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The inequities of geography and history, not of reform

The dilemma Natalie Hopkinson faces in finding the right school for her 11-year-old son is not limited to the African-American neighborhoods of the District of Columbia, and the winners and losers she decries as part of new education reforms have a much longer history in the field of public education.

Ms. Hopkinson, writing Monday in The New York Times, looked across Rock Creek Park in D.C. to see a mostly white, affluent community with a new middle school that includes rugby, fencing and an International Baccalaureate program and concludes: “Such inequities are the perverse result of a ‘reform’ process intended to bring choice and accountability to the school system.”

Unfortunately, such inequities are a powerful reminder of history. They bring us back to the end of the 19th century, when a U.S. Supreme Court pretended that separate was equal, and to a young black girl in Topeka, Kansas, nearly a half-century later who refused to pass by higher-quality white schools on her way to one whose students matched the color of her skin.

Ms. Hopkinson’s anguish is genuine, even if her analysis is askew. Yes, educational choice can produce what amounts to winners and losers, as some schools tangle with waiting lists and others battle to keep open their doors. But the historic winners and losers fell almost exclusively along lines of race and class in an assignment system defined principally by geography. Live in the right neighborhoods and you had access to the best schools.

One of the ugly realities of our half-century struggle to break apart legally sanctioned racial segregation in public education was that schools in black neighborhoods were often bulldozed or converted to magnets that primarily served white students from other areas. As such, black students tended to be bused away from home, and their neighborhood options, as Ms. Hopkinson still finds to this day, were limited or nonexistent.

The educational options that are proliferating in D.C. around the nation, though, have the effect of breaking down the geographical divide by enticing parents to look beyond their assigned school for learning options that match the learning styles of their own children. That, indeed, could involve charter schools or magnet programs or career academies or online courses or scholarship schools where the parental demand exceeds the educational supply. But the answer to that dilemma is not fewer, but more, options.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.