Today’s New York Times op-ed page features a must-read by James E. Ryan, author of “Five Miles Away, a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America” (a familiar concept to NJLB readers).
Ryan points to a little-noticed section of Mitt Romney’s education speech to Latino leaders last week: when he said that he “would give poor students and those with disabilities the right to attend any public or charter school in their state.” Not so meaningful for kids with disabilities (as I’ve explained elsewhere). But potentially powerful for poor kids, especially in a state like New Jersey where terrific schools abut terrible schools because of impassable district boundaries.
Ryan praises Romney for “bucking a powerful, 50-year trend” of education reform principles (including No Child Left Behind) that promise access but, in fact, locks kids into their home school districts. The result?
What these reforms have in common is that they have protected the exclusivity of suburban public schools and have ensured that city students would stay put in city schools.
Mr. Romney’s proposal, if put in place, could change that. Most directly, and perhaps most dramatically, Mr. Romney’s proposal would force — yes, force — suburban districts to accept city students, a step that the Supreme Court refused to take back in 1974. As Mr. Romney said in a white paper also released last week, he would require states to “adopt open-enrollment policies that permit eligible students to attend public schools outside of their school district.”
In doing so, Mr. Romney’s proposal would target the real source of educational inequality in this country: school district boundaries, which wall off good school systems from failing ones. The grossest inequalities in educational opportunity today exist between school districts, not inside them.
If Mr. Romney’s proposal is sincere, it would place him far to the left of the Obama administration when it comes to educational opportunity. Mr. Obama has focused on improving teacher evaluations, promoting common academic standards, turning around failing schools and increasing charter schools. Fine and sensible? Maybe. Bold? Hardly. Bold is giving poor city kids the right to attend good suburban schools.