"Upper caucasia" is not the nicest name for one of Washington, D.C.'s "nicest" areas. Situated west of Rock Creek Park and just south of tony Bethesda, Maryland, are a number of neighborhoods -- Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights, Tenleytown -- that offer suburban- style living with an urban address. In a city that is 55 percent black and 17 percent poor, the residents here are, for the most part, white and wealthy.
Most children in this area attend private school, despite the presence of several well-regarded public options. So it was hardly a surprise last November when self-segregated Upper Caucasia erupted into turf wars as the Obamas toured elite preparatory academies, seeking a school appropriate for the first daughters. They settled, predictably, on Sidwell Friends, Chelsea Clinton's alma mater.
But a month later, another prominent family's search for a school went largely unnoticed. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan moved with his family from Chicago, where he had been chief executive officer of the city's public schools, to Arlington, Virginia. High-quality suburban public schools were "why we chose" to live in Arlington, Duncan told Science magazine in March. "It was the determining factor."
It is the Duncan family's story -- not the Obamas' -- that holds the greater public policy significance. Whereas the Obamas had safety and privacy concerns to consider, Duncan's daughter and son are anonymous kids, with a father who has long been committed to alleviating urban poverty. Years before he began his career as an education reformer, Duncan wrote his Harvard undergraduate thesis on "The Values, Aspirations, and Opportunities of the Urban Underclass." Yet the Duncans chose not to enroll their kids in school alongside the children of that "underclass." Conservative columnist Cal Thomas describes why -- supposedly -- no loving, middle-class parent would ever do so: "That would be a form of intellectual and social child abuse."
In truth, research shows that the educational outcomes for middle-class kids who attend "bad," socioeconomically integrated schools are similar to those of middle-class kids who attend "good," mostly white schools with little discernible poverty. Meanwhile, attending more diverse schools helps poor children immeasurably by allowing them to share in the benefits of having active, highly educated parents advocating on their behalf.
The point here is not to wring our hands over the choices of individual families. Some parents choose private school because they believe their child's education won't be complete without Latin. Others look for religious values, or a first-rate hockey team. Yet there is one education choice we consistently deny: the choice of poor, urban parents to send their children to suburban schools. Both conservative and progressive education reformers are fond of independently managed charter schools and even private school vouchers. Neither of these policy levers lessens school segregation, though, because they maintain strict lines between school districts.
In recent years, advocating for school integration was seen as impossibly retro, but now there is pretty decisive evidence that integration matters. The most recent National Assessment of Education Progress -- a test often referred to as "the nation's report card" -- shows that between 2004 and 2008, the achievement gap between white children and black and Latino children did not shrink at all. In other words, No Child Left Behind is not working. In fact, an analysis of the data since the 1970s shows that the achievement gap shrunk most during the period prior to the Reagan Revolution, when courts nationwide were still enforcing strict desegregation orders.
This doesn't mean we should reopen the busing wars. Rather, we should foster regional partnerships between urban and suburban districts. The Obama administration and Congress, as they consider the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind later this year, ought to provide more funding for the creation of high-quality public magnet schools in urban districts. Magnet programs in the sciences and performing arts encourage affluent parents to keep their kids within the public system. And when enrollment at those magnet schools is open to suburban students, seats for city kids become available at traditional suburban high schools. Cities such as Hartford, St. Louis, and Milwaukee already have oversubscribed inter-district transfer programs that work in this way.
As Secretary Duncan surely realizes, "school choice" does not have to be conservative code speak for privatizing public education. He chose to send his children to a public school in Arlington, Virginia, instead of one five miles away in downtown D.C. The question is, will he and the Obama administration work actively to allow all parents to share in the fruits of suburbia? Or are white picket fences and decent schools just for the few?