Sunday, March 20, 2016

Schools, Schools, Schools: Part 1

We signed LB up.  She is officially a 6%er having gotten into her new school by lottery. It's a small community charter dual language school (they offer Spanish and Portuguese tracks, and she will be in the Spanish track). Our little unicorn baby.  I feel cautiously optimistic about our choice, but I can also see the messed up ways that our current distressed system of public education structured our choices. I like our neighborhood school a lot.  It offers some things that the charter does not: gym every day, a gym that can be used for indoor recesses, a big (if seriously rundown) facility, a stage, a community of people who live nearby.  But the way the system is structured, we can only choose the charter now.  And if it doesn't work out, we can go back to our neighborhood school, but we can't move the other way.  So LB will start out as a unicorn.

And the class and race dynamics: the school LB got into is a school White People Want (WPW).  As a district 80% of kids in Providence Public Schools are classified as low-income, and 91% are kids of color-although in terms of total population, Providence is slightly less than half white people.  Latinos make up the majority of kids in the district.  Our neighborhood school has long been both the blackest and whitest elementary school in the city, but lately has been drawing fewer white kids (although there are still plenty of white kids in the neighborhood) and more latino kids.  At least in Elementary, Providence schools work on an 80/20 formula.  To register your child, you go to the office in South Providence, take a number, sit in a spartan room full of rows of chairs, with a big sign that says "do not form a line, wait for your number to be called." When you go back into the office, you submit say yes or no to the lottery for the public (not charter) dual language option, and then you submit 3 ranked choices.  Your zoned school is established by your address, and zoned schools draw 80% of their students from their zone and 20% from out of zone.  As our zoned school has become less popular, the zoned spots don't usually fill.  It is all very complicated.  And schools don't seem to do a very good job of outreach (and clearly don't have resources to do a good job of outreach).

The result: the most desirable school among people we know is the other Eastside elementary that is out of our zone, and it's 40% white (likely the whitest public school in Providence).  Our neighborhood school is about 20% white, and I believe African American students make up the largest single racial demographic group-and I can't help but think that a rising percentage of African American students correlates with the school becoming less popular among white parents, although white parents don't say so.  LB's new school will be both highly diverse (majority latino, 25% white kids, 10% black kids, slightly majority low-income kids) and unrepresentative of the district.

Providence loses wealthy white families (WWF) (and I'd lump me and LB in that category even though the feds say we qualify as a low-mod family) at every point.  Demographically whites in the city skew older than other groups, so more elderly whites and more young latino families, white families move out to the suburbs to afford more house, to avoid city taxes, and to send their kids to suburban schools, the city has a strong culture of independent schools-so there are 5 independents and at least 3 religious schools within walking distance of my home.  Charters like LB's  are among the most racially balanced schools in the city, but they take more than their share of white kids and not-poor kids.

So here we are in a district with big, old, crumbling schools, full of poor kids, kids who are learning English, kids who have experienced trauma and dislocation (at my own work, I hear about life in wartime, refugee camps, families separated, from our high schoolers). And the kids have problems, but the problem is not the kids.  For reasons I still don't understand, the state pays RI cities less per pupil than it does in the suburbs.  And the money follows the student here, so charters pull more money away from urban schools with their fixed and expensive crumbling physical plants.

So what is diversity in a school system where most of the kids are low income and most are kids of color?  What moral responsibility do WWF have to stay in the system?  And what special sauce do WWF bring to the system?

I can see the ways that diversity benefits the high schoolers I know in Providence.  That diversity does not necessarily include WWF kids.  Instead kids who came here from the DR a few years ago, get really into KPOP and start learning Korean on the internet.  These kids are cosmopolitan in a way I certainly never was.

I don't like the cultural arguments that tell us in more or less veiled language that poor kids of color need to learn with white kids of privilege so that they can learn the cultural habits of whiteness and wealth, so they can get respectable, so that the rising tide will lift their boats.  But there are ways that being in proximity to wealth and power help people glean wealth and power (and by glean I do mean, collect the leftover bits after the harvest).

A school with more WWFs likely have more people who have easy access to lawyers, politicians, and high-level administrators.  When they complain about unequal funding formulas and rundown schools, their voices are amplified.  In the best case, access to power benefits all the kids in the system.  In reality, it often means more resources for the schools and programs used by WWFs, but even then perhaps there is a marginal benefit for all.  But if WWF bring resources, they are also remarkably good at segregating those resources for themselves and people like them.  The whitest and wealthiest school in our district is a neighborhood school-because it takes most of its students from the wealthiest and whitest neighborhood.  Other schools consolidate WWFs in "gifted programs" which are based on tests that measure a child's relative advantage in life.  And we have an exam high school, which is the last in the city to hold onto WWFs.

Without those opportunities to segregate resources, even fewer WWFs would stay in the system, and likely the system would be in even worse shape (and when WWFs leave for the suburbs they take their tax payments with them, and the district's per child money is for kids who enroll, so when kids go to independents, the public school system has to deal with its heavy sunk costs with even fewer dollars).

And the issue of public schools and individual morality: I don't think WWFs should be too quick to claim the high moral ground for choosing publics.  Most of us who do have a decent public option, as well as kids who are able to function within that option.  And I don't think moral responsibility requires us to keep our kids in a situation that is miserable.  I definitely judge parents who call out public schools as crap, rough, failing...without ever visiting those schools-and I think many of those judgements are based on evaluations of the race/class makeup of the school, and of WWF peer pressure.

But even as I have sympathy for parents who choose charters (that includes me) or independents or "better" publics, it troubles me to make the comparison between opting out of public schools and residential white flight in the 1950s through the 1970s.  When white people fled to the suburbs, some of them did so because they didn't want to have black neighbors, others feared the loss of value in their properties, some were moving for other reasons-to get a shiny new house, to be close to family.  But in the end it didn't really matter whether WWFs moved because of racist motivations, mixed motivations, or motivations unrelated to race, what mattered was that most of the white families left and they took everything of value that they could carry, and that loss of white wealth massively destabilized american cities.

And also helped created our underfunded urban schools (my school historian friend tells me that before the 1960s, urban schools were the best and best funded in the nation).  When we act as individuals, we are also acting as a group.  That collective action has power beyond our seemingly individual act.  Even if our individual action is based on motivations other than race, if the collective result of our individual actions perpetuates and increases the inequality in a society structured by racial inequality, then the effect of our individual action is to perpetuate racism.


  1. Overwhelmingly I agree with all these points. I think that you are doing the best for LB and that it is simply wise, and nothing more, that you took the lottery spot. As you said, you can always go back of public if it doesn't work out. We do not have as many options (it is basically either public local school, charter, or private and all the private except one are deeply religious based and 99% white) and still struggled for months in the decision of which path to take. Now we are doing the same dance with preschool. We would probably be viewed as WWF, even though yes federally we fall smack dab in the middle class, in this area (I think region has a lot to do with this) because we can afford for me to stay home with the kids, we did pay for private preschool, we go on vacations, we live in the suburbs, etc. In the end, and I totally get your moral high ground pet peeve, it was important to give our local public school a shot. Mostly for the diversity. Though I have been pleasantly surprised with the overall benefits of this school even though it is very small town and not an over the top wealthy community. I'm not so sure about the high school but the elementary school and middle school appear to be quite good and I think a big part of that is the school's recruitment of community volunteers and a very strong PTO led by get things done parents. I so enjoy this post and how honest and insightful it is.

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