New watchdog group wants the best schools to be available to all

two children writing in a workbook

How far would you go to ensure your child gets the best education?  

Veronica Vargas lived in her Hyundai in a Walmart parking lot so that her sons could attend a top-rated public school. Kelley Williams-Bolar went to prison when a private investigator hired by the school district discovered she was using her Dad’s address — where she and her children lived part-time — to enroll her daughters in a better school than the failing school connected to her home address.    

Neither of these mothers thought they were doing anything wrong; both just wanted to do what was right for their kids. Their stories highlight how far some parents are willing to go, and at what cost to themselves and their families, to circumvent the lack of access to good schools. Unfortunately, in the United States, where a student lives often determines their education quality.   

American parents have become accustomed to this norm in education — that students are to enroll in the school assigned to them based on their address. Increasingly, however, the disparity between many of these schools is compelling parents, educators, and advocates to push for a new norm — enrollment standards that give all students, regardless of where they live, equal access to the best public schools in their community.  

Tim DeRoche, author of the book A Fine Line: How Most American Kids are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, is at the forefront of this transformation in educationDeRoche, in partnership with Stand Together Trust, recently launched Available to All, a nonpartisan watchdog group defending equal access to public schools in America. 

Stand Together Trust spoke with DeRoche about the efforts of Available to All.  

Stand Together Trust: Tell us about the origins of Available to All. Why was it created and why is now the moment for a watchdog group like this? 

DeRoche: The idea for Available to All came from some of the things I was seeing in my old neighborhood in Los Angeles. What I saw happening is that there was one very coveted school, and the surrounding schools did not have very good reputations. So, there was extreme demand to get into the coveted school. And the way you got your kid into that school was to buy a home within certain lines drawn by the district — these are attendance zone boundaries. Those lines covered the wealthiest part of the neighborhood. Additionally, homes in the zone cost an additional $200,000 to $300,000 more than a similar home on the “wrong” side of the line. 

Of course, we all know the importance of district lines and attendance zone lines in determining who goes to which public schools. But I started to see that this was a major problem for our social contract and our public education system — that the “best” schools are reserved for our wealthier families.  

So, I wrote a book about that — A Fine Line: How Most American Kids are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools — it came out three years ago. Since then, I have learned that on top of those lines are other forms of discrimination that allow public schools to cherry-pick their students.  

We’ve all heard about charter schools that play games with their waitlist or some sort of application process that violates the law. What I’m pointing to is that the public school system as a whole faces these issues. Magnet schools face these issues. Traditional public schools face these issues. The educators, whether we like it or not, have incentives to stack their schools with students who they deem are easier to educate. 

But now, partially due to the pandemic, there’s an increasing amount of scrutiny of public schools. We have an opportunity to push for more open enrollment. We need more policies that allow kids to go to any public school in their city. We need to ensure that kids have equal opportunity to apply to schools that may be close to their home where the state currently says, “Nope, you’re on the wrong side of the line. You can’t go to that school.”  

Your mission states that “basic standards of fairness and openness should apply to the admissions policies of all public schools, including charter schools, magnet schools, traditional public schools with attendance zones, and all others.” Can you share with us what exactly Available to All will do to achieve this goal? What will it focus on in these first 2-3 years?  

We want to be a storyteller and a watchdog.  

In the next couple months, we’re going to be releasing videos telling the stories of families who have been unfairly and/or illegally excluded from a public school that they thought was the right fit for their kid. We’ll be telling the story of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who was put in jail because she used her dad’s address so that her kids could attend a better school. 

We have other examples of families in Arizona who are utilizing the open enrollment process, but the schools use a loophole in the open enrollment law to deny their students enrollment. The schools are allowed to deny a student admission because of a disability, even if the child requires fairly minimal services.  

We have examples of families excluded from magnet schools — which were created to reduce segregation by pulling kids into city schools from suburbs. Believe it or not, many magnet schools give an enrollment advantage to wealthier students.  They’re trying to achieve a certain racial mix, and it’s tough for them to attract white students from the suburbs.  So, they give those students a mathematical advantage in admissions.  It’s perverse, because magnet schools were created to give better opportunities to low-income kids of color, but we end up giving preferential enrollment to privileged families.   

As we progress as an organization, we want to move into being a watchdog — filing public record requests, trying to uncover these shenanigans, filing some lawsuits where districts or schools have violated the law, and being a thorn in the side of these districts and schools, requiring them to comply with existing policies and laws. When possible, we’ll be working to change the laws so that the public schools are held to a high standard of openness, as they should be.  

Can you tell us about districts, states, or schools that currently have enrollment norms that give equal opportunity to all? How do they work? 

Charter schools are a good example. Certainly, we know of charter schools that have violated the spirit of the law by trying to cherry pick their students. However, charter schools are held to a high legal standard in enrollment processes. They’re required to take all-comers. They’re required to hold a lottery if there are more applicants than seats available. In many states, charter schools are forbidden from discriminating against you based on where you live, especially if you live in the district. In contrast, in many states, the public schools are allowed to deny your enrollment based on where you live in the district. So, in many ways I think the charter school laws are a good model for states to consider.  Maybe those laws should apply to all public schools. That’s a good place to start.  

Secondly, there are some states that have strong open enrollment laws that allow for kids to cross district lines to enroll in schools that aren’t their zone school and aren’t necessarily in their district. Two good examples of that are Arizona and Wisconsin, where there is a fair bit of openness to enrolling students that live outside the district. Now, that’s not to say those policies are perfect. I think there are ways that they can be improved. But certainly, Arizona and Wisconsin open enrollment laws are a good place to start if you’re looking to create better enrollment norms.  

Can you tell us from your view how creating enrollment standards that provide equal access to all can improve the quality of schools and education across a district? 

Creating more transparency would be great. Let’s require schools to take applications from all interested families.  Then we’d know that there are schools that have ten times as much demand as a school down the street.  

That would help district administrators, school administrators, and policymakers understand the scale of the problem and the scale of inequality in the system — where certain schools are seen as very, very good for kids and other schools are seen as really quite destructive of a student’s potential.  

What I’m really interested in is helping to repair the social contract. The public schools play such a critical part of that contract. We live in a free society. Obviously, people with more money have more advantages. That’s always been true; that always will be true. We can’t ignore, however, that the way our public school system is functioning contributes to more disparity between those who are wealthy and those who aren’t.  That’s not what it’s supposed to be doing. 

There are schools where 85% of kids are reading at grade level and then right down the block, we have a school where 16% of kids are reading at grade level. Meanwhile, the district is determining who goes where based on where they live in the neighborhood, and that also aligns with where the nicer homes and the more expensive homes are — that is a recipe for disaster.  

I’m really interested in making the schools more open so that every American family feels like they have an equal opportunity to go to attend “elite” public schools. This would help diminish the feeling that some parents have now — which is that there are good public schools, but their children aren’t allowed to attend those schools.   

How can a parent, educator, or local community leader advocate better understand the enrollment standards for their district — specifically, what would signal those norms aren’t giving students equal access to the best public schools in the district? How can people advocate for changes if they determine they are needed? 

Pay attention. Pay attention to your school district policies. Pay attention to your state laws. In some cases, there are ways to get into these schools that are harder, but they exist.  

Look for the attendance zone lines. Ask to see the maps. Ask for better open enrollment. There is nothing that prevents a school or district from adopting open enrollment. 

Don’t be afraid to confront your school board and say, “The public schools are meant to be open to all.” Many states have this written right into their constitution. The federal courts said in the Brown v Board of Education case that the public schools must be “available to all on equal terms.” That is not the case right now, and I think we all need to open our eyes and start demanding that these schools be open to all American kids.  

To learn more about Available to All visit: 

Available to All is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems. 

Learn more about Stand Together’s K-12 education reform efforts.