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The Nixon-Obama Compromise

In the wake of the Democrats' losses in the recent election, education policy is emerging as a potential issue on which President Obama can find common ground with Republicans. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was President Bush’s signature example of bipartisan compromise, and in his first two years of office President Obama has already embraced centrist to conservative ideas—such as merit pay for teachers and non-unionized charter schools—that will appeal to the new conservative majority in Congress. Among Democratic interest groups, Obama has singled out teachers’ unions as a power that he is willing to cross; one union official told me that teachers’ unions feel like Obama’s Sister Souljah.

The problem is that non-unionized charter schools, despite all the hoopla surrounding Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for ‘Superman’, usually perform about as well as regular public schools. Indeed, the most comprehensive study of charter schools, funded by charter-friendly foundations and conducted by Stanford University’s Margaret Raymond, found that only 17 percent of charter schools outperform comparable public schools. Thirty-seven percent performed worse, and 46 percent performed about the same.

Fortunately, there is another way, a better way, to find common ground with Republicans, which can actually produce sizeable gains in achievement if structured properly: proposals to expand public school choice. Under NCLB, students in failing high poverty schools have the right to transfer to better performing public schools within their districts. President Obama’s initial “Blueprint” for reform of NCLB, released in March, called for eliminating the right to transfer; Republicans want to retain the right because they believe choice will put market pressure on failing public schools to improve. James E. Ryan’s excellent book points out that, if structured properly, public school choice can also tackle the single biggest problem in American education: the separation of poor and middle-class children. Rather than dropping the right to transfer, Ryan notes, the Obama administration should expand and strengthen it.

Ryan is no wide-eyed radical. A former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, he is a professor at the University of Virginia Law School and a supporter of vouchers. In Five Miles Apart, he carefully surveys the evidence and concludes that steps must be taken to address the social and economic segregation of American public schools. A system of greater choice, rather than compulsory busing, is his prescribed solution, one made more politically feasible by changing demographics, and changing attitudes among young adults.

Ryan tells his story through the lens of two schools located within a ten-minute drive of one another: Tee-Jay High School, which is 82 percent black and mostly poor, and located in Richmond, Virginia; and its “mirror opposite,” suburban Freeman High School, which is 73 percent white and 75 percent middle-class. In the early 1970s, a federal district court judge ruled that Richmond schools, and those of the surrounding suburban districts, should be consolidated and desegregated, but in 1974, in a different case, Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court held that in most instances desegregation would end at the city line. As a result of that decision, Ryan writes, “the line that separates Tee-Jay and Freeman represents the most important boundary in public education: the boundary between city and suburban schools.”

The Supreme Court’s decision was anticipated in March 1972, in a nationally televised speech during which President Richard Nixon offered a compromise that has proven, according to Ryan, “remarkably durable, if not especially effective.” Under Nixon’s compromise, suburban schools would be spared integration, but efforts would be made to upgrade urban schools “so that the children who go there will have just as good a chance to get a quality education as do the children who go to school in the suburbs.”    

But the various solutions to improve high poverty schools—more money, charter schools, and federal accountability measures—have not worked. Some liberals, frustrated with integration, argued that “we should concentrate on desegregating the money,” as Derrick Bell put it. Yet as Ryan notes, “most city schools spend above the state average” without showing great results. Indeed, a recent Century Foundation study of public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland found that low-income students in low-poverty neighborhoods who attended low-poverty schools significantly outperformed similar students who attended higher-poverty schools, even though those schools spent considerably more on class size, professional development for teachers, and extended learning time.

Similarly, middle-class achievement does not decline with socio-economic integration. Among the resources more likely to be found in middle-class schools are higher percentages of peers who are academically engaged and have high expectations; actively involved parents who volunteer in the classroom; and strong teachers with high expectations. In theory, excellent teachers could be lured to high-poverty schools, but in practice this has proved difficult. The press loves to focus on examples of high-poverty schools that beat the odds, but genuine successes are rare.

Given that high-poverty schools hardly ever work, it is not surprising that charter schools, which have even higher concentrations of poverty than regular public schools, rarely produce achievement gains. The exception to the rule, often cited in media articles, is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which seeks to teach middle-class values and norms to low-income students. But KIPP is not scalable: it relies on self-selected students (its one attempt to take over a regular public school failed), it has very high rates of attrition, and it works its teachers at an unsustainable pace.

If more money, new charter schools, and federal accountability schemes will not work for low-income students, is desegregation—which met huge resistance in places like Boston in the 1970s—politically viable? Ryan concedes that integration is “unfashionable” and is seen as “a relic from the past,” but he outlines four differences between integration policies today and the version that was tried a generation ago.   

For a start, the new integration focuses primarily on socio-economic status rather than on race: research finds that academic achievement is more closely tied to the socio-economic status of your classmates than their race; socio-economic integration presents none of the legal impediments imposed recently by the Supreme Court; and there are interesting political coalitions that can form around socio-economic integration. In Boston, poor whites ferociously resisted desegregation with poor blacks, but in Charlotte, North Carolina, poor whites formed an interracial coalition with blacks for more busing, rather than less, in order to include affluent whites in a racial plan that also produced socioeconomic integration.

Second, the new integration relies not on compulsion but on incentives, often in the form of special magnet school themes (such as theater or computer science) to attract middle-class students to low-income areas, or financial lures for middle-class schools to accept low-income transfer students. In St. Louis, Ryan notes, “incentive payments” were used to encourage suburban acceptance of urban transfer students. Ryan also cites a proposal to have college admissions officers give preference to students who attended integrated high schools.

Ryan also argues that demographic changes are making integration easier because more can be accomplished within a single school district. The line between city and suburbs is blurring as a majority of poor people in metropolitan areas now live in suburbs, and increasing numbers of middle- income families move into cities. And finally, he shows that today’s parents are more accepting of diversity.

In an otherwise thoughtful and cogent book, Ryan strikes a discordant note when he includes private school vouchers as part of his program to integrate schools by socio-economic status and race. Vouchers raise a host of concerns—about accountability and separation of church and state—and are a very odd vehicle for promoting integration. As Ryan concedes, vouchers have historically been backed by white Southern segregationists and by black separatists, such as like Milwaukee state legislator Polly Williams, who once advocated a separate public school district for blacks.

On the whole, however, Ryan’s voice is a refreshing counter to Nixon’s compromise, which in its latest iteration has become Obama’s compromise. Ryan concludes: “The truth is that separating the poor and politically powerless in their own schools and districts is antithetical to the idea of equal educational opportunity.” Republican proposals to give poor kids a chance to attend higher-performing public schools should not be rejected by the Obama administration; rather they should be enhanced. If we continue to ignore the issue of economic school segregation, notes Ryan, then “Tee-Jay and Freeman students, like hundreds of thousands just like them around the country, will remain five miles away, but a world apart.”   

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice and Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.