Friday, August 29, 2014

Elizabeth Warren wants to kill the neighborhood school

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at Framingham State University's commencement ceremony in 2013. Warren's higher education policies lean left, but her K-12 proposal from 2003 is more conservative. Aram Boghosian/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

An old and surprisingly Republican-sounding comment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren is creating a minor stir after it resurfaced in a New Yorker article this week. In 2003, Warren laid out a proposal for what she called a school voucher system — letting money follow students to the public school of their choice.

"An all-voucher system would be a shock to the educational system," the magazine quotes the Massachusetts Democrat as writing in her book The Two-Income Trap. "But the shakeout might be just what the system needs."

The headlines write themselves. Warren agrees with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA); pigs fly; hell freezes over.

The idea that unites Warren and Cantor: Allow students to attend any public school in their area, regardless of where they live. In other words, get rid of neighborhood schools, with their traditionally small attendance areas.

Warren argues this would decouple school quality from property values. A school in a wealthy subdivision would no longer be better than a school in a poor one. Students would be assigned based on their interests and preferences, not their family income.

It's a familiar idea. Cantor attached an amendment to an overhaul of No Child Left Behind last summer that would have allowed students to take their federal money with them to attend the public school of their choice.

But, philosophically, Cantor and Warren are very different. And Warren's views aren't entirely out of step with the education reform wing of the Democratic party.

The key word here is 'public'

"School choice" — the idea that public education ought to include options for students and parents beyond just the neighborhood school — is a big tent, one that contains Cantor, Warren, President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul.

"School choice," though, is also commonly used as a narrower synonym for an unfettered voucher system. Although Warren doesn't use the term this way, most people hear the word "vouchers" and think of a system where students can use federal, state or local dollars to attend private and religious schools.

Those are the vouchers that many Republicans, including Cantor, support. (Cantor watered this down when he added the amendment to the House education bill, but he's traditionally been a forceful advocate for voucher systems that let students attend private and parochial schools.)

And in the book, Warren writes that she doesn't mean that kind of voucher system. She disavows the usual public-versus-private framing of vouchers as a distraction, because students who don't opt for vouchers are still stuck with their neighborhood public schools.

She implies, too, that her plan would exclude private schools. Her voucher system, she writes, "would keep much-needed tax dollars inside the public school system while still reaping the advantages offered by a voucher program."

That's an interpretation of "school choice" (and of vouchers) that falls firmly within the boundaries of the Democratic party. It's friendly to magnet schools and charter schools, but not to Catholic schools or private schools.

That's not to say it's universally popular. Many Democrats were critical of Cantor's proposal last summer, chief among them Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the top House Democrat on education. And teachers unions particularly tend to regard policies not focused on neighborhood schools with suspicion.

Meanwhile, Warren's vision could become reality in Washington, DC, which is mulling the end of neighborhood schools.

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