Rebecca Kisner, a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation and community outreach coordinator at a high-performing charter school, says school choice – in its current form – only goes so far for Denver’s low-income families.
Over the last two years, enrollment into the Denver public school system has undergone a transformation into a streamlined application process called SchoolChoice.
The SchoolChoice application allows families to choose their top five school choices and assigns them based on capacity, availability, neighborhood preference and other factors. This promise of “choice” comes with serious implications: it sends the message to families that the possibility exists for their child to attend any school in the district. And while geographic boundaries may no longer dictate school enrollment, the boundaries imposed by poverty still limit choice for most low-income families.
The recent University of Colorado Denver’s Buechner Institute of Governance report analyzes the results of the first year of SchoolChoice. According to the UCD report, nearly half of the 12,637 parents responded that the number one reason for choosing their school was location close to home, work or family.
Parents of Hispanic students are almost twice as likely as parents of white students to choose their school based on location, while parents of students who receive free or reduced lunch were 20 percent more likely than their counterparts who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch. This reveals that for poor and minority families in Denver participating in SchoolChoice, location is still a prevailing factor over school performance.
With an enrollment system that historically has been based exclusively on geographic proximity, the highest-performing schools are most often located in the highest-income neighborhoods, while the lowest-performing schools are in the poorest neighborhoods. Schools have become a reflection and perpetuation of their community and particularly of the severe socioeconomic segregation that exists across the city.
SchoolChoice has the potential to improve the chances for low-income students to attend high-performing schools by allowing all families to apply to schools other than their neighborhood school. The unfortunate truth is that daily transportation to and from these schools remains a massive obstacle for low-income families to overcome.
What would SchoolChoice have to look like in order to provide universal opportunities for low-income students to receive a quality education? It is critical that all families in Denver know they have a choice in their school and have access to reliable resources that help them make that choice, including information about their chances of acceptance into any given school. It is equally important that these choices are meaningful and realistic.
For families living in poverty, the promise of choice will mean very little if in practice it entails commuting across the city.
To find a high quality neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood is rare. Equal access requires high quality options in poor areas of the city so that low-income children’s futures are not predetermined by their zip code. SchoolChoice provides great opportunity for these students – but this opportunity will never be seized as long as the barriers of poverty prevent families from traveling beyond their neighborhoods to attend a better school.
Rebecca Kisner is a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, where her work focuses on school choice, family engagement and alternative education. Kisner is also the community engagement coordinator at Rocky Mountain Prep, where she helps families exercise their choice in finding a high quality school.