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False Binaries and Good Schools

Guest post by Erin

The notion that two types of schools,  “good” vs  “bad” has never sat well with me.  In short, I've come to see this as a false binary, and a particularly damaging one at that.  It undermines the fabric of the communities in which we live and groups children based on family income and race.  And I now have a better understanding of the very logical explanation for all of it.  

As a parent, I was surprised at how the “good/bad” school conversations started long before my own children were old enough to attend school.   They’d surface on playground sidelines, albeit quite innocently, with chit-chat about how old the kids are, if/where they go to preschool, and in which neighborhood you live.  And without fail, the topic and timeline of your parenting choices shifts to elementary school. And that’s when the good/bad aspect inevitably comes up.  

I generally tend to ask what information or measures parents are basing their statements about whether a school is “good”.  The responses are usually a) parental ranking on websites or b) test scores.  I ask about the highly self-selecting sample of upper/middle class parents that write surveys on school ranking sites. I frequently note that, test scores are only one of many ways to judge quality of education, and standardized tests have been proven to reflect little beyond socioeconomic status. I inevitably struggle because in these conversations we dance around the topic of race (and class - which we know to be inextricably tied).

In America, we can't have an honest and meaningful conversation about schools without discussing the history of government decisions that produced such extremes.  Our history books are structured to paint an image of our history that supports a narrative of our troubled past, which we overcame, because we had a civil rights movement.  I keep trying to understand what events led us to the this point I've found it helpful to create a timeline (it's oversimplified at best) of the series of notable events, decisions and policies of the last century:

1861 -1865
Civil War
1865 -1877ish
Emancipation Proclamation (Yay! Slaves are free! wait, now what!?!?! Share-cropping, vagrancy laws, incentives for officers to arrest those “associating” across race lines); I just learned that in 1863 - 10,000 slaves in NYC alone were freed, but little changed in their living situations
Plessy vs. Ferguson - Supreme court says separate but equal is cool, Black kids can go to school BUT not a)with white kids b)not if their parents were slaves c)not if they have to work as sharecroppers so they have a place to live
1900s- 1960s
“The Great Migration” of 6 million blacks from south to big cities on the West Coast, Midwest and Northeastern parts of the country to escape the state-sanctioned domestic violence known as Jim Crow in the South (read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson)
WWII ends and white soldiers return home w/GI bill, to buy homes in areas where blacks are actively excluded (both overtly through redlining, and covertly through restrictive covenants) - Although the GI bill was technically “available” to all veterans, only 4% of returning Black soldiers were able to actually benefit from the bill because they were unable to get loans for property ownership in predominantly white areas
Blockbusting by realtors scares white homeowners into selling cheap and allows realtors to turn around and rent a single-family home to many Black families at much higher prices. Restrictive covenants are made between real estate brokers and homeowners associations; redlining; FHA low interest loans (read Seeing White, Jean O'Malley Halley)
Civil rights act & school integration (in Boston--Chain of Change, Mel King)
Integration fuels massive white-flight to suburbs nationwide
Wealth accumulated over past generations enables those homeowners to assist with college tuition &/or down payments on homes for their children (mostly baby-boomers like my parents)
These baby-boomers purchase homes in neighborhoods that are built on restrictive covenants (the totally legal way that homeowners and real estate brokers work-around for the fact that it’s illegal to forbid sale to blacks)
Many baby boomers go on to achieve higher levels of education & access to higher paying jobs and were able to accumulate wealth to pass on to their children
Factory jobs get moved overseas where labor is cheaper

Working class neighborhoods transition to extremes that reinforce past patterns of segregation.  Hyper-ghettos are established where areas of concentrated poverty
The wealth gap is expanding, schools are again segregated.

This time last year, I was back in my hometown of Houston for my Granny’s funeral.  In her Milby High School yearbook, I came across a “Pledge of Allegiance” that she and her classmates made to their community during their graduation.

All parents exert influence through their choices. But what if parents decided to “always exert influence" not only for their kids, but for the benefit of all students? What would happen if as a society, we all stopped thinking of schools as good or bad and instead we focused the funds and energy to shaping schools to prepare all children for their contributions to society. What if we collectively recognize that it’s in all of our best interest to educate ALL children, for they will inherit the systems we create and maintain?

This either/or thinking is a hallmark of white supremacy culture.  It allows for the status quo to continue and for those with power to retain it and pass it on to their children.  Things are either good, or they are bad.  An action is right or it is wrong.  You are either on my team or you are my opponent. You are my ally or you are my enemy.  YOU are good or you are evil. You are racist or you are not. A person you pass on the sidewalk is safe or they are dangerous.    This attitude is dangerous for a number of reasons.  It gives us permission to avoid discussion and attempting to understand the complexity of these issues.  It allows people to buy into the notion that a school is “good” or it is “bad”.  Plenty of parents will point to standardized test scores as a qualifier for why a school is good/bad.  Yet, when asked about the high-stakes testing that occurs, the consensus among both parents and teachers is that there is too much. The testing mandated by No Child Left Behind pulls valuable time away from opportunities for innovating and exciting educational exploration.  Arguably all parents want these same things for their children. Allison Benedikt of Slate shares these sentiments:

“Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.”

I can't help but feel that when white families opt out of the public system they fail to see the effect it has on the other students in the district.  Does wanting “what’s best” for one’s child have to come at the expense of other children?  When families with resources to improve education for their own children focus efforts on the institutions that serve all children in the community, everyone benefits. As our focus stays fixed on defining schools as “good” or “bad”, we lose sight of why public education exists in the first place.


threesacrowd said…
While your post has great points, I do not think it's fair to generalize those who choose to send their children to private schools. While test scores and school rankings may be a couple of the reasons that families choose to go the private route, there are plenty of working class families (many of which are minorities and immigrants) that want to give their children a quality education and work so much that they do not have the time available to invest in their child's school by doing things like volunteering. As a minority, immigrant, first-generation college graduate and working class private school parent that works has at times worked to jobs to send my children to private school, I find it equally as offensive when public school parents judges for me going the private route as they get offended when private school parents judge them for going the public route.
erinjohn said…
Hi, @threesacrowd -

Thanks for your feedback. I agree with you that there are many working class families who opt to send their kids to private schools as they see it as the best option. As a minority, immigrant, first-generation college graduate, I respect your ability to do so. My point is that this is not an option for ALL families.

The option to send one's children to private schools is a result of past policy decisions. Policies at local, state and federal levels were put place by white folks once integration became the law of the land. The policies now in place arguably create de facto segregation that exists today (Check out that piece linked from the post on segregation in Atlanta). Such policies were created out of a culture of white supremacy that dictates that some children are more worthy of a quality education than others.

Your ability to send your children to private schools is not an option accessible to all families. Do you agree with this notion?
threesacrowd said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
threesacrowd said…
I agree that private school are not accessible to all families, but many private schools make accommodations for this by providing need based financial aid to all students. I do not argue your facts about private schools are a result of past policy decisions, I find it problematic to make generalizations about a very complex issue.
Kim Curry said…
I grew up mostly in Catholic schools.

When I was growing up, I thought school choice was about choice, about the quality of education. As a youth, I supported the concept of school vouchers and school choice. I was wrong, and I no longer believe that.

After I became an adult, I encountered Bruce Bawyer's "Stealing Jesus," that talks about the rise of the Christian Right. Towards the end of the book, he links the rise of private and Christian schools to Brown vs. Board of Education. That the "policies in place" don't just create "de facto" segregation -- many were intentionally established to continue it.

What I don't know - yet - is whether the Catholic school movement was also part of self-segregation.
erinjohn said…
@threesacrowd - Indeed, this is complex issue. I understand that because my assertions place responsibility on entire communities to educate ALL children, that some may take this as a personal attack or judgement. What I'm really aiming for is for us all to engage (in sometimes uncomfortable) conversations that challenge us to think about why we make the decisions we make. How does opting out of a system that one deems ineffective change that system (for better or worse, for our own children and other people's children)? That said, I'm glad that we're in agreement about the role past policy plays on the current system- that means we're starting from the same axiom of understanding. Past policies have produced today's outcomes.

You're right to point out that most private schools offer financial aid to families, for example, Polytechnic School in Pasadena sets the maximum qualifying annual household income at something like $400K. Definitely different from working-class, right? Do you believe that financial aid packages at your children's school (or other private schools) actually even out the demographics at the school-where the percentage of the student body match the percentage of population demographics within the community? A quick glance at an "all school" photograph for any given school gives us that answer.

I wonder how we can begin to solve complex problems like this one without making generalizations about how our current actions support systems that results in a huge disparity in educational outcomes. Any ideas?
erinjohn said…
@Kim Curry - thanks for those insights. I'm adding "Stealing Jesus" to my reading list! Please share whatever insights you glean in answering that last question!

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