Ep. 204: Big Ideas – “A Fine Line” with Tim DeRoche

September 10, 2020

In this episode, we chat with Tim DeRoche about his book, A Fine Line: How Most American Kids are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. We cover topics such as redlining, open enrollment and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Tim DeRoche, author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, which is the subject of our discussion today. Tim, welcome to the podcast.

Tim DeRoche: Thanks for having me, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: For starters, are public schools public?

Tim DeRoche: Well, in varying degrees you might say yes or you might say no. I think a lot of the best public schools—and I profiled several of them in the book—a lot of the best public schools in our urban centers don’t really function as public schools. They function more as quasi-private schools, meaning that they certainly accept public dollars, they certainly accept tax-payer dollars. But unfortunately, even most of the tax-payers who are paying into those schools do not have access to those schools—meaning that these schools use attendance zone—these are lines drawn by district bureaucrats to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. And the only place where these zone lines matter are schools where demand exceeds supply.

The way they turn away people, the way they say, “We’re full. We can’t accept you,” is they use these lines. And I think, in effect, that means that they operate as quasi-private institutions.

Jason Bedrick: You raise an interesting point about school districts and attendance zones. Where did these come from?

Tim DeRoche: Attendance zones… There’s been a lot of attention paid to school district boundaries. This is where you get big funding discrepancies across district lines. And those lines are generally determined via the political process, via the legislative process. What I’m mainly talking about in my book are these attendance zones, which are drawn by district bureaucrats. They are not determined via the political process and there are all sorts of shenanigans that go on in terms of drawing the lines such that politically powerful parents get access to the best schools and folks who have less political power are excluded from those schools.

Jason Bedrick: Your book actually discusses elite schools. What do you mean by elite public schools?

Tim DeRoche: The main way that I define elite in the book is just schools that have much more demand than capacity, and so I’m looking at usually schools in the city center. Here in Los Angeles, there’s an example.  Ivanhoe Elementary, which is in this portion of the city called Silver Lake, which is near downtown. And Ivanhoe is an extremely coveted school. Real estate agents are highly focused on telling you whether a school is in the Ivanhoe zone or not because there’s a big demand for that school. And the way they determine who gets in and who doesn’t is via the zone line. What that means is that the home prices within the zone are significantly higher, so an equivalent house might cost $200,000 or $250,000 more if it’s on one side of the line versus the other side of the line. It really distorts the real estate prices.

Who knows what makes one school better or another? I don’t get into that too much in the book. We can obviously infer that probably there are more senior teachers at Ivanhoe. There might be a healthier culture. Certainly, it attracts a wealthier demographic and that may, indeed, be part of what makes it attractive to some people. They want their kids to go to school with other wealthier families. But my point in the book is that these are public schools and so what you’ve got in Los Angeles and in almost all major cities across the U.S…. In the northeast, in the south, in the northwest, you’ve got a situation in which you live within the district, you may live within walking distance of one of these elite schools that is very coveted and that has extremely high levels of student performance, and yet you’re not allowed to enroll your child in that school. You are assigned to a failing or a struggling school down the street.

The disparities are extraordinary. In Chicago, for example, there are two schools: Lincoln Elementary, the shining star of the Chicago Public School System, and then Miner Elementary. Those two schools are about a mile away and families on the north side of North Avenue are assigned to Lincoln and then families south of North Avenue have no hope of getting into Lincoln even though they live within walking distance of that school. At Lincoln, over 80 percent of the kids are proficient in reading. And at Miner, not a single child is proficient in reading when they graduated eighth grade in 2019.  Before I started writing this book, I knew there were significant disparities in the quality of public schools. What I didn’t realize is how severe those disparities are, even for schools that serve the same neighborhood, even for schools that are within walking distance of one another.

Jason Bedrick: It’s interesting. I’ve actually said for a while that these public schools are less public than privately owned for-profit shopping malls. The shopping mall that’s right down the street from that school is open to everybody that shows up.

Tim DeRoche: Yeah.

Jason Bedrick: The public school, first they check where you live and then say whether you’re allowed to enter the building or not. And it’s been long said among advocates for a market in education that there already is a market in education, it’s just called the housing market. And that this is an inefficient way of running a market and also a very unfair of running a market, saying the only way that you can access this school is by purchasing a very expensive home in a very expensive area.

You’ve noted that this practice relates to something called redlining. Your book is called A Fine Line and we’ll have a picture of the cover on the podcast. You’ll be able to see that it’s got a bunch of pencils. The pencil in the middle, of course, is a red pencil drawing a line seemingly around an area on a map. So, what is this about? What is this redlining?

Tim DeRoche: Redlining was a practice in the early 20th century. During The New Deal, there were lots of federally subsidized housing programs and so the federal government had an agency that went around creating maps of American cities and they were basically determining which areas of the city were… The homeowners there were eligible for federal housing assistance and which were not. And what they did is they drew lines around the “desirable” areas of the city and the undesirable or declining areas of the city. And the areas that were declining were marked in red and these are areas that were determined to be ineligible for federal housing assistance. And as you might guess, those areas tended to be the areas of the city with high proportions of minorities and immigrants. These were low-income areas of the city.

Basically, you had the federal government determining that we’re going to subsidize homeowners who live in the nicer areas. It was basically a way of hiding the racist intentions of the policy.

Jason Bedrick: I was recently in a discussion with somebody from the Brookings Institution and the idea of redlining was brought up and they sort of poo-pooed it. They said, “No, this is something that… Yes, it was terrible, it was discriminatory, but this is something that happened in the past. It’s been addressed and it has no relation today to district school boundaries.” Do you agree with that assessment?

Tim DeRoche: I do not. One of the biggest things we found… One of the most surprising moments in my research for this book is that we started taking these attendance zones, which are basically maps… They’re hard to find. The districts often don’t want you to find these maps because they don’t want people knowing that they’re excluded from schools based on where they live. But if you take the attendance zones for many of these highly sought after schools in the urban centers you can find that the attendance zone matches the … in some way, not exactly, but approximately matches the desirable areas marked on the red lining housing maps from the 1930s. And those zones still exclude the surrounding areas, which still are predominantly immigrant and minority. And so, you’ve got a situation in which the redlining practices have basically been shifted over into school residential zoning laws. And I’m specifically focusing in the attendance zones as drawn by the district. I think you’d probably find the same pattern for some of the district boundaries.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And for those who want to purchase the book, Tim has a series of glossy images between pages 64 and 65 with these zones colorfully illustrated. These are Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Seattle. So, this is an issue all across the country. But some people say… You quote a school staff member in the book who says, “Yeah, it’s unfair but you have to have boundaries somewhere, right?” Isn’t she right?

Tim DeRoche: Yeah, it’s a great point. I called up this school, John Hay Elementary, in Seattle. This is an elite public school. The attendance zone boarders the zone for another school, which is failing, Lowell Elementary. And I asked … I pretended I was a parent. I said, “I’m moving to your city.” And I said, “You know, it seems unfair that I’ve got to buy a house within this zone and whether or not I can get into your school is determined by where my house is.” And she said, “Well, you have to have a line somewhere, otherwise no one would want to attend that school,” meaning Lowell. I think it’s a revealing statement about, basically, if folks were not zoned to some of these failing schools and if they weren’t excluded from the high performing schools within their own neighborhoods, then some of those schools just wouldn’t be able to attract parents. They wouldn’t be able to attract families.

Jason Bedrick: So, if everyone were allowed in, then no one would want to go there. It sounds like the Yogi Berra comments. “No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Tim DeRoche: Exactly. Exactly.

Jason Bedrick: What she really means is not no one, she means no one in my circle of friends would want to go there anymore is the argument she’s making.

Tim DeRoche: Actually, she was making a separate point. She was making a point about Lowell. She was saying you need the zone lines so that you keep Lowell, the poor-performing school.. so you keep it full. Exactly.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Right, right. But if she were to open school’s doors to…

Tim DeRoche: Oh, right.

Jason Bedrick: …the kids currently in Lowell, then they would want to leave, is the argument. Now, parents have responded to this system that they’ve been thrown in, in a variety of different ways. You categorize parents in three different ways: address pickers, school shoppers and the obedient. What are these categories?

Tim DeRoche: Yeah. One way that parents pick schools, a very prominent way, is by choosing where you live. You choose to live in a particular district. Here in my neighborhood of Los Angeles, you choose to live within one zone or another. And you’re picking your house based on whether you think the school is good, whether you think it’s a good fit for your kids. Secondly, there’s a second category of folks who don’t play that game and who say, “OK, but I’m going to still shop for the best school. I’m going to look for a private school. I’m going to look for a charter school. I’m going to use open enrollment policies at the district to find a public school that I think is a better fit than the one that I am zoned to.” These are typically people like my family who… I chose my house based on, “Hey, I want an affordable house,” and I was unwilling to pay the $250,000 premium to be in the zone for the elite school in the neighborhood. And so, my family is forced to figure it out and look for other options.

And then, the third category is the obedient. And this is over 50 percent of the American population. Just reflexively buys a house and then attends the school that they’ve been assigned to by the government. And this includes people of all income levels. It includes wealthy people who buy a house in the suburbs and just assume, “Hey, I bought a house near a bunch of people who share my values. I’m going to send my kid to that school. I’m going to assume it’s a good school.” They don’t think too carefully about the quality of the school or about whether it’s a good fit. It also includes people in the inner city. It includes poor people, single moms who are working two jobs and don’t have time to shop for schools and don’t have time to navigate these complicated enrollment systems… these open enrollment systems within the district.

My argument is that a lot fewer of American parents should be in this category of the obedient. More of us should be looking carefully at schools. I have two kids and I’m not even convinced that the same school is going to be the best fit for both of them. Different kids have different needs and I think we should all be paying more attention to what are the school models available to me and to my family? And what is going to serve my children the best?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve read this. There’s a great book by Dr. Patrick Wolf and Thomas Stewart called The School Choice Journey: School Vouchers and the Empowerment of Urban Families, which mostly looks at Washington, D.C. I think there are a lot of people that are in this category of the obedient because they feel powerless.

Tim DeRoche: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jason Bedrick: They can’t afford to live somewhere nicer, so they basically… They’re stuck in this one area. They may not have charter schools in that area. If they do, they may be way oversubscribed. They may figure they’re not going to get their kids in. But what he found— or actually, they, I should say, Wolf and Stewart—was that when families actually had choices they become more active participants in their child’s education.

Tim DeRoche: Yep.

Jason Bedrick: And in particular, in choosing their child’s education, which is interesting. But to go back to these address pickers and school shoppers, you note in the book that there’s actually a whole industry of consultants that have emerged to help families find either the right address or even wherever they live, find the right school. Can you tell us a little bit more about these school shopping consultants?

Tim DeRoche: Yeah. Usually, they think of themselves as public school admission consultants and they’ve sprouted up in a number of big cities. I talked to one in Los Angeles, I talked to one in Chicago, and a couple in New York. And basically, these folks… Their target audience is really middle to upper middle income folks who don’t live within these coveted zones and so they don’t have privileged access to these coveted public schools. They’ve got to navigate these different systems to try and find another option for their kids and so these folks take a fee from parents and help them navigate those systems. They’re complicated systems.

I’ve been working in education for 20 years now and frankly, the LA unified systems that my family has to deal with, they’re complicated. They’re not easy to understand and so hiring an expert to help guide you through that process is very valuable. And what I would say is the problem is that poorer parents can’t afford to hire these folks, right? They’re just in a more difficult spot. And these folks really don’t target poor parents for precisely that reason. They’re serving an important function, I think. And they have insights into how the system works that nobody else does because they’re seeing these admissions processes over time, they’re saying who gets excluded over time and they can see that the system is tilted towards the politically powerful.

Jason Bedrick: For those who can’t afford the consultants and can’t afford the fancy homes in the ritzy areas but still want to enroll their children in a high-quality school, what are they doing? You noted some very interesting, creative and maybe, perhaps, not even legal ways that these families are getting their kids into better schools.

Tim DeRoche: Sure, sure. One thing I’ll say is that some of them are school shopping, anyway. They are navigating these systems without any help. Some savvy, low income parents do this on their own and they fill out all the paperwork and they get in the lines and they research all these different systems and they figure it out. And for those people, I have a tremendous amount of admiration.

Some folks decide … And I would say this goes up and down the income spectrum. Some folks decide, “Hey, if this is how the game is played, if they’re going to restrict access based on where you live and I can’t afford to live in those areas, I am simply going to lie about my address.” And I frankly have very little judgment of those folks. I’ve talked to wealthy parents in Malibu who did this to get their kids into Santa Monica High School even though they weren’t zoned for that school. I’ve talked to low-income parents who did it. The one big difference is when low-income parents do it and when they get caught, they are often prosecuted. Sometimes they are put in jail. When higher-income parents do it, that’s a very, very unlikely outcome and you don’t hear about that kind of thing happening. They might be kicked out of the school but they aren’t put in jail.

And I will say… It’s important to note here that the folks who are being prosecuted and put in jail for lying about their address are usually lying about their address because they crossed a district boundary. They weren’t crossing an attendance boundary, they were crossing a district boundary. It’s a little bit different, legally.

Jason Bedrick: Morally, essentially the same. They’re trying to access what is supposedly public education and they’re being accused of stealing a public education. You actually have some examples in the book. In particular, Kelly Williams-Boler, who made national headlines when she was sent to prison for this. It was called, you even note in the book, a Rosa Parks moment for education reform. But how widespread is it? How often do we have families where parents are being imprisoned for trying to get their kids access to a better education? And how are the districts catching them?

Tim DeRoche: It’s hard to know how prevalent it is. It’s not something that people openly admit to in a survey. But I think if we all think about our own experience, I certainly know multiple families who’ve done this; who’ve lied about their address. And when I started talking about this topic at cocktail parties, when I was researching the book, and at dinner parties, everyone’s got a story of, “Oh, yeah. My parents did that.”  “Oh, my neighbor did that.”  “We did that with our children.”  Everyone has a story.  I think it’s very widespread. I think it’s woven into the fabric of American life.

The school districts, in response, have set up systems to catch these folks. They have hired private investigators to spy on kids as they come out of school and then they follow them back to their homes. We’ve got this great quote. I found an article written by a private investigator saying, “We take a lot of these contracts. Here are the best practices for spying on kids as they come out of school. Use a female investigator. People are going to ask a lot fewer questions if they see a woman taking pictures of children than if they see a man taking pictures of children. Use a telephoto lens.” Crazy stuff.

And some of the districts have set up tip lines. If you know of somebody who’s lying about their address, call the anonymous tip line. It really shows how Soviet, in a way, our public education system has become those types of policies are very similar to what you saw in the Soviet Union, in East Germany, the Stasi, in terms of getting neighbors to turn on neighbors. And you don’t need that.  If the schools are open to everyone, then you don’t need these types of systems.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. You even detail that sometimes the school officials will show up at the house and then they’ll ask the children, “Where are you clothes? Where are your toothbrushes?”

Tim DeRoche: Yeah.

Jason Bedrick: So, the kid will slip up and say, “Oh, my toothbrush isn’t here.” And, ope, OK. Well, now we know that you’re stealing an education. Here we have public officials using tax dollars to prevent low income families from getting access to a higher quality public education.

Tim DeRoche: Yeah. I spoke to one woman who works at a public school district in California and she said she conducts home checks on homeless people. She tries to confirm that they’re parking their car or they’ve pitched their tent within the right zone. It makes no sense. And I think when you look at these policies through this prism, you start to see how wildly weird these policies are and how counterproductive they are.

Jason Bedrick: All right, but no problem. So, we just enact open enrollment. Most states now have some sort of open enrollment policy so problem solved, right?

Tim DeRoche: Yeah, I wish that were true. The open enrollment laws on the books are riddled with loopholes. Here in California, there is actually no state statute that requires the district to draw attendance zone boundaries except in the open enrollment law. And the open enrollment law says that within a district a child has a right to attend any school within that district, which… I can get on board with that. They’re a constituent of this democratic entity called a school district. They have a right to go to any one of those schools. Problem is that they took the politically expedient route and they added an exception, which is that except they cannot displace any student who is zoned to go to that school.

With that exception, ironically written into the open enrollment law, California guaranteed that these elite public schools would keep out the vast majority of kids who want to attend. They guaranteed that parents would respond to the policies by crowding in to the coveted zone. They guaranteed that, therefore, the housing prices in those zones would go up. They guaranteed that, therefore, over time, the schools and the neighborhoods would become more and more divided along class lines. And because class in this country is correlated with race in many cases, you get schools that are within pretty diverse neighborhoods that are not diverse at all. And you get very strong racially divided schools even within urban public neighborhoods that are relatively diverse at the macro level.

Jason Bedrick: I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but Matt Ladner, who is now at the Arizona Charter Schools Association but has had a variety of posts over the years… He likes to point to two different charts—really, maps. One is a map of Ohio, which has open enrollment policies. And another is a map of Arizona. And in Ohio, you can see that if you shade in green the districts that participate in open enrollment—because they don’t all have to—but those that opt in…

Tim DeRoche: Right.

Jason Bedrick: Most of the state is green but there are these donuts of gray…

Tim DeRoche: Yep.

Jason Bedrick: … where they are not participating. Those donuts happen to be all around Columbus and Toledo and Cleveland and basically all the urban centers.

Tim DeRoche: Yeah.

Jason Bedrick: The suburban districts say, “No, we’re not participating,” but then once you get a half hour, 45 minutes outside the city, they start participating again. Whereas in Arizona, the entire state is green. But Matt points out something interest, which is it’s not because Arizona has a law that says every district must participate in open enrollment. It’s really because they have a very high choice environment overall. You have a very robust charter school sector. More kids are in charter schools in Arizona per capita than anywhere else. 17 percent. So, you’ve got a lot of charter schools. You’ve got the tax-credit scholarships, the education savings accounts. And so, even districts like Scottsdale, which is sort of like our Beverly Hills here in Arizona, participates in open enrollment basically for economic reasons. The reason is that they had anticipated a certain amount of growth, a lot of families decided they were going to go into charter schools instead, you’ve got tons of empty seats.

And they need to feed those seats and so they open up the doors and that means that they’re going to accept kids from Phoenix and other areas that can’t afford to live in Scottsdale but they’re now getting access to a Scottsdale education.

Tim DeRoche: And it’s a good point. At a certain point, there’s a tipping point in which parents start to be much more active in these decisions and schools and districts start to think very differently about how to attract students and families. And often that has a very, very beneficial impact. I’ll point to one example where that has not happened. In Detroit, the Grosse Pointe public schools, a wealthy suburb of Detroit, borders a very poor area of Detroit. Grosse Pointe has had a lack of students, so they’ve had to close some very high performing elementary schools. Those schools are within walking distance of many, many children who would love to attend those schools. These are kids trapped in failing Detroit public schools and they live within blocks of these schools but Grosse Pointe has decided not to participate in those open enrollments programs. They’ve basically said, “We would rather close the doors of these high performing schools rather than admit students who live three blocks away.”

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. And actually, you cite evidence in the book that there are school districts in Detroit, California and elsewhere that are lying about the number of empty seats that they have. Why are they doing that?

Tim DeRoche: Yeah. Well, there are a couple reasons. Number one, these districts love to go to the public and ask for more capital. Here in LA, we’re always being asked about a bond measure to increase school capacity. LA Unified does not want the public to know that so many of its schools are half empty because then the public would be much less likely to give them more capital dollars. Secondly, schools in California, if they have space, are required to offer that space to charter schools and so they don’t want the state regulators … They don’t want to charter schools to know just how empty some of those schools are because if they did then they would be legally obligated to offer some of that space to charter schools. And in many cases, they don’t want to do that.

One of the consultants that I talked to, she said, “Hey, go back and look at the enrollment of some of these schools. They’ll tell you they’re full or they’ll tell you they’re operating close to capacity but go look at their enrollment 15 years ago and you’ll see that they’re half empty. When they say they are full or at 90 percent capacity right now, they are just measuring that in a way that is self-serving. They’re not telling the truth.”

Jason Bedrick: And they likely weren’t razing buildings. In fact, they were probably in the interim building more capacity using those bond dollars.

Tim DeRoche: They were.

Jason Bedrick: So, probably underestimate how empty these buildings really are.

Tim DeRoche: There’s another point to be made here. And this doesn’t relate to California but if you look in Chicago, for example, in Lincoln Elementary that I mentioned before, what you see is parents, over time, crowding into the zone. Lincoln Elementary, a few years ago, was running out of space. And you’d think, well … In a normal environment you’d expect they’ll just redraw the lines. They’ll redistribute the kids to other schools. But the problem is those schools are politically powerful. They paid a significant premium to live there so when the Chicago public schools even suggested that they might adjust those lines there was an uproar and there were a wealthy, politically powerful set of parents that went to the state legislature, went to the majority leader … a democrat, Cullerton. They got 20 million dollars to renovate Lincoln Elementary to add space just so that those kids wouldn’t be reassigned or would lose their privileged access to Lincoln.

But they added all this space even though there were tons of schools … There were literally tons. There were tons of spaces, open seats, in schools within walking distance of those neighborhoods but those families didn’t want to go to those public schools. Basically, it was a waste of 20 million dollars of tax-payer money. And, in addition, did they … When they added all that capacity, did they open up that school to any of the kids who lived south of North Avenue who were zoned to failing schools; schools that have been failing for decades? Did they open up Lincoln Elementary to any of those kids? No, they didn’t. They just opened it up … They just said, “Okay, we’re going to keep serving this wealthy group of folks who’ve paid a premium.” More evidence that those schools are really functioning as private schools.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So, if public schools aren’t really public, in that sense, why haven’t the courts solved this problem? In some sense, doesn’t it really follow from Brown v. The Board of Education? Especially when … You don’t have legal segregation these days, but you have defacto segregation because there’s a high correlation, obviously, between race and socioeconomic status and this is an issue primarily of socioeconomic status; being unable to purchase homes in these areas. So, there’s a very clear racial component here. Why haven’t the courts stepped in?

Tim DeRoche: Well, I make the argument that the courts have not been presented a case in which you could challenge some of these policies in a straightforward way. And I think these policies … These attendance zones, in particular, are vulnerable to legal challenge. And so, I wrote a long piece in Education Next looking at the different ways in which these policies might be vulnerable to legal challenge. The easiest one is a Civil Rights law that was passed in the 70s called The Equal Educational Opportunities Act, which basically said … It was the time when the country was really struggling with segregation and desegregation efforts and there was a big push against busing and segregation.

So, politicians… Democratic congress and the Republican presidents at the time, Nixon and Ford, wanted to support neighborhood schools. But there was an admission, I think, that if these zone lines could be used to keep less powerful people out of the best schools … And so, what they said in that law very specifically was that a minority child cannot be assigned to a school that is not the nearest to their home. And they very specifically used the phrase, “nearest to their home if it will exacerbate segregation.” With many of these zones that I look at of these elite public schools in the urban centers, you have lots of pockets … These zones typically tend to be misshapen things, so you’ll have lots of pockets where the minority families in that pocket are assigned to go to a farther away school and they are prevented from enrolling in the elite school, which is in direct violation of that federal Civil Rights law. So, that’s one way to challenge.

I go further in the book and I actually make the argument that these attendance zones violate the original definition of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. And basically, that clause has been interpreted by the courts to mean that you can’t treat people differently if they are similarly situated, with respect to the law. So, the argument is basically two kids … one that lives on one side of the street, one that lives on the other side of the street … they’ve both been assigned to the same district by the legislature. Those kids are similarly situated, with respect to the education law of the state. And one kid is being assigned to a thriving school and one kid is being assigned to a failing school. That is a classic violation of equal protection.

Jason Bedrick: And actually, some of these district boundaries, they look like gerrymandered congressional districts where you say, “Oh, wow. That was clearly designed not because it wasn’t … It’s not geography. It’s not following a river or anything. This was clearly designed to keep some people in and some people out.”

Tim DeRoche: There’s a fascinating story, Jason, that I just learned yesterday, actually. I posted something online about my local neighborhood school. It’s got this very weird, misshapen attendance zone that somewhat mirrors the redlining map from the 30s. But there’s this one little part … It’s like a little ballon that comes out. And I’ve always said to people … I’ve always said, “What sort of shenanigans got that little balloon attached to this elite public school?” Well, yesterday I found out.

Jason Bedrick: Let me guess quickly. Somebody politically connected lived there.

Tim DeRoche: Good guess. Somewhat related. What happened was the school was not always as sought after. There was a decline in enrollment in the 90s. They were losing students. This is in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles. And Mount Washington Elementary at the time, as it is now, was majority white and they didn’t want that to change so what they did is they annexed a neighborhood of Glassell Park, which was predominantly minority and predominantly immigrant. But which park of Glassell Park did they want to annex? They annexed the predominantly white portion of Glassell Park so that they could explicitly maintain the racial makeup of the school.

I didn’t know it and frankly, it’s just hearsay, but basically one of the neighbors said, “Yeah, all of the old timers in the neighborhood have told me that Mount Washington was running out of kids. They did not want the school to become more diverse and so they annexed the closest available white community.” And this is a place that is predominantly liberal. We live in a neighborhood that is universally proclaimed that Black Lives Matter, would universally proclaim that this country needs to end racism, and yet you have the people who go to Mount Washington basically going to a school that has an attendance zone that has been designed… By design, it is meant to keep the school majority white and keep out the minorities who live in the surrounding schools.

Jason Bedrick: In closing, how do we get ourselves out of this mess?

Tim DeRoche: My argument is that a public school has to be a public school. It has to be open to the public. We need enrollment lotteries. And I’m sure some of your listeners have been listening to Nice White Parents, the serial podcast that looks at one school in New York. And Chana Joffee-Walt, the reporter of that series, comes to a similar conclusion. I don’t share all of her assumptions about the system, but I do think she comes out to a similar place, which is that if a public school is going to be a public school it needs to be public to the public, which means that everyone within that entity, within the district, needs to have an equal opportunity to apply and an equal opportunity to get in. And so, if there’s more demand than capacity then the district needs to use the lottery.

And we know these lotteries work. Charter schools around the country are required to use lotteries and that’s precisely because when they passed the charter school law, they didn’t want the charter school cherry-picking which students they would take. Those are public schools. They are bound to take the public. And so, I think we need to hold traditional public schools to the same standard that we hold charter schools to.

Jason Bedrick: I think the key, though, is that we also need to have policy mechanisms that allow the highly sought after schools to expand, even if that means taking over some other buildings; having the administration of one highly sought after district take over the building of another.

Tim DeRoche: Yes.

Jason Bedrick: Likewise with charters. Let them continue to expand. A market is a system of profit and loss, which is to say success and failure. And the failure part is also important. We hate talking about schools that close down and things like that, but which is worse? A failing school that closes down? Or a failing school that stays open for decades and continues to fail kids that are assigned there based on the home their parents could afford? What we really need is those schools to be essentially taken over by other schools that are able to provide a service that parents seek out.

Tim DeRoche: Yes.

Jason Bedrick: Not we don’t have.

Tim DeRoche: I agree with that. And I’ve been accused at times of making a zero sum argument; that there are these coveted spots and I’m saying that these other kids should be allowed in. But to me, it’s not a zero sum argument at all because what I see in my neighborhood is that the people who buy homes in those coveted places grow very complacent around the rest of the system. They tend to think that everybody should just go to their zoned school. Once they’ve spent their $250,000 extra to avoid going to all the surrounding schools, they then turn around and tell the parents who can’t afford to do that, “Well, just send your kid to the school that I was trying to avoid.”

And I think until you address that problem, until these folks who are paying for access to these privileged schools … Until they are put in the same boat as the rest of us where they have to compete for slots and they don’t have privileged access and they can’t use their wealth to capture a public resource, a public school, they’re going to continue to protect their interests. They’re going to continue to be an obstacle to reform and an obstacle to the good schools spreading because they don’t have an interest in their good schools spreading right now. They’ve got their privileged access. They’re perfectly happy having their privileged spot at that school. If that was taken away from them and if they had to be in the same boat as the rest of us, then they would be more likely to support further reforms to the system, more likely to advocate for more options for their own children, for everybody else’s children.

Jason Bedrick: In other words, what we really need to do is change the incentives so that those who have … so it’s not a zero-sum game as it is in the current system.

Tim DeRoche: Yep.

Jason Bedrick: But that it is a system where the incentives of the privileged and the less privileged are actually aligned; their interest in incentives are aligned.

Tim DeRoche: I agree with that.

Jason Bedrick: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Again, today our guest was Tim DeRoche, author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. Tim, thanks for joining us.

Tim DeRoche: Thank you so much, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas Series please send them to Media@EdChoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @EdChoice and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, EdChoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next, Tim.