Getting Rid of Local Schools Would Make Student Bodies More Diverse

Enrolling kids in communities close to where their parents work might make commutes easier and student bodies more diverse.
John Picken Photography/Flickr

Neighborhood public schools are outdated. They were designed to keep children close to parents, especially when many had mothers who spent their days at home. But today, almost two-thirds of American kids don't have a stay-at-home parent—most moms and dads work long distances from their children’s schools, creating long commutes, missed days at work, and fewer opportunities to attend school events or PTA meetings.

In fact, research has shown that neighborhoods no longer serve as Americans' primary social networks or source of friends and advisers. More and more, these aspects of life are becoming part of the workplace; offices have even been called the new neighborhood. But assignment of public-school spaces has not  changed to reflect these trends, which has exacerbated family stress, inequality, and segregation.

According to the Census Bureau, U.S. commute times are an average of 25 minutes one way. Over 40 percent of commutes take even longer. For some parents, this is exacerbated by the need to drop kids off at school and pick them up at the end of the day. Plus, married couples are spending 185 more hours per year at work than they did ten years ago, which puts extra stress on families and reduces parental involvement in schools. 

In the long-term, companies would get a lot of benefits from funding the expansion or creation of public schools near their office sites. Bloomberg Business Week reported that 80 percent of employers said child care caused workdays to get cut short—and created more problems than any other  family-related issue in the workplace. Businesses save between $150,000 and $250,000 per year when there are on-site or nearby preschools. Economic benefits include reduced absenteeism and turnover, along with increased employee satisfaction and loyalty—all of which substantially improve productivity.

But there could also be diversity benefits. The No Child Left Behind Act gave parents the option of applying to schools other than the ones in their neighborhoods and expanded funding for charter and magnet schools. In some states, such as New Jersey, families can even request transfers outside their school district. These alternatives were mandated to desegregate schools and provide equal educational opportunities for all children.

Unfortunately, these efforts have failed to accomplish their goals. In fact, they have increased—not decreased—educational inequality and segregation since the 1960s. For example, New York City, which uses an open lottery for school placement, has the most segregated big-city schools in the nation.

The school-transfer criteria established by the No Child Left Behind Act should be expanded to allow parents to choose between guaranteed public school placement for their kids near to where they live or where they work—this would help make life easier for working parents, decrease ethnic and economic segregation, and increase productivity and educational equality. Since working parents are the new normal, and workplaces are the new neighborhoods, the way children are matched with schools should change to reflect reality.

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Ruth Bettelheim is a writer and psychotherapist based in New York.

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