Home > Uncategorized > Gentrification, Choice Subtly Re-segregating Schools

Gentrification, Choice Subtly Re-segregating Schools

May 25, 2016

A string of articles over the past week describe an insidious and subtle trend toward re-segregation of schools, a trend that seemingly defies easy policy solutions.

The title of Emmaia Gelman’s blog post in last week’s CityLimits blog describes how school choice plays into the re-segregation trend. “Addressing School Inequities Means Admitting There’s a Shadow System for the Rich” outlines the two systems that exist in NYC:

One system is zoned schools, where kids are assigned to schools near their homes, and they attend. That’s for poor kids. (Wealth and race are closely linked in NYC.) The other is the shadow system with no name, where parents choose the school they want their kids to attend and advocate six ways to Sunday to get them in. Sometimes they move close to the school, often straining their budgets, and use the zoned school system to claim a spot: you could call that buying in. Sometimes they just get on the waitlist and call, volunteer, donate, or pull strings. If forced, they do kindergarten at a school they don’t want, then switch.

That unnamed system is for wealthy, well-connected, or privileged families. The shadow system is so shadowy that it’s hard to define exactly who accesses it, although the Center for Immigrant Families report lays out its complex operations. Wealth helps, but families with modest incomes use it: plenty of artists, for instance. Education and familiarity with bureaucracy helps, as does a strong sense of entitlement. Being white helps, but it’s not required. And it’s easier to access sought-after seats if you’re a “good fit”, which often means fitting into a privileged, mostly-white environment.

So one force for re-segregation, then, is choice which is based on “wealth, connections, and privilege”… and, as the highlighted phrases indicate, “being white helps”. And having lots of time helps as well. As the title of a May 11 Chalkbeat post by Sarah Darville indicates, “NYC Families Spend Millions of Hours Choosing High Schools, And Students From Poor Neighborhoods Finish Last”. The whole choice paradigm is based on the pretext that schools are commodities and parents are consumers who can determine the best product for their children and the marketplace will determine which schools provide the best product. But in the “school marketplace” some consumers have a huge advantage over others: they have the time to do the necessary research on which schools are superior and the ability to navigate the necessarily complicated system in place to ensure “fairness” and “equity”. As Danville notes, “time poverty” and “geography” are factors that tilt the schools in a direction that works against poor families:

Even the process of picking schools is weighted against students in poor neighborhoods.

One factor is what the researchers call “time poverty”:

“The most competitive schools hold few open houses, make a limited number of ‘test tickets’ available in a very short window, and schedule interviews within a several-week period. Competition in this arena is a blood sport, and successful admission to the best selective high schools requires focus, contacts, money, time, flexibility, transportation, extreme attention to detail, and the ability to prioritize the school admissions process over work or family obligations. In all of these areas the privileged have a significant advantage over others, especially poor families and immigrant families.”

Another is geography.

“Although most students leave their immediate neighborhoods to attend high school, their preference tends to be schools that are closer to home … Four of the five poorest community districts in NYC, for instance, are concentrated in the Bronx; attending a school in a more affluent area would require a long trip for someone living in Morrisania or East Tremont.”

And now, as more studies and reports show that re-segregation is happening, the effects of it are adverse, and the benefits of de-segregation are clear, the means of addressing the problem are more difficult than ever. Clearly the “choice” solution advocated by neoliberal and conservative “reformers” has not worked, bussing has not worked, and the notion of requiring low income housing in otherwise affluent communities using some form of eminent domain would never fly. From my perspective one obvious solution for the long run would be full funding of the kinds of preschool intervention and wraparound services needed to lift children raised in poverty with the same opportunities as children raised in affluence regardless of race. As long as wealth and race are “closely linked” and education and wealth are closely linked, providing equitable educational opportunity might be the most direct route possible given the unlikelihood of any other solution.

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