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Amy Stuart Wells Headshot

No Superman in Suburbia

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Last month, during National School Choice Week, Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio emerged from jail after serving a nine-day sentence for choosing to send her two daughters out of their inner-city school district to a public school in the neighboring suburban Copley-Fairlawn district. Following a long investigation, indictment and a four-day jury trial, the black, single mother was convicted on two felony counts of falsifying her residence records.

In a similar case, two boys who live in Baltimore were kicked out of the suburban school they were attending and their mother is being forced to pay back tuition to the district even though she was in the process of renting a place to live in the suburb. As these two cases garner more media attention, more stories are emerging of suburban school districts setting up elaborate and often expensive border patrols to keep urban students out. Meanwhile, a growing number of parents with children stuck in failing urban schools -- be they public, charter or private -- are trying to make the right choices.

Ironically, in an era when school choice programs -- particularly charter schools -- are seen by policy makers on the political left and right of the answer, these mothers are getting little to no support from the usual school choice suspects. Indeed, reactions to Ms. Williams-Bolar's well-publicized case by some of the most vocal proponents of school choice have ranged from unsupportive to non-existent. Some blogs and websites frequented by market-based school reformers equated Ms. Williams-Bolar's act with stealing shoes. Never mind that her father lives in the Copley-Fairlawn district, or that, according to Ms. Williams-Bolar, she and her daughters live with him part time, or that her daughters go to their grandfather's house after school so that they can be safe and with an adult while their mother works and goes to school at night (to become a teacher).

Most striking in its absence was any discussion of successful Civil Rights-era, urban-to-suburban school choice programs in eight metropolitan areas through which urban parents legally do exactly what Ms. Williams-Bolar was convicted of doing: send their children to high-achieving, suburban schools. From Rochester, New York to St. Louis, and Boston to East Palo Alto, California, parents, students and educators have been trying to keep these unique urban-suburban school choice programs alive absent the national attention and support charter schools have received.

Despite a lack of public attention, these innovative urban-to-suburban programs -- most of which were court-ordered or created by state legislation in the 1960s -- have legally provided thousands of low-income urban black and Latino families meaningful school choices in more affluent settings. Most of these programs have no admissions requirements, and students are provided free transportation to assure they can get to their suburban school each day.

Reams of social science evidence explain why these programs are popular with participants, and why Ms. Williams-Bolar was wise to enroll her children in a more affluent, suburban, well-resourced and high-achieving school outside her city neighborhood. For instance, there is ample evidence that a high concentration of poor children in a single school is the most reliable predictor of school failure, even for the non-poor students in those schools. We also know that severe racial segregation in neighborhoods and schools persists, decades after mandated school desegregation and the passage of fair housing laws.

Meanwhile, segregation by income is increasing rapidly -- in our neighborhoods and schools. More specifically, the evidence on the impact of these eight urban-suburban school choice programs is far more optimistic than that on charter schools. Black and Latino students who attend suburban schools through such programs are more than twice as likely to graduate from high school and attend college than similar peers who remained in their neighborhood schools. One study of the urban-suburban school choice plan in Hartford found that graduates of this program were far more likely to work in fields in which blacks or Latinos have historically been underrepresented.

Research also suggests that students of all races who attend these now racially diverse schools in these suburban districts participating in these programs emerge with more open racial attitudes and more acceptance of people who are different from them. In fact, in several of these metropolitan areas, the officials and residents of the suburban school districts that accept the urban students have become staunch supporters of these plans. Indeed, in 2004, hundreds of students in an affluent suburban St. Louis high school walked out of class to protest efforts to end the urban-suburban school choice plan. According to one news report, the students organized the walkout to "show support for diversity in this top-ranked school district and for their friends."

Despite this mounting evidence, it is charter schools that have captured education reformers' imaginations, even more so now, following their alluring portrayal in the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman." The movie, which features Geoffrey Canada, the President of several Harlem charter schools, implies that poor children's future depends on them winning the lottery for admission to a charter schools. Interestingly enough, when Mr. Canada was a child, his mother made a choice similar to Ms. Williams-Bolar's, sending him to live with his grandparents on Long Island so he could attend a suburban school.

Thus, what Mr. Canada's mother and Ms. Williams-Bolar knew intuitively is well documented in the lives of the graduates of cross-district, urban-to-suburban choice programs. Ironically, these cross-district integration programs, which produce better academic outcomes for urban students, while preparing children for our demographic future, have received far less political support than charter schools, which tend to be highly segregated by race and class. But Ms. Williams-Bolar and thousands of other urban mothers who have participated in these urban-suburban transfer programs over the last 50 years knew that.

As their court orders are lifted and funds become tighter, several of these urban-suburban transfer plans are being phased out, while charter schools enjoy the political and financial backing of donors anxious to be superheroes to poor children. Perhaps a few of these supermen and women should get behind Ms. Williams-Bolar and other parents like her who want to make their own school choices.