If the Obama administration and its supporters have their way, the suburban neighborhood school could be headed for extinction. In a veritable symphony of bureaucratic coordination, the administration has figured out how to recruit three cabinet departments, liberal non-profits, and deep-pocketed foundations to this effort. It can be tough even to follow the sophisticated strategy for accomplishing this (and the president prefers it that way), but if we value our liberty, it’s worth a bit of effort to understand this scheme.
The administration is maneuvering to replace local control in education (and in other areas) with school systems that extend across entire metropolitan regions. This effort is bolstered by advocacy groups promoting “economic integration” to force suburban jurisdictions to either admit low-income students from outside their districts or redistribute the tax money that supports their schools to less affluent nearby districts. Lurking behind this plan—as with practically every nationwide education policy—is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The pincer created by Obama’s coercion from coordinated federal agencies on the one hand and Gates’s advocacy of supposedly social-justice taxing and redistribution on the other could squeeze the life out of the suburbs and suburban schools.
We Don’t Like Your Neighborhood
First, let’s have a look at the Obama coercion scheme. This ambitious plan is bound up with a new rule from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) called the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. Stanley Kurtz has provided the definitive analysis of AFFH (see here, here, here, and here), showing how the rule advances Obama’s longtime dream of essentially abolishing suburbs. Cities swallowing suburbs is known as “regionalism,” and how the Left plans to achieve it is explained in Kurtz’s book “Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.”
Before getting to the education angle, we must understand how AFFH works. The rule requires any local jurisdiction that applies for a Community Development Block Grant from HUD to complete an “Assessment of Fair Housing,” analyzing housing occupancy by such categories as race, ethnicity, nationality, and class. If there are imbalances (i.e., if a particular housing area is disproportionally low- or high-income, or white or black or Hispanic or whatever) then the grantee must determine what factors account for the disparities.
As Kurtz points out, every local jurisdiction in the nation will have imbalances of some kind. Contributing factors grantees list could include zoning laws, availability of good schools, public transportation, jobs, etc. Then the grantee must submit a plan, subject to HUD approval, to remedy the demographic imbalance at its own expense.
Here’s the kicker: the local jurisdiction’s analysis cannot be limited to that jurisdiction, but must include data from a regional level as well. For example, if Oakland County, Michigan, north of Detroit, were to apply for a HUD Community Development grant, it couldn’t compile just its county statistics but would have to cover the metropolitan Detroit area. (HUD helpfully supplies regional data to assist with this analysis.) The regional study would encompass lower-income areas that must then be factored into determining demographic imbalances that Oakland would have to remedy.
Remedy how? One alternative HUD has approved would be to nullify local zoning ordinances and build more high-density, low-income housing in Oakland. As Kurtz explains:
[B]y obligating all localities receiving HUD funding to compare their demographics to the region as a whole, AFFH effectively nullifies municipal boundaries. Even with no allegation or evidence of intentional discrimination, the mere existence of a demographic imbalance in the region as a whole must be remedied by a given suburb. Suburbs will literally be forced to import population from elsewhere, at their own expense and in violation of their own laws. In effect, suburbs will have been annexed by a city-dominated region, their laws suspended and their tax money transferred to erstwhile non-residents.
What if the local government refuses to comply? HUD would probably then do what the federal government always does: dangle money in front of the supplicant jurisdiction and threaten to snatch it away if all conditions aren’t met.
Schools Are Tied to Neighborhoods
Now, as to how all of this affects education. AFFH also requires that these new high-density, low-income housing complexes be located close to “community assets” such as transportation, parks, jobs—and good schools.
Recently the secretaries of HUD (Julian Castro) and the departments of education (John King) and transportation (Anthony Foxx) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter “calling on local education, transportation, and housing leaders to work together on issues at the intersection of our respective missions in helping guarantee full access of opportunity across the country.” The vehicle for accomplishing this sweeping goal is AFFH. The three cabinet secretaries “urge [local leaders] to take full advantage of the community participation process of the AFFH rule, so that regional planning promotes economic mobility and equal access to the many benefits provided by affordable housing, great schools, and reliable transportation” (emphasis added).
The key here, again, is the word “regional.” In the “community participation” process, the local jurisdiction must include input from groups outside the jurisdiction. Thus, in our Oakland County example, Oakland officials would have to consider the views of community-organizer groups from Detroit to determine how to remedy inevitable demographic imbalances. These groups could offer an array of remedies, all of which would have to be transmitted to HUD so it could determine whether to approve Oakland’s plan.
This letter encourages state and local education officials armed with this input from regional community organizers, er, leaders, to take several specific actions. Among these is altering school attendance boundaries to ensure “equal access to high-quality schools and increasing the diversity of the community served by these schools.” They could do this by redrawing the boundaries or opening more open-enrollment (charter or magnet) schools. The idea is to end the concept of a suburban neighborhood school. The local school board and the citizens who elected it might object, but the jurisdiction would have to comply if it wanted the HUD money.
You Live Where and How We Say You Do
According to the three cabinet secretaries, state and local education officials should also plan sites for new schools in consultation with housing and transportation officials, to ensure “that high-performing schools serve diverse populations, including high-need students.” So regardless of the wishes and best judgment of the local school board and its constituents, the new school might have to be placed next to the new low-income housing complex that must be built to qualify for the HUD grant.
The secretaries’ letter urges local transportation officials to contribute to this new regional scheme by providing “ease of access to critical housing, school, and transportation resources for students, teachers, parents, and the broader [read: regional] community.” Mass transit, of course, would be key to transport students from outside the local jurisdiction. Housing officials must consider all this education and transportation data when creating the jurisdiction’s Assessment of Fair Housing and its plan to remedy imbalances (which, remember, HUD must approve).
The Obama cabinet secretaries assure us that all of this government-mandated and -supervised regional collaboration will create a much more equitable environment than freedom ever did. But Kurtz exposes the real agenda. Imposing regionalism through housing policy, he warns, is a way to strip control from local authorities—including school boards—and transfer it to federal bureaucrats.
You Need Less Control Over Your Own Tax Money
This brings us to the Gates-related aspect of the regionalism plan. A new player on the education-reform scene is a nonprofit called EdBuild, dedicated to “bringing common sense and fairness to the way states fund schools.” EdBuild is funded by Gates and other foundations that populate the Common Core gallery of rogues, such as the Broad Foundation and Carnegie Corporation (with the far-left Center for American Progress thrown in for good measure). EdBuild’s board of directors includes Hari Sevugan, “former National Press Secretary at the Democratic National Committee and senior spokesman for Obama for America.”
EdBuild recently released a report decrying the economic disparity between some local school districts and others. The report noted that district boundaries allow more affluent areas to use their tax money for their own schools, while nearby poorer areas draw from a lesser tax base to fund their schools.
What do Gates and EdBuild think should be done about this? Asked by an Atlantic reporter whether “district borders [should] be dissolved and students economically integrated by force,” EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia replied, “Not necessarily. What we call for is a lessened importance of school-district lines by creating a larger tax pool that can fairly resource schools. You can still have locally governed schools . . . . But if we can start to spread out differences in local revenue, then it disincentivizes schools from walling off their money.”
Notice that Sibilia is advocating “economic integration,” i.e., treating municipalities that have more or less of a particular income group as unfairly discriminatory. But economic integration is not required by law, and most Americans think forced integration by income is none of the government’s business. If she can’t have forced economic integration, Sibilia wants to forcibly redistribute suburban tax revenue to less-affluent school districts. Kurtz wrote about this in his book, offering the example of Minnesota’s “regional tax-base sharing” (an example Sibilia specifically endorsed in a Washington Post interview).
We’ll Bring the Cities to the Suburbs
Kurtz thinks the AFFH initiative, combined with pressure on suburban districts to either admit outside students or surrender some of their tax money, could result in the outcome he’s predicted for years: “I think we can expect to see public proposals to share tax revenue dedicated to schools. Then we would see a few relatively economically comparable districts (e.g., a large city and a relatively less well off inner-ring suburb or two) joining in a consortium to share their school money. That sets up a formal body that would aspire to be fully regional by roping in the wealthy suburbs.”
This could easily mesh with Obama’s AFFH scheme. Remember that under AFFH, local jurisdictions must offer remedies for regional economic and other imbalances in housing. Kurtz predicts these new tax-sharing consortia could become part of that: “[I think we’ll see that] HUD holds out participating in a regional educational revenue-sharing consortium as a way of guaranteeing the receipt of Community Development Block Grants, hoping to force wealthy suburbs in.” Once local control is stripped over the money, it’s only a matter of time until it disappears from other areas of school operations.
The practical point here is that citizens can’t just focus on education policy coming from the Department of Education or its fellow travelers. They must understand that decisions in other areas, such as housing and transportation, can wrest control over their schools every bit as much as the department has done over the years.
The broader point is this: The Obama/Gates scheme is the Left’s latest step to undermine the constitutional structure by making government responsive to the views of “experts” rather than to citizens. It’s a plan to negate local control of government, and to destroy the laboratories of democracy brought about by sovereign states and local decision-making. When their voices don’t count and their choices narrow, citizens become disengaged and society crumbles.
Leftists turn a blind eye to the havoc their pretend magic has worked on America’s once-great cities. Instead, they have set their sights on the rest of America.