Research from Montgomery County, Maryland, and elsewhere suggests that reducing socioeconomic isolation is a far more effective—and cheaper—way of improving academic achievement than spending extra money on high-poverty schools. In a 2010 Century Foundation report, Heather Schwartz, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, compared the effect of two separate programs in Montgomery County. Montgomery’s school-based program, following the traditional Title I logic, provided extra money—approximately $2,000 per pupil—to students in high-poverty schools that was aimed at reducing class sizes in the early grades, expanding professional-development opportunities for teachers, and establishing extended learning time. The second program, an inclusionary-zoning housing policy, allowed low-income families to live in public housing in middle-class neighborhoods and send their children to low-poverty schools.
Because families were randomly assigned to public-housing units throughout the county, Schwartz was able to fairly compare which students performed better over time: those in higher-poverty schools that received extra funding, or those in lower-poverty schools receiving lower levels of funding. Schwartz tracked students and found that those randomly assigned to middle-class neighborhoods and schools performed far better, cutting the math achievement gap with middle-class students in half. Being allowed to attend middle-class schools—where national research suggests that, on average, students are more academically engaged, parents are more involved in school affairs, and teachers have higher expectations—trumped the Title I approach. In other words, the extra funding doesn’t necessarily compensate for the disadvantages of attending high-poverty schools.
Those findings would suggest that the Republicans’ principle of portability, in fact, has in it the seeds of a solution to reduce economic segregation through public-school choice—if, and only if, portability is properly structured. In order to accomplish this, portable federal Title I funding, as well as state and local funding, would need to be weighted heavily enough to give poor kids sufficient money in their "backpacks" that middle-class public schools would want to recruit them to attend.
As it’s currently designed, the Alexander proposal is unlikely to provide that incentive. As former Obama education department official Peter Cunningham recently noted, "the amount of money that would follow an individual child is in the low hundreds." Educators know that it costs substantially more, on average, to bring low-income students into high levels of proficiency. That means that accepting low-income student transfers who come with only a marginal amount of extra money attached to them would likely reduce a school’s test scores and increase the chances of the school being labeled as "failing."