In a discussion of vouchers last week, a professor argued that when legislatures propose statewide vouchers three groups dominate the discussion: private schools not willing to exchange autonomy for government money and suburban parents with access to good community schools oppose them, while inner-city parents favor them. While doubtless an oversimplification, such a division makes sense because it reflects the self-interest of all three groups. Based on who has access to power, such a division would also explain why no statewide voucher scheme exists. Though the politics behind statewide voucher proposals are interesting, the ramifications for our schools are more important.
Why? The same division exists around charter schools. And while vouchers seem temporarily halted, charters continue to fly high. Democrats and Republicans alike push charter schools as the largest part of any solution to our education system's woes. More importantly, they push such schools predominantly in impoverished urban areas. With few exceptions, well-to-do suburban neighborhoods seem (relatively) satisfied with their choice between high-quality neighborhood schools or paying for an elite private school.
Politicians often refer to parts of the world as "Balkanized" when they divide into many small countries. In the same sense, urban districts are currently becoming "charterized." Where students once attended a few large schools they now can choose among many small schools. And the trend seems unstoppable. Not only do charter schools continue to spread, but new charter-style public schools seem spread at least as fast as districts rush to break-up old monoliths into multiple themed academies and open new specialized schools.
As a result, the trajectories of urban and suburban districts differ distinctly. Suburban students will attend community-controlled schools with nearly every other student from their neighborhood. Urban students will almost-randomly fan out to find the small school that best fits their interest (or is most convenient) and attend with fellow wanderers.
Suburban and urban schools, of course, already differ greatly. But the distinct dichotomy at is developing often goes unmentioned -- and may have important ramifications. Knowing who will benefit more is likely impossible, but we can predict a few things that will happen:
Suburban schools will build community and social cohesion -- local residents will attend the Friday night football games, the school play, and discuss how the local schools have changed since they attended them. Urban schools will not. Students from the same block may attend ten different schools.
Suburban schools will be comprehensive. Since they must cater to the needs of everybody in the community, they will stretch themselves thin to offer every subject and activity they can. Urban schools will be specialized. They will all, essentially, attempt to be magnet schools. One would not expect an advanced physics course at the the Literature Academy or a football team at the Choral Academy.
Urban parents will face a myriad of choices -- possibly, but possibly not, including a default community school. Suburban parents will try to decide if the local community school is good enough, or whether to pay to go elsewhere.
While it remains unclear whether one experience is necessarily better, such distinct differences necessarily mean that urban and suburban students will experience school differently -- which is rather ironic when one considers that reforms were begun to eliminate differences between suburban and urban schools. Is different better? Only time will tell.
The charterization of urban schools seems inevitable, and we anxiously await the post-charterization test scores. But the ramifications go beyond student achievement; we are witnessing the decoupling of school and community in urban America, and we need to figure out what this means for both students and society.
Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty urban schools -- including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.
Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]edpolicythoughts.com.