A review of Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe’s education platform shows that he aims to take away what is perhaps the biggest choice parents currently have when it comes to their children’s education: The ability to choose a school by buying a home in a neighborhood that is zoned for it.
McAuliffe’s education plan entails pushing school districts to re-draw school boundary zones to be “anti-racist” — in other words, 1970s-style busing that could dramatically change families’ everyday lives by moving their kids to a different school than the one they expected when they chose their home.
“Where parents have greater opportunities to choose schools (where integration is not the goal), schools appear to become more segregated,” says the activist paper cited by his plan.
The campaign plan calls for “creating a school integration officer within the Virginia Department of Education, reviewing how diversity factors into school accreditation standards, incentivizing localities to implement integration strategies and working with developers to drastically improve access to affordable housing so that families can locate in areas with high-performing schools.”
While details of McAuliffe’s “desegregation” plan are sparse on his website, the fuller picture is found in the paper that forms its sole footnote and that tracks with its broad claims: A report from the Commonwealth Institute called “Addressing the Lasting impacts of Racist Choices on Virginia’s Education System.” The report uses the word racist 24 times. It laments “racist” educational systems in Virginia despite McAuliffe having been governor from 2014 to 2018, and his lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, having held the post since.
The Commonwealth Institute plan says:
Typically, a student would be assigned to a school close in proximity and that the neighborhood they live in is “zoned” for. However, having established the persisting legacy of housing and education segregation in the state, it becomes clear that this method results in segregated and often under-resourced schools. …
One way to approach this issue is through intra-district zoning policies that maintain socioeconomic and racial equity as its guiding principle alongside specific diversity goals. School divisions would make the decision to redraw school zones, based on socioeconomic status and/or the racial and economic makeup of their schools and/or neighborhoods, to create better integrated schools. …
Another district-wide strategy is called managed choice. In an equity-focused choice system, all families would be required to submit a set of school preferences, and their student’s assigned school would be based on a variety of determined goals that can include diversity and proximity, among others.
Tying accreditation to racial composition of schools suggests, in its most drastic form, that a school could lose its accreditation unless it has a certain racial makeup, which would force districts to implement busing. In a less drastic form, where a low diversity score would not be enough to shut a school down, but a high diversity score would effectively give it bonus points, the effect would be lower standards in high-minority schools. A positive rating in the “diversity” category would offset negative marks in academic categories that might otherwise have caused the school to fail, masking educators’ failure to help minorities do well.
The report says that “School accreditation systems often take into account measures such as test scores and chronic absenteeism to determine the quality of a school,” but that “Since diversity is necessary for a quality education and adequate workforce preparation, it should be part of the accreditation process.”
Flooding neighborhoods around good schools with new low-income housing
McAuliffe’s plan also calls for deliberately building low-income housing around top-rated schools. It says McAuliffe would work “with developers to drastically improve access to affordable housing so that families can locate in areas with high-performing schools.”
The Commonwealth Institute paper says this involves “inclusive zoning,” which has been called “abolishing the suburbs” because it means permitting apartments to be built anywhere within all existing single-family-home neighborhoods, as well as getting rid of the minimum lot sizes that give suburban neighborhoods quiet, nature-filled feels.
A similar policy was signed into law in California days after Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, won his recall election, resulting in no town being able to require any lawn to be larger than four feet, and houses on large lots able to be replaced with multiple smaller houses.
Major disruption to neighborhoods, but little evidence of academic benefits
Few issues in politics affect parents more than school zoning. Fairfax County, the state’s largest county, spent $100,000 on a boundary consultant in 2019, but has not followed through on plans after tremendous opposition from parents.
When Fairfax County was asked about the reason for attempting to spread minorities out equally at the time, it said that its research showed that schools that were not heavily minority had higher test scores. But asked whether minorities did better if they were moved to schools where they were surrounded by more whites — as opposed to those high average test scores simply reflecting a larger number of whites — it provided no supporting data.
When Montgomery County, Maryland pushed for a busing initiative, its research found instead that the performance of poor black children was almost exactly the same whether they went to a school that was 90% poor or 10% poor. An official survey found that only 18% of respondents thought “balance diversity among nearby schools” was important, while 79% thought it was “extremely important” to minimize boundary changes.
The policies essentially view schools as being inferior if they do not have enough whites. This stands in opposition to proponents of “cultural responsive teaching,” which argues that minorities need to be taught in a way specific to their culture, which actually argues for segregated classrooms.
So, if policies with de facto racial quotas for schools are unpopular among whites and minorities, and does not lead to improved academic outcomes for minority children, why are politicians who are aligned with the educational establishment so intent on pushing them?
One explanation is that it makes statistics look better on paper even if it does not help students in reality. By spreading the minorities out, there will be fewer “failing schools” — even if the number of individual students who are failing remains unchanged. In short, the problem will be less obvious, and educators will be under less pressure to actually help poor minorities learn.
McAuliffe, whose campaign has received nearly $1 million from teachers unions, prioritized such statistical measures during his previous term in office. Faced with low pass-rates on the state exam, his administration made the exam easier, leading to what the federal Department of Education says are the lowest state standards in the nation.
His education plan notes that he “eliminat[ed] five Standards of Learning tests” — in other words, achieving statistical “equity” by simply declining to measure whether kids were learning at all. While that may have made state statistics look better, satisfying the school administrator and teachers union lobbies that push for less testing, it did not result in smarter students.
From 2014 to 2021, Virginia’s national ranking in terms of Advanced Placement (AP) scores dropped from third place to tenth place.
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