Janresseger: School Segregation Driven by Parental Privilege and School Choice

Patrick Wall’s extraordinary examination of an attempt to integrate—racially and economically—two New York City elementary schools, a story in the current issue of The Atlantic, is difficult reading. The difficulty is not that the issues are so complicated but instead that it is hard to face the ugly biases declared openly by parents who invested in New York City real estate only to find they are being zoned out of the exclusive, white, and wealthy neighborhood elementary school they thought they were getting.  It is kind of like reading about Little Rock or Detroit in the 1950s or 1960s.

This is actually a timely article in Donald Trump’s America, where President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are actively promoting school choice. Wall demonstrates all the ways that “privileged parents will still have the most school options—a fact that isn’t great for poor families.”

Wall presents a lot of background about how public schools have become increasingly “highly segregated by both race and income. In 2013-14, the most recent year data are available, more than one in six students attended schools where the vast majority of their classmates were both poor and black or Hispanic—over twice as many as in 2000, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.  Wall quotes a study—by Sean Reardon, of Stanford University, Christopher Jencks of Harvard, and Ann Owens at UCLA—demonstrating that “segregation between poor and non-poor students in public schools grew more than 40 percent from 1991 to 2012.  Rising residential segregation by income has fueled that growth, as most children attend their local public schools.  But families can also opt out of their neighborhood school.  Many districts allow parents to apply to transfer programs, magnet and charter schools, or gifted-and-talented programs as alternatives to their nearest public school. Those options are open to any parent, but the most advantaged families are often best equipped to chart a course to their preferred school.”

And in schools where poverty is concentrated, students “are more likely to be held back in ninth grade, kicked out of school, and taught by an inexperienced teacher, and are less likely to be offered critical classes like calculus and physics….” Wall summarizes research from Stanford’s Sean Reardon: “The link between students’ race, their exposure to poverty, and the quality of the schools they attend is what makes segregation harmful to students….”  Wall continues: ” In the largest study of its kind, Reardon analyzed the test-score gap between white students and black and Hispanic students in every school district in the country. He estimated that roughly one-fifth of the average metropolitan area’s racial achievement gap is due to racial segregation because of the higher poverty rates in schools attended by many black and Hispanic students. ‘School poverty,’ he said, ‘turns out to be a good proxy for the kind of educational opportunities a school can provide.'”

Wall profiles the battle among parents as New York City set out to redistrict an area where one elementary school served the students in a housing project while another served students living in exclusive apartments along the Hudson River. The school defined by its wealth has, over the years, been able to magnify its advantages: “The school, which has won a National Blue Ribbon Award, has such pull among affluent parents that many shop for homes within its boundaries… Once they’re in, parents invest heavily in the school… The parent-teacher association amassed $777,000 last year… The group has funded class trips, theater-workshops, recess monitors, a science teacher, and student laptops… But… (the school’s) abundant resources have led to a shortage of seats.  Even with the building filled above capacity, nearly 100 would-be kindergarteners in the school’s zone had to be placed on a waitlist in 2015.”

What about the poorer school? Our society’s focus on accountability ratings has driven the ruination of the school’s reputation.  Test scores have been low: “Not only were most (students) poor, but nearly one-third had disabilities and almost one-fifth lived in homeless shelters or temporary housing.” And, “In August, after… (a new principal’s) first year… had just ended and her reforms just started, the state branded the school ‘persistently dangerous.’  The label was based on school-reported incidents of student misbehavior, which can range from shoving and bullying to criminal activities.  Some of the incidents dated back to before (the new principal)… arrived.  Teachers said the label was misleading, and pointed to problems with the reporting system (which the state later revamped).  But warranted or not, the designation battered the school’s already weak reputation.”

The battle Wall describes between New York City parents must have been incredibly painful for the parents whose children have hsitorically enrolled in the poorer school, parents who are not really the subject of this article but must have been paying attention as other parents tried to avoid transferring children to the school that serves their own children.  Wall alludes to their pain, quoting one mother: “They say it’s about rezoning… but what they’re worried about is having to integrate with public-housing minority kids.”

Wall summarizes what the wealthier parents are looking for: “The parents wanted a school that was already thriving academically and slush with funding—not one they considered a fixer-upper. The segregation of low-income students of color… had left the school with fewer resources and lower test scores than its neighbors; now privileged parents cited those byproducts of segregation as reasons to avoid the school—thus, maintaining its segregation.”  A state lawmaker representing the New York City neighborhood where the schools are located is quoted about today’s ethos among parents: “Everything’s too competitive. By kindergarten you have to have your kid in ballet and fencing and cooking… It’s too risky now, at least in the eyes of most parents, to sacrifice some years of your child’s education for a greater social good.”

Wall’s story is not entirely pessimistic. A few families being rezoned away from the wealthy school are willing to give the new school a chance, and we know that social change is usually driven by a few leaders.  One parent, impressed with the school’s principal, declared, “Test scores aren’t contagious.”

Wall profiles one of the parents looking to enroll his child in the poorer school: “Among these newcomers, Andrew Chu presented a best-case scenario.  A product manager at a financial-tech firm whose son started pre-K… last fall, he’d joined the school’s leadership team and offered to help start a ‘maker’ program where students could build robots and tinker with 3-D printers.”  With the support of the principal, “Chu began reaching out to MIT professors and a company that sells maker kits… (H)e planned to keep his son… (in the new school) for kindergarten. To him, the entire school was a sort of maker project: A chance to re-imagine what a high-quality education could look like in the 21st century, where student diversity and hands-on learning matter at least as much as test scores and fundraising. ‘I hope I’m not exaggerating,’ he told parents at an open house, ‘but it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really be part of this process.”

Wall examines the court orders and sometimes idealism that drove school integration in the past. He believes that wealthier parents—those with the power to choose—have always been responsible for racial segregation and concentrations of school poverty.  Money has always driven school choice. There is another subtext in Wall’s piece, however, this time about recent public policy. Two decades’ of accountability-driven ranking and rating of schools measured by the yardstick of standardized tests in addition to the kind of branding  he describes—the poor school publicly rated as “persistently-dangerous”—encourage parents to focus on the ratings.  Every time Wall describes wealthy parents visiting the poorer school and talking with the principal and the teachers, the parents are forced to struggle with evidence that classrooms do not confirm the biases they have formed from the ratings assigned. It is especially hard to challenge the ratings, however, because today’s red lining of the poor schools is not, as in the past, merely relegated to real estate marketing, Today rankings and ratings are being assigned ironically by the school school district itself and driven by state and federal policy. Accountability-driven public policy has condemned schools segregated by poverty in a way that discourages desegregation.

Wall concludes: “Today the idea that parents would consider some notion of the common good when deciding on schools can sound quaint; it certainly runs counter to Betsy DeVos’ vision of unrestricted parental choice.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...