Interview with Tim DeRoche

In our latest video interview, 50CAN President Derrell Bradford interviews Tim DeRoche on the mission his new organization, Available to All, and the history of redlining and other exclusionary tactics in our public education system.

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Derrell Bradford: Hey, everybody. I’m Derrell Bradford. I’m the president at 50CAN, and I’m delighted to have my man Tim DeRoche here today to talk about a piece he wrote this week in Time Magazine and some things he’s got going on. Nice to meet you here, Tim.

Tim DeRoche: So great to be here, Derrell.

So I know you, but not everybody else knows you. So why don’t you give the Wolverine origin story for everybody?

Yeah. So my name is Tim DeRoche. I’m the founder and president of Available To All. We’re defending equal access to public schools. I’m out here in Los Angeles, and I’ve been kind of working in the school reform space for quite a while off and on. I had a consulting practice here in Los Angeles, served a lot of organizations across the country doing education reform, sometimes outside of education reform, and then in 2020 wrote a book called A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. As you know, that book talks a lot about educational redlining and how these policies of restricting enrollment in public schools by where you live has all sorts of downstream effects on the real estate market, on people’s trust in the public education system, and even, I would say, in the broader American social contract. So coming out of that, we founded Available To All, which you know well as my beloved board chair.

No, you should save that for later.

And yeah, I’m excited to be here and talk about school access.

So you have a piece in Time Magazine this week, which is called How Public Schools Cherry-Pick Their Students. I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to put a link to it in the video or something. It’s a very good read. I urge everyone to check it out. Why don’t you talk about what the thrust of the piece is and dive into some of the examples you used to make a case there?

Yeah. We sort of start with this incredible story from Arizona, a mom of a kid with a disability who got a letter from a school district saying, “Your child is not welcome back at the school next year.” This family had moved just outside of the boundaries of this district because they couldn’t afford a home in the district. And they were being– their lease ended. Right? So they had to find a new home, couldn’t find a home in the district that was less than $8,000 a month, so they moved just outside the lines. And in the meantime, their son had been diagnosed with autism, on the autism spectrum. And the school used the combination of those two things to turn the child away from the school, to basically expel the kid from the school. “You can’t come back as a second-grader. You live outside the lines, and you have a disability.” And there’s a loophole in Arizona’s Open Enrollment law that allows schools to do that, no matter how minimal the services that the disabled kid requires. So that story sort of sparks the whole discussion in the timepiece of all the different ways that public schools cherry-pick their students. There’s this common conception. It’s been conventional wisdom, I think, up until very recently.

An article of faith. Yes.

Yeah, exactly. That’s a great way to put it. It’s an article of faith that the public schools accept all comers, and it simply is not true. And I wish I could say, “Well, it’s true broadly speaking, but there are a few exceptions, and we’re paying attention to those exceptions.” Public schools are designed to be exclusionary, right? They are designed around district lines, attendance zone lines, which restrict attendance to people who live in certain areas. That has created a situation in which the best, the most coveted public schools, are located in the most wealthy areas. And then in addition to that, because of the restrictive zone line, people have to overpay, right? We’ve bundled housing and education. You’ve got to overpay to get into that zone, so it drives up the real estate even further. And so the inequalities of access increase over time. And certainly, that’s not the only thing going on, right? You’ve got magnet schools, right? Magnet schools created to end– to end segregation, to desegregate the schools to give more opportunities to children of color. Low-income children of color, especially.

In Connecticut, specifically.

Well, yes, we talk about Connecticut, but these policies are all over the place, right? Where the unspoken secret about magnet schools is that because many of the privileged families already live in these educationally redlined areas and have access to great schools that they picked by buying the home there. The magnet schools have a hard time drawing in White families, right? More affluent families that on average are going to be more White. And so what they do is they give an advantage, an enrollment advantage, to wealthier families, right? Either by privileging certain zip codes– Connecticut tried to do it explicitly based on race, which is not even allowed by the federal courts. And they had to stop. But what they did is they– “Okay, we’re not going to use race anymore. We’ll use wealth,” right? “So the wealthier you are, the more income you have, then you’ve got a better shot at getting into our schools because we really want you.” So there’s this great irony of the magnet schools that they were created to end inequality, right? To desegregate the schools and they end up giving an enrollment advantage to wealthy families. It’s outrageous when you start to think about it, but I think it’s been accepted for a long time.

It’s a wild, unintended consequence. And I’m a strong charter school supporter, which is well known. But you do cite a bad apple example of a charter school inappropriately applying enrollment practices. Why don’t you talk about that real quick, too?

Yeah. Someone I know who worked for a charter school management organization kind of stumbled upon this case where the enrollment person for this little group of charter schools was turning away families if they didn’t speak English as a first language. So just, “These families are harder to educate. We’ve got enough problems at our schools already. We’re serving a lot of low-income kids. Let’s just turn those kids away and send them somewhere else.” That’s wrong. What I point out in the piece is that charter schools are held to a high legal standard, right? So my friend who this happened to was able to say, “Hey, we are violating the law when we do this, right? Let’s fix this.” Charter school laws require charter schools to take all comers in most cases. Not at all, but in most cases, they can’t discriminate against families based on where they live, right? They’ve got to hold a lottery if they get more applicants. These are high standards. There are reasons those protections were built into the charter school laws. Because we realize, hey, school operators have some incentives, right, to try and pick kids who are quote/unquote easier to educate or who might perform better or help them do better on the state accountability thing. So we have those protections in place for charter schools. When charter schools violate the law, we can hold them accountable. And my argument is, “Hey, let’s try to apply some of the same high standards of openness and these processes of oversight to all types of public schools, and let’s try to hold all public schools to the same high standard because that’s what a public school is. It’s designed to be open to the public. If you want to send your kid to a cloistered school with a specific set of people who share a certain characteristic, you have the right to do that in this country. That’s called private education. If you choose a public school, you are accepting that your kid goes to school with the public.”

Like I always say to people, it’s like saying that Gramercy Park and Central Park are both the same thing because they’re both outside. You know what I mean? With Central Park, anybody can go in. To Gramercy Park, you need a key.

Yeah. A lot of these schools– I was talking to a former superintendent of the Houston public schools yesterday, just yesterday. He reached out to me after the timepiece. And he was like, “Well, when I became a superintendent, these magnet schools, they weren’t serving anyone outside their attendance zone. They were quasi-private schools. They were quasi-private schools.” And I think a lot of schools in this country– a lot of public schools in this country, have come to be quasi-private schools. Unfortunately, they’re often the crown jewels, right? They’re the ones that everybody is holding up as an example of what public education can be. Well, it’s a quasi-private school. Are you going to let all schools do that? No, we can’t do that.

Yeah. And there was somebody I was getting into it with on Twitter, which I don’t recommend with somebody, about attendance zones. And the person made the point to me that you have to have jurisdictional boundaries to administer things, and he used the example of police, fire, and whatever. And I said to him, “Listen, if I get knocked out, if I’m in an accident in somebody else’s district, they send their police to help me.” If I send my kid to somebody else’s– to school in somebody else’s district, they send their police to arrest me. So there’s–

As always, you have a way of distilling it down, Derrell. I love that. I might use that.

Everybody heard it here first. There’s no pride of ownership.

I mean, it makes no sense. Imagine you go to a health clinic, right? And you look at a health clinic, and you’re like, well, imagine if they restricted who could come to this health clinic based on a random map drawn by politicians, right? Of course, the good health clinics are going to be allocated to the most powerfully political people. That’s what politicians do. Not solely. I mean, lots of politicians are trying to do the right thing. But I think, in this case, the incentives are just too strong, right? That you’re going to make sure those schools are reserved for the politically powerful parents.

So it’s a good moment for education change in the country, basically, as a lot of school choice stuff is happening. We’re very into the science of reading at 50CAN. We passed a few bills on that last session. But there does also seem to be some momentum around the idea of truly open enrollment of public schools being available at all. Why don’t you tell folks a little bit about that?

Yeah, we just see kind of a renewed interest in open enrollment, right? So you’ve got Tennessee. You’ve got Idaho. You know some of the other ones, Derrell.

Kansas, Nevada.

Kansas, yeah. Nevada, exactly, right? Just the recent thing in Nevada. So I think there’s a renewed interest in open enrollment. I think the pandemic sort of reinforced to folks, hey, I don’t want to be trapped, right, by one particular school or one particular district right? These institutions aren’t necessarily very responsive to parents’ needs, and so I think there’s a renewed interest in open enrollment, reducing the importance of these lines, right? I mean, I’d love to work towards– in fact, I am working towards a future 20 years out where the lines don’t exist at all, right, where a kid can’t be turned away from a public school based upon his or her address, right? But in the meantime, we can make steps in that direction by reducing the importance of the lines, getting good, strong open enrollment policies in place with no loopholes  or with few loopholes. And so I think that these states are making moves in that direction. I think it’s very encouraging.

Yeah, and I would also say Kansas isn’t a blue state; the governor’s a Democrat. I mean, that was a good thing. It seems to be an idea that’s gaining progress in red states, blue states with mixed legislatures, and majority legislatures, so that is also heartening.

Yeah, it’s not a partisan thing, right? It is not a partisan thing. And there are folks who will defend the status quo on both sides, right? But there are folks who see the injustice of these policies, and not just the injustice, but just the pure ineffectiveness of these policies, right? There are people on both the right and the left who just see that if you want the public school system to give everyone access to the American Dream, to be the great equalizer, right, then you can’t allocate it based on where you live, which is so correlated with wealth. It’s doing the opposite of what it’s meant to do because it’s reinforcing the social inequities rather than allowing everyone access to the American Dream. So I think there are forward-thinking legislatures on both sides of the aisle that want to take this on.

Yeah, I want to find something we disagree on. I mean, I know you’re a Packers fan; I’m an Eagles fan, so fine. So, like you mentioned at the top, you founded Available for All. Why don’t you tell folks about the mission and what your sort of short- and long-term plans are?

Yeah, so Available to All is a watchdog, a nonpartisan watchdog devoted to this simple principle of defending equal access to public schools, right? So that definitely means that we want to fight educational redlining, reduce the importance of these lines over time, but we also want to draw attention to the other ways that public schools try to cherry-pick their kids, and try to be a watchdog, try to encourage appropriate oversight of schools so that we can reduce these abuses over time. And so I think of Available to All as a storyteller and a watchdog. The first thing we have to do is we have to document these stories, right, because people don’t think about this issue and don’t know that these things are going on. We’re really trying to document stories of parents whose kids have been unfairly excluded; talking to the former Houston superintendent yesterday, documenting, “Hey, here’s an example of an urban district where the Magnet program was basically a way for the district to funnel extra money to these quasi-private schools that only served the privileged folks in the district.” So we’re trying to document those stories right now, and we want to be a watchdog, so we’re going to be filing public records requests. We hope to file some lawsuits where districts or schools are breaking the law and so kind of hold these public schools accountable to the public.

Okay, so someone believes everything you just said, and they want to help out. What could they do and where should they go?

Yeah. Well, they should go to our website That’s one thing. You can sign up for our email list. And there’s also a form there where you can fill out if you’d like me to do a webinar. If you run a parent group, right, or any kind of education reform organization and you want to know more about these issues of educational redlining and school access, I’m happy to jump on it. We’ve sort of touched the tip of the iceberg here. I’ve got some great maps to share. And we’re learning more and more every day about the laws, right, that districts and schools have to hold to and often are trying to ignore. I would also follow us on social media: Available To All

I’m very, very interested in people’s stories, right? So if you’re amped up about this and you’re amped up about it because you have personal experience of something like this, you know a local school, maybe the school that’s closest to your home is not the school that your family is assigned to, you’re assigned to go to a school a little further away and maybe that’s not quite as good a school or maybe the district hired a private investigator to follow you around and found out that you were using someone else’s, a relative’s address, we want to hear those stories, right? And we want to share those stories with the world. We’re happy to share them anonymously or non-anonymously. But it’s really important for us to get these stories out there so that people can understand that this is impacting real people in the real world.

Well, Tim, thank you very much for spending some time with us. I’m happy to be a partner with you on this project. And I urge anybody who is watching this to get involved. I will just say in closing that I often give a speech where I ask people in the room to raise their hands if they know anyone who’s lied about their address to get into a public school they don’t zone for. And I will just say that the more elected officials are in the room, the higher the percentage of raised hands, so.

Yeah. It’s a common thing. It’s sort of an American rite of passage, lying about your address to get into a public school.

For sure. Thank you, Tim. I appreciate it.

All right. Thanks, Derrell. I really appreciate the opportunity to chat.


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