The Poor You Will Have Always With You? (Not in Some Public Schools)

A nifty new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute identifies some 2,800 public schools nationally that serve virtually no poor students. That’s a small percentage of schools nationally–but in some metro areas it means that as many as 1 in 4 white public school students attend schools with virtually no poor (and often few non-white) students.

This report is a valuable counterpoint to the recent debate over rates of racial segregation in charter schools–reminding us that in many metro areas, district-run schools are highly segregated and public policy choices systematically deny poor and minority kids opportunities to attend some of the highest performing “elite” district-run public schools in these areas.

The Fordham folks also deserve kudos for drawing attention to the extent that residential, zoning, and other non-education policies support or even exacerbate socio-economic residential segregation in ways that effectively keep “good” public schools in some neighborhoods entirely devoid of poor and minority students. As I noted yesterday, education policy debates often suffer from a lack of meaningful conversation and exchange of ideas that cuts across policy areas–and the lack of education policy attention to the role of urban planning, zoning, housing, transit and other policies that have real impact on educational options for poor kids is a case in point.

That said, a couple of complaints: First, I wish they’d taken their analysis beyond the idea that it’s hypocritical for parents who send their kids to “elite” public schools to opposed vouchers and tax credits (of which I think there are valid reasons to be highly skeptical, regardless). As the authors note, there a real variations across states and metro areas in the extent to which “exclusive” public schools exist, and it would be worthwhile to know more about the policy conditions that underlie that. I’m particularly interested in the question of how the size and definition of school districts affect this—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, say, New Jersey, with its 500+ tiny, highly localized school districts, has the highest rates of exclusive public schools. And I wish they’d given at least a nod to policies that promote socio-economic integration through public school choice–policies of which Fordham authors have expressed skepticism in the past–as well as policies that address the underlying residential segregation issues here (which should be considered as part of the pro-equity education policy agenda, because of the close linkages between residential/housing policy, school funding, and access to quality schools for poor kids).

Second, I’m not crazy about Fordham’s choice of “Private Public Schools” to describe these schools: It’s rather slanderous to the many private, particularly but not only Catholic, schools that do valuable work serving primarily poor students, as Fordham well knows. And I think it commits a similar sin to some charter and voucher opponents in oversimplifying the complex question of “what makes a public school, public?”

For instance, when I first saw the report title, I thought it was going to be about the undernoted phenomenon that many affluent public schools raise significant funds from private donations and other fundraising. Ed Writers Association’s Linda Perlstein earlier this week urged reporters to look more closely at the private funds that charters receive. But in fact, a lot of district-run schools also raise significant private funding, which often exacerbates inequities. For instance, I know that one D.C. school on Fordham’s list, Lafeyette Elementary, has an extremely active parent fundraising apparatus that, among other things, pays salaries for teachers at the school. The fact that growing numbers of affluent public schools do this–and federal tax policies give families a tax break for contributing to these organizations–undermines policy efforts to enhance equity for disadvantaged youngsters.

-Sara Mead

UPDATE: My former colleague Jenny Cohen offers some interesting analysis of this in re: Title I funding to some of the states with the highest numbers of “exclusive” public schools.

UPDATE: Full list of 2,800 schools now available on Fordham site. FWIW, no schools I attended as a child on this list.

14 Replies to “The Poor You Will Have Always With You? (Not in Some Public Schools)”

  1. Is there a complete list of the 2,800 schools? I can see some of them if they’re near a metro area but would like the whole list at once if possible.

  2. Definitely agree that private funds in public schools is an important issue too—very much a rich-get-richer situation. I seem to recall a school system requiring (or trying to require) that money raised from parent-led efforts in affluent schools be divided between their own schools and high-poverty schools. Does this ring a bell or am I imagining?

  3. My grandchildren attend a public school in a very affluent suburb of San Diego. Each classroom has about four volunteers each day. These volunteers are mainly stay-at-home moms who were physicians, lawyers, professors and business people during their working lives. The school has a “development fund” that affords the children the “extras” such as art, physical education and music. Instruction is low-key (no test prep) since most of these children can be depended on to test above the 85th percentile on standardized tests, even when a teacher is ill and the class is staffed by substitutes for much of the year.

    It’s all so unjust and could be so “easily” corrected if only people were willing to share. But I guess that’s just too unrealistic.

  4. There is a connection between high-income parents seeking to sequester themselves and their children in small school districts, and the curriculum and instruction practices of the larger school districts. Parents are sometimes merely looking for classrooms for their children where the range of readiness/achievement levels is not as extreme as it often is in larger districts — a range that gets even wider in the upper grades as children are passed along without proper remediation/intervention to help them keep up.

  5. Linda and Art, the sharing you suggest however, is dangerous. Especially if this sharing refers to financial resources. Though Campaigns for fiscal equity are working on this, what are we really creating? We’re relegitimizing Plessy vs. Ferguson. The intangible factors that lead to this ruling’s original reversal still exist and yet so many equity campaigns rely on financial/tangible resource distribution.

    Also, after reading this study, I would challenge the idea that the Fordham study is a counterpoint to the racial segregation debate. I think these two issues go hand in hand. Have district lines come to re-segregate most of our schools? Certainly, but this is nothing new. Charter schools only amplify these divisions. Take the charter school President Obama visited last year in New York City. The Harlem Children’s Zone’s population is by no means representative of the make up of New York City. Unlike magnet programs that at least balance schools and are required to provide transportation in order to work towards racial and socio-economic balance, these charter schools are divisive.

    Additionally, even if this or other charters market themselves as lottery based admissions, we still must question this practice. The lottery is most certainly fair but how and who gets in (and who does not get in) to the lottery is not. Can your parents read or write in English to fill out the form? Can your parents attend a Saturday orientation? Charter schools filter out unwanted students easily still taking the cream of the means tested crop.

    So I don’t think this Fordham study is counterpoint. Instead, I think this draws continued attention to the blatant de facto segregation that pervades public schooling in our country that charters and district lines only serve to replicate.

  6. Justin:

    When I mention sharing I am thinking of the following:

    Affluent public schools could recruit some children from outside the district (i.e. public school vouchers);

    People who send their children to private or parochial schools could sponsor one or more disadvantaged children who could go also;

    Parents who can volunteer at their own schools might want to volunteer also at the poor school across town;

    “Development funds” at affluent schools could be shared with needy schools;

    Magnet schools that are designed to attract students from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups can be established;

    The government could sponsor SOME low-income housing in almost all communities across the country (I emphasized “some” because I know many citizens would fight this to the death). In England these “estates” are spread out throughout the country instead of being concentrated in urban areas as they are in the USA.

    I don’t understand why sharing would be dangerous, or what it would have to do with Plessy vs. Ferguson. Wasn’t that the “separate but equal” case? I’m definitely not advocating that. I don’t support charter schools unless they are managed by teachers and can increase the amount of socioeconomic and racial integration. I am very much against charters that have “operators” and “managers” who award themselves big salaries. To me, that’s just asking for another Wall Street debacle and I’m amazed it’s being allowed.

  7. Linda,

    That is the type of sharing that we need. I would be weary of advocating voucher systems. We can see from the failure of the systems in place especially Cleveland and DC that often times even the best intentioned voucher systems end up being used by students already in private schools.

    I would love to see recruitment from affluent schools and the creation of a policy alternative that included or incentivized this program by providing money for the required buses etc. The difficult part of recruitment is the transportation. Even Minnesota’s open enrollment plan suffers from not being accessible to the neediest of children who can’t travel to the other schools.

    I also worry about these housing projects. Some would definitely be important but I think we also need to think about bringing affluent students “in”. As the Coleman report in 66 suggested, desegregation then integration are huge factors in school culture and “achievement” (whatever that means), but we can shift district lines all we want and parents can still move. The stronger policy it would seem would be in creating policy alternatives that incentivize your suggestion of moving students. I think we must also consider moving students both ways. In the 60’s when schools began to close in desegregation”efforts”, so often the historically black schools were first to go. That sends a strong message about what the government thinks (or doesn’t think) about the culture, people, and forces tied to those institutions.

    Sharing financially is dangerous I think because it leads to policies that say, “ok, you know what, as long as you are receiving enough money, you can have an ‘adequate’ education”. This disregards the intangible factors that don’t come from financial support. These policies are the reenactment of separate but equal because they encourage the existence of schools that are deeply segregated but may still be legal because they provide an “adequate” education.

  8. NCLB has made it far less likely that upscale suburban school districts will entertain transfers from less affluent areas.

    Schools are now rated by their passing rates on standardized tests by racial/ethnic group and income level. School administrators of highly rated homogeneous and wealthy schools would only be inviting certain slippage in their rankings if they admit poorer kids and especially poor minority kids. The math behind NCLB is merciless and frankly ridiculous.

    The surest way to keep a district highly rated is to wall off non-affluent students. Here in Texas there is an almost perfect correlation between wealth and school rankings. But it’s only those districts that are have managed to stay exclusively wealthy through zoning that are the highest rated.

  9. Kent:

    Yes, there is little doubt that NCLB has hurt the very children it sought to help. Even within a single school, teachers start to court the parents of the high-achievers a year ahead of time so those parents will request them. Teachers fear getting Naughty Nan or Developmentally Delayed Dan. These children must surely sense that they aren’t wanted.

    Justin, we basically agree. I think the federal government could help by providing transportation for children who receive public school vouchers. The best thing we can do for poor children is to integrate them into mainstream society, but that’s easier said than done. Since we know forced integration didn’t work, I think a very slow and gradual approach might help (limited low-income housing in all areas, magnet schools designed to attract different groups, private school scholarships from corporations and individuals, public school vouchers with transportation etc.) For children left behind in crowded cities, I’d like to see community schools with excellent teachers and social and medical supports. I’m not opposed to charters if parents and teachers want them, as long as they are not managed by corporate America. There needs to be strict oversight of the money.

    I agree with you that integration should go both ways but that’s very difficult to accomplish, except maybe for schools for gifted and talented.

    We’ve known for over 40 years how to improve learning for all children. Let’s hope this is the year when we’ll begin to see it happen!

  10. The authors admit being coy about suggesting what to do.
    The school districts do not have influence/power to guide the zoning laws or the banks redlining.
    Do the authors want to go back to busing?

  11. Coincidently, there is an article on Section 8 housing.
    It appears in Counterpunch, written by JoAnn Wypijewski
    Here is some of it:
    Today public housing is mauled on a daily basis by the Fox News crowd and by the neoliberals too. As a demolisher of public housing Clinton was worse than Nixon and Reagan. JoAnn describes how “Chicago demolished 13,000 units under Clinton’s “Hope VI” program, how Minneapolis demolished more than half of its family public housing stock between 1998 and ’99. By 2008, New Orleans had no more public housing; 4,800 units gone. The Gulf Coast had lost 12,000 Section 8 units with no hope of restoration. Los Angeles had drawn up plans to dispose of all of its public housing stock. Atlanta, with a greater percentage of its population living in public housing than any city in the country in the 1990s, had used the occasion of the Olympics to send in the bulldozers. Between 1994 and 2004, it had eliminated 17,000 units, and by 2008 it was on track to become the first city to demolish all of its public housing and essentially to privatize the undertakings of its housing authority, which now calls itself ‘a diversified real estate company, with a public mission and purpose.’”

  12. Congratulations on discovering “white flight.” As a demographic trend, it’s nearing the half-century mark.

    All the services and amenities are better and nicer in affluent suburbs, from the snow removal to the recreation departments’ water parks. In my suburb (no, we didn’t make the list), the city gives us matching trash cans and the fire department will come change your smoke detector batteries if you ask them.

    Yes, there are terrible income and wealth disparities in this country. I don’t see the Fordham Insitute railing against them, though. They’re just “shocked, shocked, shocked!” they exist.

    No really, I’m in awe of their ability to co-op left-wing points in service of their neo-liberal agenda. Sheer genius.

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