Plotting School Choice

The Challenges of Crossing District Lines

Reports & Briefs | August 25, 2008
Related Issue(s): Charter Schools and Choice
Image of Report Cover for "Plotting School Choice"

Allowing students to transfer to schools across district lines is gaining more attention as a strategy for reformers looking to reduce economic and racial segregation in public education and give students in failing schools a better chance to achieve. A number of organizations, including the nonpartisan Century Foundation and the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights have endorsed the idea. Interdistrict choice, they argue, would allow students in low-performing schools—schools that often have high concentrations of low-income and minority students—to move to higher-performing schools with very different economic and racial profiles.

Many of these same organizations have pushed for including interdistrict choice in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law requires that students in low-performing schools be allowed to transfer voluntarily to higher-performing schools within their school system. But because there are so few higher-performing-school options for such students, only a tiny fraction of them have been able to take advantage of the intradistrict transfer opportunity.

But permitting students to move further, beyond school system boundaries, is unlikely to increase most students’ educational opportunities significantly. A new Education Sector analysis of school performance information suggests that only a limited number of students in a limited number of locations are likely to benefit from interdistrict choice—and even then only if carefully crafted policies succeed where many past programs have failed.

Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping technology of school performance information in California, Texas, and Florida, Education Sector has found that factors such as long distances to higher-achieving schools and limited capacity in such schools can sharply limit the ability of students to take advantage of interdistrict opportunities.

Studies of existing multidistrict choice programs have found that a lack of information for parents and inadequate transportation subsidies for disadvantaged families also limit the scope of many interdistrict choice programs. And there is little research evidence to support the premise that moving students to a higher-performing school alone will result in improved student achievement. In fact, many interdistrict choice programs have failed to produce the improved student performance and socioeconomic integration that interdistrict choice advocates envision. Some may have actually increased racial segregation.

Permitting students to seek out higher-performing schools in other school systems would enhance the educational opportunities of some students. But even under the best-designed interdistrict choice programs, the number of such students would be, in most localities, limited. The majority of students—80 percent to 90 percent—will remain in the same low-performing schools. Ultimately, policymakers will have to pursue additional solutions to the isolation of disadvantaged students and students of color in highly segregated underperforming schools.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.