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Excerpted From: Aaron Tang, The Radical-incremental Change Debate, Racial Justice, and the Political Economy of Teachers' Choice, 169 University of Pennsylvania Law Review Online 186 (2021) (112 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AaronTangRadical or incremental change? In this profound moment of racial reckoning, that is the fundamental question that divides those within the growing movement for racial justice. It is also a question at the crux of several essays in this important trans-journal symposium.

Consider demands to “Defund The Police.” Should proponents of this slogan settle for nothing less than the abolition of police departments, or should they be satisfied with the shifting of resources from police departments to Black communities? Or take recent calls to increase legal accountability for police wrongdoing. Should reformers aim for deep, structural changes, or more incremental reforms such as the modification of qualified immunity doctrine? These debates extend beyond the police context, too. For instance, when institutions of higher education consider their role in racial inequality, should they dismantle long-held norms--such as the belief that the top students belong at the top schools is it sufficient to embrace diversity in more limited ways?

These examples illustrate the basic tradeoff between the pursuit of radical and incremental change. Given the deep, structural problems that undergird racial injustice in America, radical change will often be preferable as a first-best solution. But calls for radical change also provoke the strongest political opposition; incremental change is thus typically more achievable. So which path should we pursue? In this critical moment of public concern for the lives of Black Americans, should we settle for less on the belief that something is better than nothing?

This Essay has two principal aims. Although the debate over radical and incremental change is susceptible to no single or simple answer, the Essay's first objective is to shed a bit of light on the debate through the lens of America's tragic legacy of racial inequality in K-12 public education. In doing so, the dominant theme that will emerge is that whether reformers should settle for something less than their full-on, radical demands turns less on some idealized vision of what successful change looks like, and more on a close analysis of what the something less is. To this point--and this is the second aim of the Essay--I hope to make the case for a particular kind of “something less” in the field of educational inequality: a policy intervention I'll describe below as “teachers' choice.”

As an initial matter, America's legacy of racial injustice in K-12 education is, of course, depressingly familiar: a pernicious academic achievement gap divides our children along racial lines and sows the seeds for lasting political, economic, and social inequality. Our nation's short-lived experiment with radical change in public education is familiar, too. Court-ordered school integration commenced nominally after Brown v. Board of Education, but truly hit its stride in the early 1970s. And once in force, it worked: integration narrowed the achievement gap by nearly half.

But almost as soon integration began to bear fruit, political reality caught up with it--the quintessential challenge for efforts to implement radical change. Professors Jim Ryan and Michael Heise offered a powerful explanation in their seminal article, The Political Economy of School Choice. Desegregation's downfall, they observed, was attributable to a simple political constituency: “suburbanites, especially suburban parents.” For as Ryan and Heise put it, “[w]hen suburbanites perceive a threat to their schools, they fight back, and they usually win.” Consider the response to desegregation even in ostensibly liberal cities like Boston, “where riots broke out and black children who were being bused by federal court orders into white schools were pelted with rocks.” It is suburban opposition, in other words, that explains the Supreme Court's fateful decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which held that suburban schools may not be compelled to participate in cross-district bussing orders to alleviate segregation in urban schools.

Ever since the fall of court-ordered school integration, educational equity advocates have labored to find worthwhile interventions to pursue in its place. Although several contenders have emerged, perhaps the response that has most captivated public attention has been school choice, by which I mean policies that provide children of color the ability to transfer out of low-performing public schools, whether to a different public school, a charter school, or a private school via a publicly funded voucher. But it turns out school choice itself has been beset by the same tension between radical and incremental change. Radical school choice--by which I mean a policy that would permit students of color to enroll in any public school, regardless of district boundaries--would have sweeping egalitarian potential. Yet the same suburban voters who fought against cross-district bussing orders have also blocked genuine public school choice. Policymakers today argue over the merits of allowing children of color to choose charter schools, private schools, or other public schools within their districts, but no real consideration is given to letting them attend high-performing public schools just minutes away in the suburbs for fear of the political backlash it would produce.

America's experiences with integration and school choice thus reveal that efforts to radically restructure the way America educates our children of color face the stiff obstacle of suburban political opposition. So should we give up those aims in favor of more incremental changes? The answer depends on the efficacy and attainability of those incremental alternatives. And to that point, this Essay suggests a modest intervention that may mitigate the problematic political economy Ryan and Heise identified so perceptively years ago.

Doing so requires first saying a word about what exactly it is that drives educational success in K-12 schools. Research shows that when it comes to improving educational outcomes, the most significant in-school factor is access to great teachers. One oft-cited study found, for example, that providing Black students with access to “a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” Sadly, students of color are disproportionately likely to be taught by our lowest-performing teachers.

Once great teachers are understood as the fulcrum of our in-school efforts to address the educational opportunity gap, we can start thinking about politically achievable ways to reduce that gap. And on this point, the first thing to notice about our prior responses to the achievement gap--integration and school choice--is that they have involved efforts to move massive numbers of children to schools with better teachers. It is that movement of students, however, that “threatens” the demographic preferences of suburbanites. So why not invert the movement in the other direction through a policy that creates incentives for those same great teachers to transfer to schools predominantly serving children of color?

Perhaps unexpectedly, there is already strong evidence that this kind of intervention--which I call “teachers' choice” because its use of fiscal incentives (rather than a government mandate) leaves the ultimate choice over where great teachers choose to teach in the hands of the educators themselves-- is both achievable and effective. A randomized study involving ten large school districts found that offering top-quintile teachers a $20,000 bonus (paid over two years) to transfer from high-performing to low-performing schools with higher concentrations of minority and low-income students produced between a four and ten percentile point annual learning gain for elementary school students at the receiving schools. This is a staggering difference: the entire black-white achievement gap is roughly twenty-nine points. Yet, by and large, districts and states have failed to employ this intervention in aid of their most needy students.

But even more critical than its efficacy is the different political economy teachers' choice would generate. For a number of surprising reasons--including the seemingly trivial fact that public school teacher assignments are usually made via lottery just weeks or even days before the start of the school year--suburban parents typically lack settled expectations regarding the specific teachers who will teach their children in the future. The result is that teachers' choice would trigger significantly less of the dual psychological biases that generate intense suburban opposition to integration and genuine public school choice: loss aversion and status quo bias. Teachers' choice is more winnable because it is less threatening to what suburban parents hold sacred about their local schools.

In explaining why I believe teachers' choice is an attainable intervention, one aim of this Essay is to spur equity advocates and policymakers to consider it as an incremental strategy for dismantling America's tragic legacy of unequal educational opportunity. I aim to write objectively, but I should be up front in admitting my own biases. As a former teacher in inner-city St. Louis, I came face-to-face with the staggering challenges that Black and Brown children confront on a daily basis, including hunger, lack of access to medical care, and physical violence. Through it all, however, I was amazed by the warmth, intellectual curiosity, and resilience that my students showed. If there is one constituency who is unquestionably not to blame for the achievement gap, it is students of color themselves. Nor did I find, much in contrast with a popular critique, that their parents were the ones at fault. What I saw instead was powerful on the ground evidence that confirms what the data tell us: to know how much children will learn in any given year, we need look no further to the quality of the educator at the front of their classroom. Yet, in the urban school where I taught (and countless others just like it), great teachers are far too scarce--a fact that is not true of suburban public schools just across district boundaries.

This Essay unfolds in two parts. Part I describes the growing body of evidence confirming the vital importance of teacher quality in education outcomes. It then suggests that teacher quality accounts for a significant part of the success achieved by integration and school choice. Sadly, as Part I also shows, using integration and school choice as the mechanism to improve equitable access to great teachers is perceived as too radical an intervention for the political constituency identified by Ryan and Heise: suburban parents. Part II introduces a more direct, yet less radical intervention--teachers' choice--and explains why it faces a more favorable political economy than integration and genuine public school choice. I conclude with a few thoughts on lessons the teachers' choice debate may reveal for the radical-incremental change debate.

[. . .]

Much like the broader movement for racial justice that is subsumed loosely under the banner of Black Lives Matter, the major challenge facing educational equity advocates today is not disagreement over what, but rather how. Equity advocates agree vehemently on the goal of eliminating racial inequality in the American education system and hastening the day when every child has the opportunity to achieve her full potential. But we do not agree on how to prioritize the numerous interventions that might help break down this inequality. Some reformers continue to advocate deeper, structural changes such as integration; others have trained their sights on more incremental reforms. This strategic disagreement, I have suggested, is but one incarnation of the broader debate between proponents of radical and incremental change. Similar debates are ongoing across other public policy issues beset by racial inequality.

There is a perception that one's position on the radical-incremental change divide is a function of their character or morality. To those on the political left, for example, the tension between an unabashed progressive like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her more moderate Democratic counterparts might be conceptualized as a contrast between those who are “focus[ed] more on moral imperatives than on incremental policy wins.”

America's ongoing struggle with racial inequity in public education suggests, however, that this character-driven understanding may be too simplistic. Even the most fervent supporter of court-ordered integration might be willing to consider more incremental change when faced with the political reality of intractable suburban opposition and a Supreme Court that will not permit even voluntary school integration efforts. The real question is whether any incremental alternatives to integration are themselves efficacious and politically attainable.

In the decades since integration's fall, however, school reformers have struggled to implement such alternatives--a possible indication that reformers should have never settled for less in the first place. Another possibility, though, is that we have settled for the wrong something. Because it operates through the same critical teacher quality variable that made integration so effective in a manner that diminishes suburban hostility, a robust teachers' choice policy deserves close consideration. The policy does not eliminate all grounds for suburban opposition, to be clear; it's quite possible that some especially active suburban parents may object to the idea of offering fiscal incentives to high-performing teachers who transfer to higher-need schools. But this rare moment of racial reckoning--a moment characterized by growing consciousness of white privilege an important opportunity to seek out some shared societal sacrifice. A policy like teachers' choice may be just the kind of modest yet impactful sacrifice worth pursuing.

Professor of Law, University of California, Davis.

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