Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (part 2)
True/Slant writer Megan Cottrell and I share a deep interest in issues of race, class, and urban life, so the two of us decided to bring our perspectives together on the issue of income diversity and school segregation. You can read a portion of our conversation each day this week. Megan’s initial message to me was posted on Monday as Part 1. Following is my response:
As a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, current educational researcher, and (I hope) future parent, I have mixed views on socioeconomic diversity policies. On one hand, as you pointed out, these policies afford many children the opportunity to attend a school where there are not overwhelming numbers of students with extraordinary needs—an opportunity they otherwise would not have. This allows students who need extra support to get more of it, and allows educators in the building to focus more on education. The teacher in me says “Alleluia” to that! And, of course, this also creates a situation where students of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds mix during the school day. And since experiencing diversity—in all its forms—is important for success in everything from business to the military, this policy helps all children who are affected by it.
On the flip side, the policies can be restrictive to parents who want their children to attend public schools of a certain quality (in other words, to learn in a school that is filled with other high-achieving students who have stable home lives) or who simply want their children to be close to home. Although some people try to bring race or class prejudice into the equation, I think most parents who oppose socioeconomic diversity policies do so for these reasons. Can parents be blamed for wanting their children to be successful or to get a leg up on their future competition, especially in a global economy that is more competitive than ever? And who can’t empathize with parents who feel better knowing that their child is a short distance away in case of an emergency, or who have a daily schedule that is helped by having a child home a few minutes after the final bell rings? The question that seems to be at the heart of the debate is this: Should some parents be expected to give up certain advantages for their children—not unfairly gained—so that other children may have an opportunity for more advantage?
There’s always an interesting quandary when it comes to the demands—implicit or explicit—of parents and how school boards handle them. For example, I know of several school districts in Virginia where schools serve, for the most part, an equal number of black and white students. But many of the white parents tend to be upper-middle class and want their children to participate in certain enrichment programs. If the school district funds such a program, it will be comprised mostly of white, well-to-do students who were the most qualified because of advantages they had growing up, and the district risks charges of racism, or of caving to the demands of a small group of parents. If the district does not fund the program, however, it risks losing those parents and their children to private schools who will offer such programs. This would mean less funding for the district, hurting the children who remain in the public schools, and could mean less support from certain segments of the community when the school district needed to pass a bond referendum to raise capital. It all goes back to choice, and the fact that people who have more money have more options. I don’t know that there is a “right” answer to this type of situation.
Before putting the ball back in your court, I’d like to share an anecdote about busing. During my first year as a teacher in a chronically low-performing high school, I helped a talented freshman student gain admittance to one of the district’s best high schools. I drove her and her mom to the counselor’s office there so she could pick out a schedule for the next year, and she was good to go. But after the last day of school, when it was time to tell the school’s programmer to push the transfer button and make it official, my student said she wanted to stay. She had grown up near her current school and didn’t want to ride a bus for 1.5-2 hours each day. She also didn’t like the idea of being so far away from home, or of spending so much less time with her mom. I had a hard time understanding at first, but I eventually realized that we viewed the situation differently. Where I was somewhat myopic, seeing only opportunities for this student to enhance her college and career options, she took a wider view that took into account academic possibilities but also included things like family and convenience. (She ended up attending one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and will graduate this spring.) I have no problem with busing, but I think some type of choice or community tailoring needs to be built into it in order to accommodate students’ and families’ unique needs and desires.
(Click here for Megan’s response, which is Part 3 of our conversation.)