I had a story on page A2 of the Washington Post yesterday (Aug. 14) on research showing that inner city families who moved to better neighborhoods under an unusual federal housing voucher program did not find that their children were, on average, doing any better in their new schools. The reports threw cold water on the hopes shared by many social reformers, including presidential candidate John Edwards, that moving kids to better schools in better neighborhoods would improve their academic achievement, as other studies have indicated would happen.
I made plans for the story several weeks in advance, and asked several experts, including Edwards, to comment on the findings. When I got back from vacation on Monday, I tried to collect all the emails the experts had sent me, but stupidly overlooked the one from the senator. Here is what he said:
"Education should be the sturdiest ladder of opportunity in this
country. But more than fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education,
we still have two school systems in this country, where the quality of
our children's education depends on their parents' zip code.
Concentrating poor families together, often far from good schools and
good jobs, undermines every other antipoverty effort. Obviously, we
need to improve schools and neighborhoods everywhere. But when done
right, economically diverse schools and neighborhoods have helped
low-income children learn without impacting middle-class children."
He was reacting to the point made by the researchers that the federal program, while scientifically interesting because it provided a random control group of similar families who did not move, may not have been a good test of the power of economic diversity because the neighborhoods the inner city families moved to were not much better than they ones they left. The new neighborhoods were not very racially diverse and the new schools were not very high-performing. My conclusion from reading the studies was that improving the academic achievement of inner city children is going to require hard work at raising the standards of the schools in the neighborhoods they live in now, and if the kind of economic class integration Edwards is talking about is to succeed, it will have to find a way to get those low-income kids into schools with a much greater proportion of middle-class students than the families in the HUD Moving to Opportunity program found in their new schools.
Edwards' "Plan to Promote Economically Diverse Schools" includes bonuses to middle-class schools enrolling low-income students and magnet schools dedicated to economic integration. Both are interesting ideas, and buttress Edwards' status in my eyes as the most original of the presidential candidates on educational issues so far.
His plan also includes creating a million new housing vouchers. The HUD MTO program created only about 3,000 new vouchers, but that was a pretty good test of what such a program would do. He might want to reconsider that part of his plan in light of the disappointing results from the HUD effort.