What White Flight Tells Us About School Choice

What White Flight Tells Us About School Choice

A while back, I wrote about a school district in Texas that was working to oppose public housing in its borders. The underlying assumption was that kids from projects are more costly to educate, taking up more resources from the teachers and leaving less for the other kids. I used that example to talk about why the incorporation of suburbs is problematic from a regional economic point of view – suburban folks often receive great economic and cultural benefits from living near the city, but are insulated from having to spend tax dollars supporting folks not wealthy enough to move out of the central city.

I want to talk today, though, about the ways in which white flight and the depopulation of cities in the twentieth century are in many ways similar to the current conversation surrounding school choice. Before I start, though, two disclaimers:

  • I know very, very little about education policy, so I’m approaching this from a planning and social policy perspective. If you know more about education than I do and I’m not getting something quite right, let me know in the comments!

  • For the sake of the argument to follow, I’m going to assume that the public schools people move away from are in fact poor schools. I don’t believe this assumption is true as a blanket statement. Much ink has been spilled showing that whiter, wealthier kids do better on standardized tests than other kids who read, write, and do math at the same level. When people compare the test scores of different schools, they might just be noticing which schools have kids better trained at taking standardized tests. Furthermore, comparing standardized tests doesn’t make sense as a way of judging how well your kid would do in a school. If you did put faith in standardized tests, you’d want to see how kids in the same situation as yours (family income, initial literacy, etc.) did in each of the schools. If kids from tougher backgrounds do worse on testing than others, and two identical schools have different populations, the average test score will be different even if similarly situated kids do identically. And, even if a “worse” school would lead to lower academic achievement, Abby Norman explains in a piece I can’t recommend highly enough why the human experience in a low-performing school can more than compensate for this academic loss.

The second assumption above is a tough one for me to swallow – in case the entire paragraph of explanation wasn’t enough to communicate that. It’s something that I might well engage with more at another time, but for now I’ll just say that if you can accept the baseline assumptions of someone with whom you disagree (“Inner city schools are bad!”) and still explain why their conclusions are problematic, you’re likely to have more luck getting them to engage.

Earlier this week, the Times had a piece (I feel like all my blog posts start with an article from the Times – I also read other sources too, I swear!) entitled Good Schools, Affordable Homes: Finding Suburban Sweet Spots. The authors begin their article with the following: “For better or worse, it’s common for city-dwelling families that reach a certain size to make the leap to the suburbs for more space and better schools.” Right off the bat, I’ve got a problem with this article. The authors preface their sentence with “[f]or better or worse” in order to demonstrate their ambivalence, but spend no time discussing whether or not it is better or worse. They leave undisturbed what is, to this planner’s eye, the single factor most undermining American public education. The dominant narrative presents two options: spend the money necessary for private school, or move to the suburbs. The idea of sending one’s kids to public schools in the city is rejected unless absolutely necessary.

I’ve been meaning to write a piece about white flight and the impact housing policy had on minority communities, both before and after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1948 striking down racially restrictive covenants. But it’s a big topic that I’m still grappling with. Without going into the details, though, we know that white flight led to a huge migration of relatively affluent people out of the cities. This was due to many things, though racism did play a big part. As people of color (who were often poor) moved into their neighborhoods,  those who could leave did so. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about these things have a pretty negative view of the depopulation of urban cores. This led to racial and financial segregation. The segregation became especially visible when suburbs enforced minimum lot sizes, effectively setting minimum house prices and locking out those who couldn’t afford them. As the tax base left, the quality of services in the cities deteriorated. As the wealthier people left, politicians spent less of their capital on these areas. The outward migration led to huge amounts of sprawl, and accounts for a large chunk of why we’re so dependent on automobiles in this country.

And yet, for many of the individual families who moved out, it was a no-brainer. Property values were falling, so they wanted to sell before they went even lower. As the neighborhood grew poorer, there may have been more crime that they wanted to escape and insulate their families from. Jobs moved where the people went, so even the holdouts eventually moved to be closer to work. To hold these individuals who moved responsible is difficult. And yet, with each family that did move, the cycle only reinforced itself. A lot of people making choices that were in their own best interest led to massive negative social externalities. The result is Donald Trump’s thunderous (and erroneous) claims about the violence and crime in our inner cities.

So what does this mean for school choice? Because parents who really think that they’re doing what’s best for their kids are trying to move them out of the bad schools. In fact, as the other parents in Norman’s piece reveal, most of these parents aren’t even considering sending their kids to the local public school. The choice many of these parents want is not between the local public school and a private one they can’t afford. They want to be able to send their kid to a better school without having to pay for it and without having to move. And, assuming that they are right and that the kid will have a better academic experience at a private school, they’re only doing what’s best for their kid. But it’s the same cycle as we saw in urban depopulation – each time a family of relative means pulls their kid out of the public school, they are withdrawing their resources (financial and otherwise) from that community. What’s in their best interest is detrimental to the remaining community that may have relied on that families taxes, or those parents’ availability to fight for improved schools or ability to speak the same language (literally and figuratively) as the policy makers. If the only folks who continue to have their kids in the schools are those working multiple jobs or those unfamiliar with the ways in which policy is shaped, are they likely to ever improve? More likely, like a GOP insurance plan from which healthy people are allowed to leave, the system collapses.

We’ve made this mistake once with the mortgage interest deduction. Through the Federal Housing Authority’s liberal use of redlining, the federal government subsidized white families trying to escape poor inner city neighborhoods. Make no mistake – it wouldn’t have happened to anywhere near the same extent in a free market. And this exodus of wealth and political capital led to the absolute collapse, for many decades, of the areas left behind. Despite superficial differences, any voucher program creates the same problem. Relatively wealthy families will be able to pay the difference between the value of the voucher and the private schools. Poorer families, unable to pay that difference, will have been in actual fact extended no choice at all. As the families who are already better off, and therefore statistically more likely to be white and conversant in political discourse, leave the public schools, their potential advocacy will leave as well. And under a voucher system, we’d be giving the money to make it happen. We would be using public funds to create negative externalities.

We’re not going to outlaw private schools, and we’re not going to legislate against moving for the purpose of better schools. We can, however, take a stand on the voucher issue. To the families who want to take the money that would have been spent on their kid in a public school and use it for a private school, we can say “Tough luck.” That public education had strings attached. The free education was conditional on your participation in the community. If a parent chooses not to participate in the community, that’s their choice. They can choose to do what’s best for their kid at the expense of the community; to expect many families to do otherwise would be foolish. We shouldn’t pass judgement on folks trying to do what’s best for their kids; that’s human nature. But if they’re going to take their kids out of the public schools, if they’re going to cause negative externalities, we shouldn’t endorse that by handing over public funds to go with them. Though there are low income families for whom private school would be possible only under a voucher system, the value created for them would come at the expense of families poorer than they – an awful trade off, and an awful way to design policy.

11 thoughts on “What White Flight Tells Us About School Choice

  1. Beautiful article (though sad). The USA is in its third generation and starting its fourth since WWII and the large-scale moves out of Cities. It goes without saying that cities and their schools can now be equated with “African American”. That relationship is cemented by Trumpian use of the phrase “inner cities”. Ignorance plus power is a lethal combination. I retired Friday from Baltimore City Public Schools, where I was the Chief Architect, so I saw the conditions of schools every day and drank half a glass of the KoolAid that said new buildings will change people’s opinions. Teacher quality aside, race is the determining factor, since the races do not know each other. They express their fear in different ways, but the real estate development industry is always there to help families express their fears and get a new home (albeit with a longer commute) as a bonus. Hence our ever-expanding metro areas couple with hollow centers where people used to live.

    At any rate, I am now writing about the places families started (at the center+/-) of the region vs. where their heirs have moved. Any insights or data sources you have would be greatly appreciated. I am glad to hear the voices of others who see our problem and look for solutions.

    1. Hi Steve,
      Congratulations on your retirement! And thanks for joining the conversation here. If you haven’t read Kenneth Jackson’s “Crabgrass Frontier”, I highly recommend it. He traces the different policies and social trends that led to a hollowing out of urban areas, including white flight. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic is also a powerful examination of how our housing policy led to such extreme racial concentrations in Chicago, though the history of that city is widely representative.

      1. Kevin
        Thanks for your quick response. I keep up withTa-Nehisi in the Atlantic and their daily posts. I will add “crabgrass…” to my list of reading stacked up and ready for retirement, but maybe I should start with it. Have read a great amount of the academic literature, but not satisfied with the level of concern I see. Probably too many dissertations turned into books.

  2. Hey Kevin — So great to see others grappling with all of this, too! The vouchers (and, for that matter, charter school) story have me feeling incredibly conflicted. I guess the bottom line for me would be that these are fair options for families of color for whom the educational SYSTEM (not necessarily individuals!) has long neglected. That being said, I agree that provide options for white and privileged families to opt out will only deepen our segregation.

    I am a white parent whose children attend a 98% minority, 95% free/reduced lunch middle school in Los Angeles. My son is the only white/middle class kid in his 8th grade cohort. And yes, he is doing great academically and socially. And no, the school is not one of those amazing outliers of hollywood dreams. He hasn’t had the benefits of a privilege-segregated school (like, you know, resources, consistently working air conditioning, musical theater, 3D printer labs, you name it), but what he HAS gotten has been so much more important. Empathy, learning about the bigness of the world outside of his home-experience, a visceral understanding of privilege, etc. We wouldn’t trade it.

    Through this experience, I have partnered with parents across the US to uplift conversations around school integration and we are building grassroots momentum for families opting IN to integration (primarily targeting white families who have, to be blunt, been the ones who have so consistently dismantled integration efforts). Though we are small, we are growing and I am slightly optimistic. (you can find us at IntegratedSchools.org).

    Anyway, thanks for writing this!

    1. Hi cemykytyn,
      Thanks for adding your wealth of perspective – and, more importantly, for recognizing that you don’t actually have to choose between doing right by your kid and right by your community. I’m also excited to hear about your organization’s work. I’ll be sure to check it out!
      I also sympathize with your inner conflict over the issue. The fact of the matter is, these vouchers do allow some kids from lower income families to afford private school and get a better opportunity. The costs of those benefits, though, are borne by the people even poorer than they are. These are the people who still can’t make up the difference between the voucher and cost of tuition. While we should affirm programs that help the poor, they shouldn’t be helped at the expense of the poorest. But it is a thorny issue, and I’m a little distrustful of anyone who doesn’t feel some conflict =)

  3. And also — (sorry! should’ve included in earlier post) — there are many, many gentrifying communities in urban areas that have the potential to build truly integrated schools and classrooms. But the “good/bad” school narratives that are so pervasive (and often racist and classist) prevent parents from, as you mentioned, even considering or stepping in the front door. While the story of white flight and residential segregation is very real, we are looking at so many communities that are mixed (at least until gentrification displaces….). This is our low-hanging fruit!

  4. Baltimore is a City surrounded by counties with no desire for the 90% black student population of our schools to cross the line via vouchers. The population of those counties got out in time, and don’t want to be followed. So state legislation for vouchers is never introduced. City kids and their parents don’t go where they are not wanted.

      1. Maybe the kids are only a symbol. I believe that there is a mutual fear of black and white people in this metropolitan area. I used to run the Court-mandated mobility program designed to allow and fund the moves of low income African American families into census tracts that had demographics more like the average figures (27% African American and < 10% poverty). There are few Census Tracts within Baltimore City that meet those figures, so, with Court Order in hand, we approached the housing agencies of the five surrounding counties that comprised the Baltimore Metropolitan Area to inform them that we would be helping about 2000 families move into their jurisdictions. This was 2001, and Counties had learned (much like real estate agents) methods to disguise their fears – the 21st Century Redlining approach. "Oh certainly, we'll do all we can to allow your families to move here…" Only when the ACLU convinced the Federal Court to hold HUD responsible that HUD hired the Baltimore Regional Council to set up a more massive mobility program.

        The low income of people allowed to move was much less important than the color of their skin. That color line has shaped residential patterns all my life, although I didn't realize that when my newlywed parents move out of Baltimore City in 1954. You don't have to say it out loud if the construction of new, more far-flung subdivisions for whites is the unspoken model. This will be a large part of the article I've started writing.

          1. Just starting research to back up my ideas, but the fear generating the ideas is inherited from parents and siblings, That’s why my search right now is for details historical mapping of where people live now vs. where they (or parents, grandparents and beyond) used to live. Any great insights into sources is always appreciated.

What do you think?

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