School choice and the case for equity

Over at Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle has explored how school choice activists, particularly those on the left, can re-energize the legal case for equity in education spending. He writes, “If choice activists and civil libertarian groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union successfully take up such moves, it would lead to another round of school choice efforts that would provide more poor and minority children with opportunities to get the high-quality education they deserve.”

Biddle has done more than any journalist to highlight the egregious symptoms of what he calls zip code education, notably pointing to the criminal prosecution of a homeless mother in Connecticut and a low-income parent in Ohio who sent their children to schools outside their assigned districts. He sees relief in the very state constitutional provisions that give most choice advocates heartburn: the idea that states must provide uniform systems of public schools. The language differs depending on the state, but the same barriers exist for voucher or charter school expansions. Or do they?

“Practices that have led to zip code education, including the concept of zoned schools, are essentially unconstitutional; and thus, inter-district choice of the kind encouraged by otherwise foes of choice such as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation would be allowable,” Biddle writes.

Before readers roll their eyes, they should know there is precedence in Biddle’s contention, namely in two of the most stalwart advocates for equity, John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman of the University of California at Berkeley. Coons and Sugarman first struck at the inequalities in school spending between rich districts and poor districts in the 40-year-old California case known as Serrano v. Priest. The case led the California Supreme Court in 1971 to establish the concept of “fiscal neutrality,” which recognized that the quality of a child’s education should not be a function of a district’s wealth or poverty. The way to equalize education for rich and poor, Coons and Sugarman eventually argued, was to enact a system of choice.

A commitment to family choice in education, Coons would later write, “would maximize, equalize and dignify as no other remedy imaginable.” And, notably, this comes from a progressive voice that Biddle believes is critical to this enterprise. While it’s unlikely that any grassroots or parent-led effort can soon convince the ACLU to drop its opposition to the choice policies that Biddle and Coons would promote, Biddle is right to argue that it will take a left-of-center effort to quarterback this challenge.