The new voice speaking against ZIP-codes-as-destiny in education

Travis Pillow
teachers union ZIP code

Part of the National Education Association’s new digital ad campaign (screenshot from Politico.com).

Students’ ZIP codes shouldn’t be their destiny.

Variations on that line have long been a rhetorical staple of school choice advocates, from parents prosecuted for daring to send their children to schools outside their assigned zone to outfits like the Center for Education Reform, whose statement of beliefs holds that “the quality of a student’s education should not be dictated by their zip code.”

Recently it’s become an adopted slogan of a different advocacy group: The National Education Association. The country’s largest teachers union has recently made the denunciation of ZIP code-based inequality a mainstay of its social media accounts and in its publicity surrounding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The idea was suggested in an internal communications memo that became public earlier this year, which appears to have informed the union’s ongoing campaign for a federal “opportunity dashboard” that would track a variety of indicators on public schools, from class sizes to teacher qualifications.

In fairness, the NEA has taken aim at ZIP codes before. It says it wants equity  meaning, among other things, schools should be funded based on their students’ needs, not the wealth of their tax base. That’s a worthwhile goal, especially in states that don’t even out funding among school districts they way Florida does. There are unconscionable gaps in a lot of places, and students should have access to quality schools, regardless of where they live or what their families can afford.

But look at the specific indicators identified in the NEA’s dashboard, and think about how they might be improved in practice.

Some parents might favor small class sizes; others might prioritize strong art or music programs. Shouldn’t the school system accommodate parents who reach different conclusions about the best ways for schools to manage those trade-offs? If their preferences don’t match those of the local school district, shouldn’t all parents have the same ability as wealthy families to choose other options?

Charter schools seem to have had success improving some of the teachers union’s preferred indicators, like “family and community engagement,” access to quality teachers, or autonomy for “educators to make site-based decisions.”

In short, perhaps this convergence of talking points signals something deeper. The question is not whether every student, regardless of where they live, should have access to a great education that allows them to achieve their potential. The question is how that goal should be achieved, and who should have the power to decide.

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