Pandering and Student Assignment Policy: Meeting Needs in Urban Schools

Full Case Study available in Dilemmas of Educational Ethics, or read a journal article featuring this case study: Original Journal | Open Access


Urban SchoolsSnapshot: Segregation by race and by class is a major driver of educational inequality in the US today. How should school districts navigate the fact of segregation? Are there limits to what they can do to entice families of means into their schools?


Case Description: Urban school districts struggle to serve all students' needs, including both the low-income children of color who tend to comprise the bulk of urban school students and also the middle-class children of predominantly white new urbanites who have been drawn back into the city in recent years. These middle class families have the clout to pull additional resources into the public schools, if they join the system, but their values and preferences aren't always consonant with those held by lower-income parents. In designing a new school assignment plan, is it ethical to pander to middle class families’ preferences so as to draw them, and their social and economic capital, into the public system?

This policy case centers on Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) “home-based plan” for making school assignment decisions. Under the BPS plan, middle-class parents are given privileged access to the best schools in the district in a bid to reduce the racial and class segregation that drives significant educational inequality. At the same time, however, the BPS plan seems to advantage the already (unjustly) advantaged. This is a great case not only for policymakers and school leaders, but teachers, families, and other community members who want to think deeply about the complex issues that structure our schools.

Additional resource: See this amazing graphic representation of residential and school segregation patterns across the U.S., including a terrific "find your own district" feature, to reflect further about how school assignment policies may influence families' residential and school choice decisions. Vox: "Mapping the Imaginary Lines We Use to Segregate Our Schools"