, in state aid alone, if its enrollment was still at 2000 levels.

But money is not the worst of it for the departure districts. They face a more profound problem.

. . . they are left to educate those who are left behind, the students whose parents didn’t have the wherewithal to find an alternative, who were willing to settle.

Over time they are left to educate those who are left behind, the students whose parents didn’t have the wherewithal to find an alternative, who were willing to settle. At least judging by the experience of Mesa Public Schools, still the state’s largest district with 67,000 students, they tend to be lower-income. And lower-income correlates to lower school performance.

It’s as if we have a two-tier education system. Two-tier or, if you will, a two-class education system:

CLASS ONE

consists of those students who escape. If their families don’t already reside in an enviable education situation, they aggressively seek one out. Every piece of state legislation that is passed or contemplated enhances their ability to go school shopping.

CLASS TWO

consists of those students who, for whatever reason, are stuck in place. True, the opportunity to move elsewhere is equal. Their access to it, for a variety of reasons ranging perhaps from lack of mobility to lack of motivation, is not. The promulgators of the new order cleverly use the inaction of the leave-behinds to discredit and ultimately to underserve them. Every legislative action they take further destabilizes the old system in which these students are stuck.

The old mechanism of racial/ethnic separation revolved around which students were put into which school buildings.  School districts controlled that.

The new mechanism revolves around which students are leaving which school buildings.  School districts don’t control that, except to strive to satisfy as many interests and levels of ability as possible.

The latter is an impossible task if all must be treated alike.  In today’s competitive environment, the remedies of yesteryear don’t work so well.

When the final chapter is written on the “desegregation” of Tucson Unified, the district will be far worse off . . .

When the final chapter is written on the “desegregation” of Tucson Unified, the racial balance of the district will be far worse off than the conditions the legal system has been trying all these years to rectify. Yet when the district had the temerity to take minor action in an attempt to try to hold onto the whites in two of those seven schools, the court slapped it down.

That’s old think in a new age. The court can’t help itself from demanding each room be equally appointed even as all those who would balance out those rooms are slipping out the front door.  School choice allows students to re-arrange themselves within, across and entirely outside districts in ways that HEW or the court would never have allowed a district to do.  On that, the law is whiffing.

Do the benefits of choice outweigh the consequences? Those who benefit from the new system say yes. They are thrilled to leave the building. In response, someone needs to start thinking more broadly about the interests of those who are left behind.

Related stories:

School Choices Expedite White Exodus

Mesa School Choices Vary Depending on Where One Lives