The Suburbs vs. School Reform

(Image via the White House Flickr feed)

If education policy is a war between reformers and teachers unions, the reformers seem to be winning. Under Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Obama administration has steadily expanded accountability measures and boosted charter schools, making Duncan a foe of teachers unions. It’s not just Democrats, however, who have reason to celebrate. GOP reformers in red states such as Indiana and Louisiana are experimenting school choice measures, such as vouchers and education savings accounts, that threaten to undercut the unions’ position.

Yet the K-12 landscape is more rugged than meets the eye. As the education analyst Lewis Andrews has argued, teachers unions are far from the only ones resistant to change. An underappreciated feature of the American school system – and all of American politics – is that suburban families can be the greatest obstacle to change in the system. And while the teachers unions have seen their power chipped away during the Obama years, the submerged coalition of middle- and upper-middle-class families has removed all threats.

The Obama administration has aggressively pursued incremental changes to the way schools across the country work with whatever means available to it – most notably, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top slush fund created by the stimulus. At the same time, however, it has drastically reduced the impact of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act on suburban schools in what RiShawn Biddle, the editor of education news magazine Dropout Nation and a friend of RealClearPolicy, calls the Obama “waiver gambit.” For the 34 states and the districts that have submitted to the administration’s conditions for students’ college readiness, the administration has granted waivers to those states to ignore the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of No Child for all but the bottom 5 percent of schools. In other words, suburban schools have evaded the most onerous requirements of No Child.

Meanwhile, as successful as conservative reformers have been in advancing a fairly ambitious school choice agenda, it’s clear that their efforts to enact school choice will not extend to middle class families. Most school voucher programs are geared toward benefitting students attending failing urban schools. Indiana’s voucher program, the nation’s most expansive, only serves children eligible to receive federal aid for school lunches; Louisiana’s choice program extends vouchers only to lower middle class families. Other forms of school choice have not been fared so well with suburban families. Charter schools, which have become the education providers of choice in cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, have made few inroads into the suburbs. Public school choice programs, which allow for urban students to attend suburban schools, are even more hotly contested. A plan proposed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to expand the state’s public school choice program, which allows urban students to attend suburban schools, died in the legislature.

Scratch the surface, and it’s obvious that families in suburban districts will hold out against change longer than the teachers unions will, and likely longer than would-be reformers will too. They’re motivated by the most powerful of kitchen table issues, one that is tangled up in childrearing, real estate, race, and crime.

That’s not to say their kids’ schools don’t need reform. Far from it. Schools that are in the middle of the pack in America lag those of other nations with advanced economies. Furthermore, our suburban school districts are in many cases failing to provide quality education to poor and minority students. There is no reason for upper-middle-class America to feel good about its schools, except for that they’re not as bad as their inner-city neighbors.

Michael Petrilli, an official in the Bush Department of Education, wrote in a 2005 New York Times that “despite all the talk about improving inner-city schools, the greatest promise of the No Child Left Behind Act was always in America's leafy suburbs.” Eight years later, Petrilli, having moved to a wealthy and snow-white school district for his own kids’ school years himself, has concluded that the political costs of bringing change to the suburbs are too high.

There is probably no changing this state of affairs. The chastened Petrilli suggests a system of limited integration, including setting aside a portion of seats in good schools for poor children from neighboring areas. Left-of-center reformers, such as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, have proposed alternative ideas for socioeconomic integration. Biddle, on the other hand, argues that reformers should work more closely with the growing number of minorities in suburbia, who have found that the schools their kids now attend are often little better than the urban schools they fled.

But the modesty of these proposals attests to the power of suburban parents in U.S. politics. “You need political will to do this,” Petrilli says of his own plan. The lessons of the ‘70s busing episodes have probably been too well learned for any officeholder to muster that political will.

The top priority in the U.S. education system today is undoubtedly turning around the dropout factories that are failing our cities. But as momentum builds to force those schools to change, it’s worth noting that in American politics, some things never do.


Update: This article has been edited for clarity.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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