An Alabama court recently allowed a primarily white, middle-class section of Jefferson County to secede from its larger schools district. The town of Gardendale would create a new schools system for its tiny population of students, 7 percent of which are poor and 22 percent of which are nonwhite. This would leave behind a district of majority nonwhite students (55 percent) and a poverty rate nearly three times that of Gardendale.
To put it in perspective, the new Gardendale district would have a lower poverty rate than Beverly Hills, California, and their only reason for the separation, as the mayor put it, is to “keep our tax dollars with our kids.”
This recent ruling is cohesive with a historical pattern of wealthy, white parents using their superior know-how and political clout to create hyper-local, insulated districts. This has led to de facto segregation — an outcome that damages educational achievement for all students in the long run but will probably ensure that their students attend higher-performing schools in the near future.
Our Current System Pits People Against Each Other
Self-segregation is supported legally and historically in a number of ways, including housing discrimination and a funding mechanism rooted in local property taxes, but the ability of local residents to create their own homogenous schools has people calling for increased federal interference. This doesn’t take into account that parents who live in neighborhoods with the opposite problem (their district lines have been redrawn to promote integration) can still achieve the same outcome by opting out and sending their children to private school or moving.
An Upper West Side neighborhood in New York is facing this problem, with some wealthy parents finding themselves newly zoned into a struggling public school. Reporters from The Atlantic recently interviewed parents making the tough choice of whether to send their children to the newly zoned school. While parents believe in the political agenda of more diverse schools, their rational interest in their kid’s education almost always won out. “It’s too risky now” one parent explained, “to sacrifice some years of your child’s education for a greater social good.”
Writing on this issue for The New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract.” But this is a completely unrealistic way of promoting integration. If we’re relying on parents to put the “common good” above what they perceive as their child getting a better education, how far do you expect us to get?
School choice programs such as vouchers and charter schools are often criticized for allowing privileged parents to self-segregate by abandoning failing public schools. This criticism not only conflicts with the research, it doesn’t consider that privileged parents will always have the power to opt-out of the system all together.
Give Poor Families the Choices Rich Ones Have
The solution is difficult to achieve but within reach: rational parental choice should be better aligned with our societal goals of integration and diversity. This way, families can continue to make individual decisions that don’t create further racial and socioeconomic segregation.
Hartford, Connecticut did just that. In 1989, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that minority children in Hartford were being denied the integrated education they are guaranteed in the state constitution. After the ruling, the state dramatically increased its spending on magnet schools within the city then marketed them to white families living in the suburbs. When parents were given the choice to transport their children into the city through a voluntary transfer program, applications soared.
Simultaneously, families living in the inner city pulled their students out of traditional public schools and also enrolled them in the magnet schools in their neighborhoods. The magnet schools maintain strict quotas of local kids. The program has resulted in 47.5 percent of Hartford children attending integrated schools in a place where white flight used to be the norm.
Studies have shown that high-performing charter schools similar to the ones in Hartford consistently attract middle- to upper-class families to impoverished areas. A recent study in Southern California examined the relocation decisions of families whose children are enrolled in a successful arts-intensive urban public charter school in the formerly blighted downtown area of Santa Ana. The study demonstrated that proximity to the school was a powerful attractor to families. Even better, it showed that the school’s presence has increased local safety.
Self-segregation is a complicated and damaging problem. When implemented with the right goals in mind, school choice can help to combat it by aligning parental choice with urban renewal and integration, while always ensuring that the local, neighborhood population makes up a significant portion of enrollment.