Last week a video began making the rounds in education circles. It’s a segment from local New York City station, Spectrum News NY1, and features a room full of wealthy, white parents speaking over each other, ranting, and basically losing their minds over a new NYC plan to integrate schools. An irate white mother yells at the school officials:
“You’re talking about an 11-year-old, you worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted. You’re telling them that you’re not going to go to a school that’s going to educate them the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!”
The woman was referring to a plan to allow a certain percentage of low-scoring students into prestigious Upper Westside middle schools as an attempt at racial integration. That necessitates that not all the white students who want to attend these prestigious schools will be able to. Some will be sent to a “bad” school—meaning a school with lower test scores and one that is predominantly populated by Black and Latinx kids.
All parents want what is best for their children, that is only natural. But what’s galling about watching this video is the sense of entitlement that this mother has. But she is hardly the only one who feels this way. The reality is that American public schools are segregated. They are more segregated now than at any time since 1988, and in many places, it’s becoming worse. When educators, politicians, and parents try to push back against segregation, this woman’s reaction is common. It’s entirely unsurprising. Privileged parents (who are usually white) feel entitled to “good” schools.
We feel this way because we worked hard for our children’s education. We bought homes in areas with “good” (read: white) schools, even if it stretched our financial capacity to do so. We buy our children enrichment activities. We get up at 4:00am in February to book our kids into the most in-demand summer camps. We are deeply invested in our kids’ education.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for our kids, or in investing in their education. All of our children deserve good schools. The problem comes in when we are willing to provide these things to our children at the expense of others.
This is the devil’s bargain of the American education system. We can look at a school and declare that it’s not good enough for our kids, but it’s perfectly adequate for Black and brown kids. As long as our kid’s school has nice equipment and qualified teachers, we are happy to ignore underprivileged schools in our community.
I know this is a problem, because I myself have fallen into it. I sometimes think that the purpose of my kid’s school is “to educate Abraham Strange.” But that’s not it. The mission is to educate ALL kids. We know that universal K-12 education is a public good, which is why all taxpayers pay for it, even those who don’t have children. We need ALL kids to get an education. In the future we will need them to be informed voters, productive professionals, and good citizens; and an education is crucial to that. But, due to racism and subsequent segregation, our educational system does not adequately educate many students.
Look at Seattle. During the era of integration through “forced busing” the achievement/opportunity gap shrank from 40% to 18%. That kind of improvement has never been replicated. Once Seattle’s mandatory integration efforts were stopped by the supreme court, the gap began to grow again. Now we have some of the most segregated schools in America and the 5th worst Black-white achievement gap in the country. Our education system is failing to prepare many of our Black, Latinx, and Native American kids. This is everybody’s problem.
Which brings me back to angry mom. I’m sure she loves her kid and wants to do what’s best for him. But she is wrong about her kid’s education. Her eleven-year-old will probably be disappointed he didn’t get into the school he was groomed from birth to get into, granted. But studies show that integrated schools benefit both white kids and kids of color. Integration narrows the achievement gap by providing more equitable access to resources for kids of color. It provides kids of color with more opportunities and higher social capital. It helps white kids, too, by helping them to understand experiences outside their bubble. White kids who go to integrated schools end up more empathetic and less racist. And academically, integration increases test scores for students of color while having no impact on white students’ test scores. Angry mom can rest assured that Jr’s achievement will not be negatively impacted by his “bad” school.
We privileged parents need to broaden our view. We need to stop micromanaging our kids’ education and focus on the larger system. We are the ones with money, connections, and power, and if we work together with parents of color we can fix our broken education system. We can make a future where ALL schools are good schools.