Deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, suburbanites want that wall, but broad choice can take walls down

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Important new study from the Fordham Institute on open enrollment in Ohio. The map above shows dark blue show districts not participating in open enrollment, and they just happen to be leafy suburban districts who are both higher income with student bodies that tend to be pale complected that also happen to be near large urban districts with many students who are neither of these things. Feel free to reference this map the next time someone claims that public schools “take everyone.”

Many moons ago I wrote a study for the Mackinac Center about the interaction between charter schools and open enrollment in Michigan. I found a very clear pattern among some of the suburban districts whereby charter schools provided the incentive for early open enrollment participants to opt-in. After one district began taking open enrollment transfers, and some additional charters opened, it created an incentive for additional nearby districts to opt in- they were now losing students to both charters and the opted in district. Through this mechanism, the highly economically and racially segregated walled-off district system began to:

Not every domino fell however. I interviewed a superintendent of a fancy inner ring suburb who related that they saw their competitors as elite private schools, not charter schools. When I asked him why his district chose not to participate in open enrollment, he told me something very close to “I think historically the feeling around here is that we have a good thing going, so they want to keep the unwashed masses out.”

Contrast this as well with Scottsdale Unified in Arizona, which is built for 38,000 students, educates 25,000 students, 4,000 of whom transferred into a Scottsdale Unified school through open enrollment. 4,000 transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in Arizona, and they are far from the only district participating in open enrollment in a big way. Why is Scottsdale willing to participate unlike those fancy Ohio districts? They have 9,000 kids living within their boundaries attending charter and private schools.

Why haven’t choice programs torn down the Berlin walls around suburban districts? Sadly because they have been overly focused on urban areas. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Dashboard shows that 72.6% of Ohio charter schools operated in urban areas. The voucher programs likewise started in Cleveland, and then expanded out to include failing schools (and children with disabilities statewide). More recently a broader voucher program has begun the process of phasing in slowly on a means-tested basis, but the combination of adding a single grade per year and means testing promises to unlock a very modest number of walled off suburban seats.

These programs have benefits, but they will not provide an incentive for fancy suburban districts to participate in open enrollment any time soon. Informal conversations I have had with Ohio folks related to me that Ohio suburban and rural dwellers- aka the people who elect the legislative majorities-tend to look at charter schools as a bit of a “Brand Ech” thing for inner city kids. Rest assured that the thousands of Scottsdale moms sitting on BASIS and Great Hearts charter school wait lists do not view charters as “Brand Ech.” Likewise these folks probably see themselves as paying most of the state of Ohio’s bills through their taxes and just might come to wonder why the state’s voucher programs seem so determined to do so little for their kids and communities.

A serious strategic error of the opening act of the parental choice movement was to look out to places like Lakewood Ohio or Scottsdale Arizona and say “those people already have choice.” This point of view is both seriously self-defeating in terms of developing sustaining coalitions, it also fails to appreciate the dynamic interactions between choice programs. Arizona’s choice policies include everyone and have created a virtuous cycle whereby fancy districts compete with charter and private school options for enrollment. This leads to a brutal crucible for new charter schools in Arizona whereby parents quickly shut many down because they have plenty of other options. Educators open lots of schools and parents close lots of schools-leading to world-class Arizona charter scores. Arizona’s charter NAEP score triumph was more or less mathematically inevitable once this process got rolling. Did I mention the part about Arizona leading the nation in statewide cohort NAEP gains since 2009? That too but Ohio not so much.

I’m open to challenge in the comment section from any of my Ohio friends or anyone else, but by contrast to these eyes Ohio’s choice programs look to be mired in an urban quagmire and they need the leafy suburbs to play in order to win. Current policies not only have not unlocked Ohio’s Scottsdale Unified equivalents, they likely never will. NACSA put Ohio’s revised charter school law in their top ten, but allow me to pull up a couch and heat up some popcorn for the next few years as charters lawyer up and parents resist arbitrary bureaucratic closures, and the rate of new schools opening goes glacial.

Competition is by far the best method of quality control and bringing the leafy suburban districts into the melee is crucial if you are in the urban fight to win. The districts currently largely untouched by charters and private choice overlap with those not participating in open enrollment. Regulating urban charters is not going to make your suburban districts into defacto CMOs. This.isn’ While counter-intuitive to many if you want to secure improved education options for the poor, you need to include everyone.


14 Responses to Deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, suburbanites want that wall, but broad choice can take walls down

  1. The more strongly suburbanites want to maintain walls, the more of a challenge it will be to enact school choice programs. As I’ve long been arguing, the key to political victory in Ed reform is winning support from suburbanites. Whether we like it or not, suburbanites have significantly disproportionate political power. That’s why narrowly targeting programs toward disadvantages urban kids tends to fail politically because it offers no benefits to suburbanites and they fear some risk/cost to them.

    We have to include suburbanites as beneficiaries in choice programs to have enduring political success. But how are we supposed to do this if they think they have a good thing going and are determined to keep others out? I think the answer is that the average suburbanite has a good thing going but there are significant groups within suburbia who are not as well-served by the status quo, including special ed, people interested in a non-standard curriculum or pedagogy (e.g. Classical education, Montessori, etc…), and other square pegs being forced into round holes by industrial scale suburban schools.

    We have to pitch choice programs to these discontent suburbanites to start breaking down the walls described in this piece.

    • matthewladner says:


    • allen says:

      Disagree (gee, what else is new?).

      The Democratic party is the primary opponent of school choice having aligned itself with the teacher’s unions. That urban slant to school choice enrollment’s a function of where the schools are the worst and the population’s poorest.

      Rich mommies and daddies can afford a private school if their district schools get lousy. Poor parents have to come to terms with their kids getting an education as lousy as they got. Not uncommonly from the same schools.

      The complexion of those parents is disproportionately black.

      The Democratic party depends heavily on an overwhelming black vote to achieve national power but the party has thrown in with the teacher’s unions against those black parents (and their friends, neighbors and family by extension). Should the Republican party ever waken to that fact they might exploit the situation.

      I don’t have much hope of that ever happening but than Donald Trump. If HE figures that out than Betsy DeVos will be dropping by charter schools on a weekly basis and the local media will be bombarded with press releases announcing each visit. The better to bring out the left which won’t do itself any favors by alienating the parents of the kids enrolled in the school.

      So there’s one political ramification but there’s another issue that’s, perhaps, more important.

      Right now charter schools operate under the performance umbrella of the district model. That model’s organize more for the convenience and benefit of the employees of the district than it is for educational benefit so educational considerations don’t weigh heavily. Consequently, charter schools don’t have to be particularly good. They just have to be better then the quite often awful district schools.

      But that umbrella will lose value as charters start to compete with each other.

      Charter schools already engage in an unseemly degree of advertising but buying ad space will only get you so far. At some point charters will have to start showing, and proving, the sort of results that get parental attention.

      That can be accomplished in a variety of ways among which will be paying attention to teaching skill in a way district schools don’t. Maybe Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi will finally get the attention they deserve – Maybe ed schools that emphasize the techniques and practices of Marva Collins or David MacEnulty will find their graduates sought after.

      But finding exceptional teachers still results in the sort of classroom Socrates would find understandable. We’ve come a long way since Socrates put his students to sleep.

      So technology. Driven not by a vague desire to appear to be on a non-existent cutting edge, and scoop up the funding that follows, but a life-or-death decision to improve efficiency and expand offerings before the school down the street does so and your enrollment plummets.

      Will suburban parents notice when inner city kids start hoovering up chess and math and science prizes? Yeah, I kind of think they will.

      At that point how tough is the sell job going to be to convince those parents that parental choice will benefit their child?

      • matthewladner says:


        First off my assertion is that inner city kids benefit from having access to the Lakewood Ohios of the world in addition to charter and private schools. I am not recommending that we abandon inner city kids, but rather that there are large benefits for broadly inclusive systems of choice-including for inner city kids.

        Second, this “school choice as a wedge issue” theory seems to remain almost entirely speculative after a couple of decades. There are Democrats who live in both the inner cities and in the suburbs, do you have any evidence to suggest that either inner city or suburban Democrats are prone to changing their voting behavior on this issue? I’m not aware of any personally, and for the inner city wedge theory to work the propensity to switch would need to be much higher in the inner cities to make up for a higher rate of voter turnout among suburban Democrats.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Before we judge the early movement too harshly, let’s acknowledge they didn’t have the opportunities we have. They had to take the political coalitions that were available. We have the luxury of discussing whether Howard Fuller and John Kirtley are worth it, but they didn’t.

    • matthewladner says:

      Howard and John are two of the people who have logged more miles than me in this movement and so they will always be welcome in my tent even if they disagree with me on this issue. I agree that Milwaukee would have never launched the modern movement as a universal program but…it is 2017 and we need to learn from the evidence available to us imo.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Which is it? Are Howard and John always welcome in your tent, or do you want to learn from the evidence available to us? Log as many miles as you want, you still can’t eat your cake and have it.

      • matthewladner says:

        The conversation continues under the tent.

      • Greg Forster says:

        You can only say “the conversation continues” until it’s time to take action. Then you have to choose.

      • matthewladner says:

        If I were the Padishah seated on the Golden Lion throne I could sic my sardaukar on heretics, but luckily for everyone I am not, so I’ll have to do my best to persuade people with the more limited set of tools available.


      • Greg Forster says:

        It was the Fremen (the good guys) and not the emperor who cared about punishing heretics. That’s part of the point of the book – that the human race demands religion, and the most natural and predictable result of the triumph of liberal religion is the overthrow of liberal religion by violent, fanatical reactionary religion. It is therefore best to find middle ground between permissiveness and fanaticism if you are able to do so.

        And I’m not heresy hunting, I’m only pointing out facts – facts that are not under my control but are under my observation.

  3. Mike G says:

    With an hour’s work, you could easily create the same map for Massachusetts. Look at inter-district choice.

  4. pdexiii says:

    “…“I think historically the feeling around here is that we have a good thing going, so they want to keep the unwashed masses out.”

    And what is that ‘good thing?’ Affluent parents who will pay for what their child needs, so these so-called ‘good’ teachers don’t have to do much teaching and collect a nice, fat, (high-property value) paycheck. Of course I have no data to support this, but some juicy anecdotes:
    1) A good friend of mine lives in a very exclusive LA neighborhood; when the drinks start flowing at his house parties and we start talking about education, these affluent parents admit that the teachers in their schools ain’t so hot, but indeed depend on them to make up the slack with tutors, private music lessons, etc. Seniority, union contract, and zip code is the ‘good thing’ they love.
    2) Our current 7th grade math teacher is moving on to teach her love, elementary school. While she’s hoping to get a spot in a neighborhood closer to her home, those teachers ‘aren’t going anywhere,’ yet the districts offering her spots are far away from home and teach a demographic similar if not more challenging than the one we have now. Those teachers love their ‘good thing,’ too, and in each case there isn’t a whiff of school choice in those neighborhoods.

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