Education Reform Funding Poverty Privatization Racism School Choice

Why Zip Codes Matter

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From the earliest days of corporate reform, which is now generally recognized to have been a failed effort to “reform” schools by privatizing them and by making standardized testing the focal point of education, we heard again and again that a child’s zip code should not be his or her destiny. Sometimes, in the evolving debates, I got the sense that some people thought that zip codes themselves were a problem. If only we eliminated zip codes! But the reality is that zip codes are a synonym for poverty. So what the reformers meant was that poverty should not be destiny.

Would it were so! If only it were true that a child raised in an impoverished home had the same life chances as children brought up in affluent homes, where food, medical care, and personal security are never in doubt.

But “reformers” insisted that they could overcome poverty by putting Teach for America inexperienced teachers in classrooms, because they (unlike teachers who had been professionally prepared) “believed” in their students and by opening charter schools staffed by TFA teachers. Some went further and said that vouchers would solve the problem of poverty. All of this was nonsense, and thirty years later, poverty and inequality remain persistent, unaffected by thousands of charter schools and TFA.

In effect, the reformers held out the illusion that testing, competition, and choice would level the playing field and life chances of rich and poor kids. After 30 or more years of corporate reform, it is clear that the reform message diverted our attention from the wealth gap and the income gap, which define the significant differences among children who have everything and children who have very little.

Imagine the cost of assuring that every school in the nation were equitably and adequately funded. Imagine if all students had small classes in a school with beautiful facilities, healthy play spaces, the best technology, and well-paid teachers. That would go a long way towards eliminating the differences between rich schools and poor schools, but our society has not taxed itself to make sure that all kids have great schools.

None of the promises of “reform” have been fulfilled. The cynical among us think that the beneficiaries of reform have been the billionaires, who were never willing to pay the taxes necessary to narrow income and wealth inequality or to fund good schools in every neighborhood. They gladly fund “reforms” that require chicken feed, as compared to the taxes necessary to truly make zip codes irrelevant.

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