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Amy Stuart Wells Discusses “The Many Faces of School Choice Policy”


Amy Stuart Wells Discusses “The Many Faces of School Choice Policy"

Amy Stuart Wells

Columbia Law School Race and Education Workshop Series

After Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) effectively denied the legal basis for school segregation, states have enacted policies offering various forms of school choice to the parents of public school children. Despite heightened media attention given to issues of school choice since the 1990s and again with the passage of "No Child Left Behind," for the last five decades states and districts around the country have generated an ever-expanding menu of school choice options, according to Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology and Education at TC. Since that time, such options have included state-award "grants" to parents (an early form of vouchers), open enrollment, "controlled choice," inter- and intra-district choice, charter schools, and per-pupil vouchers.

As part of the Columbia Law School Race and Education Workshop Series, Wells spoke about "The Many Faces of School Choice Policy: Vouchers and Charter Schools Are Not the Only Choices." Her lecture provided a historical overview of school choice, the connections between that history and attempts to desegregate K-12 schools, and looked at the relative success of magnet schools compared to the largely unproven wave of charter schools. She noted that, initially, school choice policy primarily served families that possessed resources and a measure of social status. With the growth of the suburbs, white middle-class families with the means to relocate did so, in part, to put their children in more homogeneous schools-this in itself was a form of "school choice," Wells said.

Those movements were at times facilitated by public policies and court decisions, such as Milliken v. Bradley (1974), in which the Supreme Court ruled that suburban districts were not responsible for addressing racial imbalance in their districts unless it could be proven that a school district intentionally acted to contribute to segregation. Urban district administrators, faced with a lack of federal backing to desegregate, came up with several solutions. One popular one has been magnet schools, featuring specialized curricula such as advanced science or music classes, designed to attract students from the suburbs as a means of voluntary desegregation.

Magnet schools were given an additional boost by 1984 Magnet School Assistant Act, and currently there are between 4,000 and 5,000 magnet schools in the U.S. These schools have found strong federal support because they presented an alternative to involuntary solutions such as busing, Wells said. As many as 20 percent of all urban students are enrolled in magnet schools and it is those urban districts that are breaking new ground in terms of innovation and creativity, she added.

Looking at the contemporary movement towards establishing charter schools, Wells pointed out an important distinction between magnets and charter schools. While both types of schools use public education funds to operate, magnet schools tend to have more resources than traditional public schools, often with higher per-pupil spending and the means to transport out-of-district students to the schools. Charter schools, however, have fewer public supports such as transportation funds. The lack of transportation funds, by itself, can limit access to non-neighborhood populations.

Much of the support for charter schools and vouchers has been grounded in the ideals of market-based reform-the belief that fostering competition for per-pupil dollars would enhance the quality of both public schools and charters. While many charter schools do serve children of color, the evidence to date is a mixed bag in terms of whether charters are fostering higher academic achievement and more accountability, Wells said.previous page