In an effort to reform the city’s public school system, Baltimore City Public Schools established an open choice enrollment policy from 2000 to 2010 and today allows all students to choose which middle and high school they wish to attend, regardless of their home address. Choosing a high school in this open choice enrollment system has proven to be a particularly complicated and confusing process that requires the consideration of a range of factors. TCF fellow and Johns Hopkins professor Stefanie DeLuca, Barbara F. Condliffe of Johns Hopkins, and Melody L. Boyd of the State University of New York, explore the difficulties faced by Baltimore’s low-income students when selecting a high school in their article, “Stuck in School: How Social Context Shapes School Choice for Inner-City Students.” Despite the good intentions of policymakers, Condliffe, Boyd, and DeLuca find that the constraints of poverty, combined with minimal access to information about how to select a school, prevents low-income Baltimore students from maximizing their academic options, even when they are given a choice.

“Stuck in School” emphasizes that school district officials must fully acknowledge the social context of students and their families and recognize that low-income students are often unable to take full advantage of a school choice system. Rather than selecting academically elite schools, low-income students may be forced to remain close to home because of a lack of transportation, may not know about other options due to a lack of guidance, or may simply be constrained by their district’s dearth of quality, reputable schools. According to multiple educational studies, continuing to allow a concentration of poor children to attend the same failing schools greatly impedes their academic achievement. If school districts are actually dedicated to providing upward mobility to their students and increasing holistic achievement, then administrators must ensure that low-income students receive adequate assistance during the school choice process.

Barriers to True Access

The Baltimore study includes a sample of 118 low-income African American students whose families qualify for Baltimore’s Moving To Opportunity housing voucher program. The study’s conclusions are drawn from extensive interviews with the students and their parents, as well as from analyzing the academic successes and failures of these students.

While they were finishing middle school, the students in the study were given the opportunity to choose among Baltimore’s high schools. Nearly 80 percent of students made their choice on their own. These students often chose their schools for non-academic reasons, including proximity to their homes and neighborhoods, or whether their friends also chose to attend the school. The other 20 percent made their decision with the assistance of parents or teachers, and, according to “Stuck in School,” these students usually attended better schools compared to those they were initially interested in. However, some students who received guidance from their parents still chose schools based on proximity, or other empty markers of quality, such as school uniforms or extra security guards, rather than the school’s academic outcomes and achievement records.

Baltimore does have high achieving high schools that any student could, in theory, choose to attend. However, many students face not just informational barriers that prevent them from choosing these schools in the first place, but also academic barriers to getting into these schools, due to their low grades in middle and elementary school. “Stuck in School” highlights the fact that students apply to these schools so that they may have the opportunity to break their history of low achievement. But when they are not accepted into these reach schools, students continue their patterns of bad grades—especially when neither their school environment nor their home life is very supportive of academic achievement.

Why We Need School Choice

While “Stuck in School” recognizes the difficulties that prevent low-income families from taking full advantage of a school choice system, school choice remains an important and necessary educational policy, especially in areas like Baltimore where poverty is systemic and socioeconomic status is indicative of one’s life chances. It is a crucial step to achieving greater racial and economic balance in schools, and, philosophically, the policy signals that a student’s education does not have to be determined by the quality of their neighborhood.

If school choice is implemented purposefully, concentrations of poverty and racial segregation in schools could be broken up, creating more diverse and integrated schools. In turn, this improves conditions not just for disadvantaged students, but it can also improve student achievement and social skills for well-off students, as even those students benefit from having peers from various backgrounds.

Baltimore must intentionally implement its school choice policy by guaranteeing that students from low-income families are properly guided through the school choice process while also being supported with safe transportation when they make their choices. Baltimore schools could consider implementing a “controlled choice” policy, which would ensure that no schools would have a concentration of low-income students. Controlled choice would allow students and families to select their schools and the district to assign them while adhering to socioeconomic integration guidelines.

In “Stuck in School,” the authors also assert that the district must provide more high quality schools without barriers to admission so that more students have the opportunity to attend schools that are known for being good—that is, having strong academic environments and high achieving students. At the same time, the cultures at “bad” schools need to be changed for the better, and a controlled school choice policy intent on socioeconomic integration could certainly help in achieving this, especially if the policy is implemented well.

To turn around its schools, the district should invest in less-frequently chosen schools so students and teachers have enough appropriate educational resources;  the district could even experiment with charter, magnet, or Montessori themes to attract a more diverse student body at their underperforming schools. Baltimore must face the challenge of erasing and improving the stigma from its less elite schools, and this task will require a concerted effort by the district. Ultimately, no child in Baltimore should have to choose a school they are not proud to attend.

“Stuck in School” makes an important observation concerning the implementation of progressive policies. As DeLuca notes in this article on neighborhoods and school choice, “poor families are not just wealthy families without a bankbook.” Poverty can be all encompassing, forcing families to prioritize staying safe and keeping food on the table above all else. Education policymakers should therefore fully consider the stresses and circumstances of parents and students living in poverty, and assist them accordingly—providing both information and resources to help low-income families make a better school choice. In an interview, DeLuca remarks that choice alone is “not a guarantee” to fix school inequality. “We have to consider the way families approach choice,” she says. For an open choice policy to work, it should actively challenge the status quo and help, not hurt, the most vulnerable students.