School segregation, pt 2: mitigating the effects/what we can do

20 Oct

The hardest post of this series will be part 3, delving into the problems that I ran into when thinking about where to buy a house without perpetuating systemic inequality by focusing on “good” schools, and also the problem of “safe” as a coded word to mean “predominantly white” when describing neighborhoods.  But this is part 2, which are small solutions to the as-yet-undefined problems.

Income disparities and property taxes mean unequal funding for schools.  I can live in a less-desired neighborhood (which I won’t do, because I want my short commute times and walkability and access to grocery stores etc. and I am unwilling to sacrifice those things for my ideals), or I can advocate for mixed-income housing on a local level, and be a YIMBY (yes! In my backyard!)  Especially in Charlotte, where the city has agreed to add 5000 affordable housing units within the next few years- but where?  We were looking at Cherry, a historically black neighborhood (literally where the black servants of the rich white people lived)- the builders there are building some number of subsidized houses along with the expensive fancy houses (as in this program).  What’s nice is that it’s the same builder, so you can’t really tell from outside who has the fancy expensive house and who has the subsidized house across the street (and everyone gets new houses!).  So we can be like the neighbors there and advocate for mixed-income housing, or we can be NIMBYs like in this story and say that affordable houses will “hurt our property values.”  If you find yourself saying “I’m worried that X will hurt my property values,” you may be part of the problem.

PTA “dark money” keeps “good” public schools “good” when state budgets are cut.  Rich people who do opt to send their kids to public school often give lots of money to the PTA- there’s some amazing examples in this Atlantic article (Taylor Swift ticket auction vs. bake sale?!) Of course you aren’t going to stop giving money to your kids’ schools so they can have better playground equipment or science equipment or books etc.  So one thing that we can do is match our PTA donations- for every $1 we spend at our local school, we can send $1 to the PTA of a needier school in the city.  It’s a small, band-aid solution, but when you’re not a policy-maker you do the best you can.

Shouldn’t these problems be addressed at the policy level?  What can I do as an individual?  Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose NYT magazine piece really started my spouse and I on this journey, stated it well in an NPR interview:

“It is important to understand that the inequality we see, school segregation, is both structural, it is systemic, but it’s also upheld by individual choices,” she says. “As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.”

If you’re a podcast listener, Hannah-Jones also appears on this episode of This American Life talking about the same issue.  (She also just won the Macarthur so she is no lightweight).  So do the things I list in this post!

School rankings on real estate sites mostly show you how rich and white a school is. They use Greatschools.org info, which relies on standardized test scores.  So if you’re like my spouse and filter your real estate search by school scores, you’re just filtering for the white neighborhoods.  From this Washington Post article:

As research has found, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about a third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often tell us much more about demography than about schools.

Instead of relying only on a number, try visiting the schools and talking to the people there about your own kids’ needs.  My kids are very young, but based on the evidence we have we’ll want a school with some gifted and talented programs, and light on homework, and a lot of emphasis on social learning/getting along with others (I have a shy guy toddler).  So a high-power, worksheet and results focused school is probably not for us.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.  Corollary: naming a problem can make you feel defensive, like these Seattle white progressive parents .  Try not go be like them.  As I noted in a previous post, people don’t like being called racist- people didn’t even like it when I called myself racist!  Let’s try to quell our knee-jerk reactions to the problem of school segregation and think about what we can do.  To be clear, I am writing from a huge position of privilege.  You know what correlates strongly with kids’ academic achievement?  Their mothers’ education level.  My kids are maxed out on that.  So I can talk about these issues and freely decide what schools to send my kids to, and they’ll be fine pretty much anywhere they go.  Other people don’t have such advantages.  Here’s an anonymous quote that I loved about this topic, to finish off the post:

We have to balance many variables in making our choices. But there are others too–and they concern not only who we want our child to be, but the society we want our child to live in.

If you want to read more about the topic of school segregation, I suggest googling Nikole Hannah-Jones and checking out this great Facebook page (LA-centric), Integrated Schools.

 

 

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