RE: Done ?Waiting for ?Superman'??
September 27, 2010
I hate to steal Mike's thunder, but he's not the first person to pose this thesis of socioeconomic integration. Indeed, UVA professor Jim Ryan has a whole book about it, one that I reviewed for Gadfly a few weeks back. He traces the history of desegregation in the U.S. and concludes that without sparking vested middle class (suburban) parental interest in poor (urban) schools, we will never close the achievement gap. It's a whopper of a thesis, and his argument is quite convincing, but the logistics of doing so seem a bit of a stretch. Ryan suggests that younger families are more comfortable in diverse neighborhoods, which has slowed white flight, and that urban areas can support those families with policies that attract/support them. In theory, this makes a lot of sense, and I can only hope that progressive open-minded white families continue to do their civic duty, which is effectively what the Petrilli family is agonizing over right now. Do we stay and send our kids to our diverse so-so neighborhood schools, knowing we'll have to fight to improve them? Or do we go somewhere else, which will probably be less diverse, for a better education?
Which brings me back to Mike's suggestion to Davis Guggenheim and co.: Stop driving by poor schools and actually send your own kids there. Numerous problems occur to me. First of all, diverse neighborhoods are a far cry from the urban ghettos in which our cities' worst schools are actually located. I, too, live in a diverse neighborhood (Shaw), but it is certainly not Anacostia. (If you don't know your D.C. neighborhoods, Anacostia is the poorest section of the District, literally and figuratively ?across the river,? with the highest rates of everything?crime, dropouts, etc. In the last few years it has improved, but it still has a long way to go.)
I'm also not convinced that a commuter-style middle-class student enrolled in a struggling urban school is going to do the trick. We encourage urban parents who commute with their children half way across the city for a better (charter/magnet/Catholic) school, as an alternative to moving to the nicer neighborhoods that they probably can't afford. But the other way around, it's not so successful. After all, if you live/work an hour from your child's school, it's pretty hard to swing by for an impromptu parent-teacher conference or PTA meeting, let alone a musical recital or basketball game. You know, the very high quality attributes you, as a middle class parent, are fighting in theory to get for your child's struggling school.
So, really, if we're going to have the kind of socioeconomic integration of schools that we need?and the vested participation of middle class parents in their children's education that will exert the pressure, political and otherwise, that produces school improvement?then what Mike's really saying is: Go live in a poor urban ghetto, and?then send your child to the local school. Of course, those neighborhoods aren't diverse at all. They are the poor, racially isolated ones.
But let's say the diverse neighborhood schools are a good place to start with this so-called vesting of middle class interest. The point of such integration is to bring the political power of the middle class to bear on these institutions. That means both the aforementioned showing up at school for PTA meetings and the political pressure of the voting booth. In theory, again, this makes a ton of sense. In practice, there is the lesson of the D.C. mayoral primary, where a young, education-reform-minded, black mayor was knocked out for being ?too white,? as evidenced of course by the bike lanes he built to attract the middle-class progressive families?the same ones we're encouraging to send their children to the schools in diverse neighborhoods. Indeed, if you look at the voting breakdown of this primary, you'll see all the affluent neighborhoods went for Mr. Bike Lanes, and Anacostia voted for the other guy. (The ?battleground? areas were?surprise, surprise?the diverse neighborhoods like mine, Shaw.)
That's not to say I think the Petrilli family should move to Georgetown, but let's be realistic about how far parents will?or can?go in the name of social justice. Waiting For Superman might simplify, a lot, but we should be hoping it is successful, not knocking it down. And while you're mulling over selling your $500,000 house in exchange for a not-so-safe, racially isolated, urban neighborhood with pretty terrible schools, you can log on to?Waiting for Superman's??Done Waiting? campaign website.