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October 25, 2011
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October 01, 2011
A new generation of affluent, educated, urban Americans is beginning to send its children to school.? Their dissatisfaction with the lack of choice and the status quo of failure in urban education will be far more personal than their elders'?and it represents a golden opportunity for choice advocates able to mobilize these parents.
As upper-middle class white families move into historically-minority, urban neighborhoods, the infusion of affluence causes property values to spike, businesses to spring up, and municipal tax revenues to increase, fundamentally changing those communities.? Gentrification has become a national phenomenon, transforming neighborhoods from the Northern Liberties (Philadelphia) to Columbia City (Seattle), and countless others in between, and it is raising some tough questions for many young parents educated in high-performing suburban schools.
Inner-city public schools are overwhelmingly low-performing and attended by minorities.? Gentrifiers are confronted with a question that contributed to their parents' and grandparents' suburban exodus a half-century earlier: Are they willing to send their children to the neighborhood public school?
Historically, no.? The established alternatives, however, are straining to keep up with demand.? Manhattan, for example, has experienced a thirty-two percent increase in its population under the age of five over the past half-decade, but spots at elite private schools crept up by only 400.? At the elementary level, supply is actually dropping; since the 1990s, over 1,300 Catholic schools, most of them urban, shut their doors.? It looks like a seller's market for top education providers, which tends to hinder choice and quality, but parents are taking creative steps to improve their children's options, as described in Janice D'Arcy's ?D.C. parents choosing to home-school their children? article in last week's Washington Post.
For the first time in years, historically high-performing and under-enrolled public schools in upscale Northwest-D.C. are full to capacity with neighborhood kids and no longer have spots for out-of-boundary students.? The handful of charter schools with a significant middle class population are similarly drowning in applications for lottery-spots.? The result is that middle class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods have fewer and fewer alternatives to sending their children to the under-performing neighborhood school. ?In Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Brookland and along U Street, parents are contemplating educating their children at home,? D'Arcy writes, listing enclaves of white affluence in the District of Columbia.
Homeschooling is a valuable choice, a stopgap that frees parents from having to accept schooling options that they have a right to find unacceptable.? But it shouldn't be the only choice.? The homeschoolers D'Arcy describes don't shun public schools out of religious or political conviction; keeping their kids at home just seems like the best option available.[pullquote]The homeschoolers D'Arcy describes don't shun public schools out of religious or political conviction; keeping their kids at home just seems like the best option available.[/pullquote]
This testifies to the still-sorry state of D.C. public schools, but it may also lead to productive changes.? So-called ?parent-triggers? for district-to-charter conversions are only the start.? Networks of parents dissatisfied with their children's educational choices and invested in developing high-quality alternatives are potent catalysts for reform that should be empowered to experiment and formalize their efforts.? This is underway in some gentrifying parts of D.C., where, last year, proactive, organized parents engaged with district leadership to expand options for elementary- and middle-school students at a time when schools in other parts of the city were closing.
Of course, there is also a racial dynamic to the issue glaringly absent from D'Arcy's Post article.? Many suburban and urban public schools are effectively segregated.? White parents may feel uncomfortable with their children being overwhelmingly in the minority.? Perhaps they should just ?get over it,? but keeping that reality unacknowledged also hinders attempts at reform.? A danger, outlined by Mike in April, is that boundary policies will simply cause school demographics to flip once neighborhoods change, preventing any real increase in school diversity.? Conversely, minority parents may perceive attempts at bringing white kids into neighborhood public schools as coming at the expense of the existing students.
Both of these mindsets are deeply flawed, and can only serve to preserve effective segregation and under-performance in inner-city schools. Isolating racial and lower-income groups within districts will inevitably cripple district leaders' ability to serve all students equitably and effectively.? Gentrification's role in education is not to ratchet up the competition for a limited amount of influence?this is not a zero-sum game. The more people who care about public education?who will support funding it, developing it, and holding it accountable?the more everyone wins.
These new parents are neither altruistic TFAers nor philanthropists; they are not members of economically and politically disempowered groups; The Gentrification Generation is an influential new urban population with a vested interest in improving the options and quality of inner-city schools.? Charter and school choice advocates should be scrambling to mobilize this cohort, to bring its economic and political potential to bear on charter caps, stifling regulations, and other obstacles to more and better educational options.? Parents from all backgrounds should take a chance and unite around improving their neighborhood schools.? If homeschooling is ultimately their choice, so be it, but it certainly shouldn't be their only viable one.