Questioning Affluent Parents’ School Choices

One of the biggest takeaways from the NYT Sunday Magazine article Choosing A School For My Daughter is how unusual it seems to be for parents with other choices to send their children to schools with lower test scores or higher rates of segregation — and how relatively little attention has been paid in the media to the symbolic and practical effect of these cumulative individual decisions.

While she’d benefitted from a desegregation program as a child, and her husband had attended diverse DOD schools, Hannah-Jones had mixed feelings about the experience and believed deeply that the affluent kids and families she went to school with weren’t any better than the poor and working-class. And so “the idea of placing our daughter in one of the small number of integrated schools troubled me. These schools are disproportionately white and serve the middle and upper middle classes, with a smattering of poor black and Latino students to create “’diversity.’”

Hannah-Jones dubs this practice”curated integration,” which is more helpful to white and more affluent parents but does little to help poor communities of color. She doesn’t want to buy into the two-tiered system that results: “I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”

The point Hannah-Jones makes is obvious: Individual choices, not just systemic policies, contribute to segregated schools.

She’s not the first to make it. Last year, somewhat hypocritically, President Obama lamented: “Kids start going to private schools... And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.”

Some folks criticized education leaders who sent their children to private schools, or moved to exclusive areas, or found magnet or gifted programs. Reform critic Matt Damon let it slip in 2013 that he wasn’t sending his kids to a LAUSD school.

However, few of the big names in education are doing or have done this. Not Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee, Barack Obama… Not NJ Governor Chris Christie. Not Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The list goes on and on.

Indeed, the conventional explanation has been that parents — be they political figures, education leaders, or everyday citizens — were justified to make a choice that’s best for their kids, separate from what might be best for the community.

“I was told by more than one person that I had to do what was best for my son and the amount of hassle/BS/politics I would run into would make it not worth it,” says Kate Phillippo, who I know from Chicago.

With her story, Hannah-Jones tears into the justification that so many education leaders and others have made, exposing the moral quandary that is just under the surface.

There are a few folks who’ve made choices similar to Hannah-Jones’, however — which either shows that this is a possible area of growth for more parents to choice, or illustrates how rare and unpopular a decision it is.

Chicago’s Marilyn Rhames, a veteran teacher, writes “I made the same decision that with Hannah-Jones made, except that my approach was to try to enroll my kids at the schools where I taught to hold myself accountable for teaching every kid like s/he was my own and to expect the same from my colleagues.”

This has included a mix of low-income, mostly African-American neighborhood schools, charter schools, and a brief stint at a Catholic school. “I wish more education reformers and unionized educators alike would start putting their money (or, in this case, biological children) where their ideological mouth is,” writes Rhames, who wrote about the issue in a February column How to Keep Ourselves Honest in School Politics. “I often wonder how effective any of us can really be if we spend our professional careers fighting against systemic injustice, but we navigate our personal lives in such a way that we remain completely untouched by it…. Our jockeying for educational advantages for our own children can be both righteous and reckless, creating a complicated, entangled web of conflicts of interest and strange bedfellows.

San Francisco’s Caroline Grannan says “we chose a more diverse, lower-scoring middle school as opposed to the almost-entirely Asian-and-white. higher-scoring options.” At the time, 2002, it had high black and Latino populations, according to Grannan. “We wanted the greater diversity. Others at our kids’ K-5 school scorned the middle school as a “dirty,” “dangerous” “ghetto” school (though it’s not in a “ghetto” that was the rep).”

Minneapolis’s Beth Hawkins reports that she sends one son to “a school that’s 93 percent students of color and American Indian and 92 percent free and reduced-price lunch. It’s not high scoring, but the second highest-growth middle school in the city.” Another son goes to a much higher-scoring and more affluent school. “Different choices for different kids.”

Other education luminaries whom I’m told have sent their children to low-scoring neighborhood schools — but haven’t been able to confirm — include Chris Edley, Gary Orfield. “He did this long, long ago on Capitol Hill, many decades before it gentrified.”

The motivation behind choosing a segregated school is an issue, as much as making the choice in the first place. On Facebook, Heather Harding writes “I’m a little skeptical of this sacrificial perspective that integration is some cause for individuals to take on. If we think integrated educational settings are beneficial we should just cultivate them. I respect the NYT lady’s crusade but… ?”

Also on Facebook, longtime civil rights activist Dianne Piche writes that she made a similar decision with her children, now in their 20s — but not out of any sort of sacrifice: “Over 25 years ago, my husband and I bought a home in a racially, culturally and economically diverse community that also had well-resourced public schools and excellent recreation facilities. We raised 3 sons who attended schools that were majority non-white and where families came from 40 different countries. Their schools had higher enrollments of students eligible for free/reduced lunch and English learners. And, yes, average test scores were lower than less diverse schools elsewhere in the Washington suburbs. At no time and in no way, however, did we feel we were “sacrificing” them on an alter of principle. That is a ridiculous idea.”

For journalists interested in covering school segregation, this NYT story suggests that individual choices made by parents and elected officials can be an effective way to address a story that can otherwise seem overwhelming or complex — and that the long tradition of giving parents and leaders a “pass” on where they send their own children may be unraveling.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.