Choosing Neighborhoods, Choosing Schools

Should any child’s opportunity for a high-quality education and the life-transforming power that brings be solely determined by a boundary line on a map or how much his or her parents can afford to pay for a house?

A recent report issued by the organization I lead demonstrates that it is indeed the case that where a child lives in Fort Worth determines much about the quality of his or her education: New education nonprofit’s report reveals citywide school access inequity (fortworthreport.org). In west Fort Worth’s District 7, for example, no school earned a D or F grade from the state on student academic achievement. But in District 5, which covers southeast Fort Worth, 82% of schools scored a D or F. 87% of students in District 5 are economically disadvantaged, compared with 31% in District 7. There are schools in some neighborhoods in Fort Worth where less than 10% of students are meeting grade level standards on state tests.

Conor Williams, a Fellow at The Century Foundation, has written quite a bit about the pernicious link between the history of discriminatory U.S. housing policy and access to good schools. Williams addresses

the scale and scope of privileged resistance toward efforts to loosen the power of private housing markets in public education. That began with “Massive Resistance” to 20th-century desegregation mandates, lawsuits opposing desegregation busing plans, the construction of elite (“public”) magnet schools and includes the selfishness of not-in-my-backyard parents. Privileged families have fought tooth and nail to prevent less-wealthy families — frequently families of color — from accessing their neighborhoods and schools.

In response, progressives frequently inveigh against housing policies, particularly in high-density urban areas, that advance gentrification and displace low-income residents. Better housing policies, the argument goes, would foster healthier, more diverse communities. And when neighborhoods are more equitably accessible to diverse families, the local schools will be, too.

Unfortunately, few U.S. communities have housing policies that lead to stable, socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhoods. From sea to shining sea, privileged families nearly always resist the building of public housing, affordable housing or even new housing anywhere near their neighborhoods and schools.

It is well-documented that government housing policies, mortgage lenders, the real estate industry, and others worked for decades to exclude black citizens from the American dream of home ownership. As Conor Williams writes here Urban White Families Show New Energy for Racial Justice, but Do They Want It in Their Schools? (educationpost.org),

American segregation — both of neighborhoods and the schools assigned to them — is largely an intentional product of public policy. Local authorities codified racial housing segregation into zoning laws. Federal authorities “redlined” neighborhoods of color as risky areas for mortgage lending, and permitted the creation of racially restrictive covenants that prevented housing from being sold in some areas to non-white families. So: however natural neighborhood schools might seem, the location of each child’s “planting” is generally the product of this array of structural forces, which determine which families are able to access which houses in which neighborhoods. Wealthy white children aren’t born into exceedingly wealthy and white exurban neighborhoods by some random chance. They’re brought and kept there through their families’ intergenerational wealth — and their families’ navigation of longstanding housing policies that protect that wealth. Privileged enthusiasm for neighborhood schools is best understood as an unreflective appreciation of these deep, historical, systemic biases favoring the wealthy.

I just ordered a new book by Courtney Martin entitled Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School. Conor Williams has written an excellent review that inspired me to get the book for myself: Book review of Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School by Courtney E. Martin – The Washington Post. In her book Courtney Martin and her family have moved to rapidly gentrifying Oakland, California. She is excited about the prospect of her daughter being exposed to diversity when she goes to elementary school. Williams describes a familiar scene for people like me who live in a gentrifying Fort Worth neighborhood:

When elementary school rounded into view for her oldest daughter, Maya, Martin realized that the students at their neighborhood school, Emerson Elementary, appeared to be almost entirely Black and Brown — even as the neighborhood became increasingly White. Most of her demographic peers, it turned out, had wrangled spots for their kids in Whiter, wealthier schools in other parts of Oakland. Some hammered away at school district officials until they secured a seat in more privileged public schools; others ponied up $30,000 in annual tuition to attend a nearby private school that marketed itself on its progressive values and pedagogy. As in so many cities, their love of diversity faltered at the schoolhouse door.

Martin decided to enroll Maya at Emerson.

“Every person has to come to terms with — even if just for themselves — the gap between what they believe and how they live their lives,” Martin writes. “And if you happen to be a parent, the gap can feel particularly wide and meaningful, the rationalizations even more garbled and urgent.”

“Learning in Public” is a book about gaps: the gulf between White progressive families’ values and their behavior, and the reality of the yawning social distances that persist even when Black, Brown and White families live side by side. The book also explores the staggering opportunity gaps that emerge when children of color are consigned to less-resourced and lower-quality schools than their White peers, creating pernicious academic achievement gaps in American education.

In “Learning in Public,” Martin chronicles her efforts to narrow the space between her progressive principles and her behavior. She tours the privileged public and private schools, and asks her peers why they’re clamoring for seats. Their justifications are as predictable as they are wide-ranging. Public schools like Emerson don’t have enough resources to meet their privileged kindergartners’ complex needs, they say. Their campuses aren’t safe, their teaching approaches are insufficiently progressive and rigorous.

Are these excuses? Mostly. Are they entirely false? Not always. They can be both. Martin doesn’t force readers to pick one view. This makes for a messy, complex story — which reflects the nature of the circumstances. She presents a compelling account of the benefits of diverse, integrated schools: Maya thrives academically, and her social life explodes as she makes friends across racially, culturally and ethnically diverse groups. And yet, “Learning in Public” is more credible because it also grapples with how the arrival of well-resourced, well-meaning White families isn’t always an inevitable, unalloyed good. Martin describes ways that White newcomers — herself included — periodically offend communities of color at Emerson by assuming that the school has simply been waiting for their energy, resources and attention.

If we are honest, many of us who consider ourselves strong proponents of traditional public education have used whatever resources and privileges we have to steer our own children into what we believe is the best possible school setting—whether that is a by buying a house in a certain neighborhood or by gaining access through savvy or influence or opportunity to a school outside of our attendance zone that we think is better for our child.

And while purchasing an expensive home is a “respectable” way to take advantage of our own privilege and the system and get our child in the best public schools, there are other, less respectable ways to do it. Many of us also know families in Fort Worth who have rented a small apartment in a desirable school attendance zone and claimed that as their home address or used the address of a rental home they own (but don’t live in) to get their child in a coveted neighborhood school.

I went to school in Richardson ISD because when I was about to start kindergarten in 1976, my parents decided they weren’t confident about the quality of education my older brothers were receiving in the part of Dallas we lived in at the time and where my parents had grown up. So my parents bought a new house in far north Dallas, in the Richardson school district, which was considered one of the best in DFW, and we moved.

My parents made a choice about where they wanted their kids to go to school; they were able to do that because they had the means to buy an expensive house.

I did the same thing with my kids in Memphis and in Fort Worth. In moving to each city, we first made a choice about what schools we thought were the best public schools in the city, and then we took advantage of our ability to buy a house in that neighborhood.

And all the while I was congratulating myself for sending my kids to public schools and wondering why everyone wasn’t as committed to the public good as I was!

You might say that with our home-buying decisions, our higher property taxes have functioned as de facto tuition for excellent neighborhood schools.

What my parents did and what I did was steer our own children into what we thought was the best possible school setting for our kids. Why wouldn’t every parent want to be able to do the same? Should any child’s access to a high-quality education and the life-transforming power that brings be solely determined by a boundary line on a map or how much his or her parents can afford to pay for a house?

For many children, traditional neighborhood schools are doing a remarkable job. And there are some schools in some of our city’s most underserved areas that have found a way to achieve tremendous success in giving some of our most vulnerable kids access to the highest quality education.

But for far too many of our children in Fort Worth, this is not their reality.

This is why I am grateful for the patchwork quilt that is public education today. There are important options out there, accessible to all families, that broaden the opportunity beyond where a child happens to live.

There are some innovative and unique district schools of choice, like I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and Vocal and Performing Arts, Applied Learning Academy, and Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Young Men’s Leadership Academy, just to name a few. And there are excellent programs of choice within district schools, like the International Baccalaureate program within Western Hills High School, for example.

And there are the best of the public charter schools that are doing remarkable work with children, particularly those in poverty. Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, IDEA Public Schools, Great Hearts, and Harmony are some of the highest academically performing schools in Fort Worth.

The organization I lead, the Fort Worth Education Partnership, is focused on improving educational access for Fort Worth area children by growing and supporting high-quality public schools. Through partnerships with non-profit and charter school operators, traditional districts, families, and the broader community, we aim to dramatically increase the number of students enrolled in high-quality schools (schools rated A or B on the TEA’s performance rating system).

It will take all of us in our city working together to provide a quality education and opportunities that will transform lives for generations. When we shine a light on the children and commit energy and resources to them and open ourselves up to creative community partnerships and solutions for the sake of children— this is the most important work we can do.

When it comes to education, every child in Fort Worth deserve access to the best—no matter where he or she lives!

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