REPORT CARD: Reform via Gentrification

“Stay in your own neighborhood,” the parent coordinator at a sought-after school on the southern side of Park Slope recently admonished a group of prospective parents who had come from all over Brooklyn. Her school, she said, had improved through the hard work of local parents, and we should do the same for our neighborhoods. That way our kids wouldn’t have to travel to go to school. Plus, she stressed, “the value of your property will improve.”

While few people state the economics so baldly, her comment laid bare the hidden underside of much conversation in Brooklyn about neighborhood schools, conversation that is heating up now, as many parents are making decisions about where to send their kids for kindergarten. We hear plenty about how virtuous it is to volunteer in your neighborhood school; indeed, such involvement is, for moms of today’s middle class, an almost-mandatory virtue, like mixing your man a good martini was in the 1950s.

Middle-class parents in economically diverse neighborhoods often view sending children to neighborhood schools—and getting involved in their improvement—as a kind of civic obligation, and exhort other parents of similar privileges to do the same. Several months ago, P.S. 11 parent Michael Galinsky ruffled many defensive feathers on “The Local,” the New York Times blog for Fort Greene-Clinton Hill, when he argued, in an impassioned post titled, “IMHO: Don’t Leave District 13, Stay and Help,” that parents who were unwilling to do this were contributing to racial segregation.

But although some proponents of “parent involvement”—Galinsky among them—are deeply committed to the common good, there’s a problem with depending on the middle class to fix our schools. The problem is that this strategy depends on gentrification, and thus cannot possibly result in a good education for all kids. School reform by gentrification leaves our inequitable system untouched.

Report Card has been beating up on charter schools, and on the dogma that more choice will fix everything, which is the prevailing and wrong-headed ideology of our times. So you might think this column would wholeheartedly throw down in support of those working to improve and defend neighborhood public schools. But there’s a reason that charters and other lottery schools are popular: neighborhood schools are wonderful when they are located in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope, but most of us don’t live in such places. While Brooklyn does have some remarkable schools that serve poor children well, the majority of neighborhood schools that are recognizably excellent did not truly flourish until the neighborhoods around them gentrified.

That’s because middle-class parents are good for schools. Our children do well on tests. We have a sense of entitlement, and don’t want our kids to get the same crappy education that other people get; in Brooklyn, that means we often push school leadership for more progressive and well-rounded curriculum. We have the time to volunteer in the classrooms, making everyday life at school more orderly and civilized. We also raise money, because we have not only the time, but also the skills, and most importantly, access to funding sources—through our companies, and our friends at foundations. That means that our schools can afford music and art programs, and nice playgrounds, while many Brooklyn schools in poor neighborhoods go without those things.

Parent involvement can’t fix schools where no one has access to money and thus can’t fundraise. It can’t fix schools where no one has time because everyone is poor. Poverty is time-consuming. As a parent at P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant told me, “the best parents here are working too hard to volunteer.” As a result, the chaos and bullying in the lunchroom at P.S. 3 is frightening, while at better-off schools, parents volunteer at lunchtime every day.

Many schools accommodate and recruit the better-off families, for all these reasons. They hold numerous information sessions. Some schools ask on their application forms whether families are also applying to private school—explaining that as a “courtesy,” such families are notified earlier (private schools send out their notifications earlier than public schools, and require families to put down hefty deposits to reserve spots). Arguably, because lottery schools are not limited to children from one neighborhood, some are more likely than neighborhood schools to offer a good education to poor kids, and thus share the resources of the city’s upper-middle-class with the rest.

But the truth is that some of these schools of choice, too, have figured out that although it’s not in keeping with their—in some cases sincere—social justice missions, school reform by gentrification does work. Charter schools have been recruiting middle-class Brooklyn children far more aggressively over the past year than ever before. In Manhattan, Eva Moskowitz, notorious charter school mogul, has been working to set up shop on the Upper West Side, and marketing her Success Academies to the middle class. It is clear that the charter schools are realizing what the best-performing neighborhood schools have known all along: that there is no magic bullet to school reform, but gentrification is an awfully easy shortcut.

This explains something about New York school politics that might otherwise remain opaque: why there is always so much more community opposition to good lottery schools than to bad ones. It might seem strange that crowds turn out to Panel for Educational Policy meetings to protest a proposed Moskowitz school opening on the Upper West Side, when her Bronx school has been serving students well, and that crowds also came to protest the expansion of Arts and Letters in Clinton Hill, an outstanding public middle school expanding into younger grades as a district-wide lottery school. Why, with so much bad education going on in the world, would these schools attract so much venom from good people who want the best for children? And why do the same people raise no objections at all when charter schools of far lower quality open in their neighborhoods?

There’s a good reason. Parents of children attending neighborhood schools on both the Upper West Side and in Clinton Hill fear that these new schools will be popular with the middle class, and thus that the neighborhood’s existing schools would lose some of that magic parent involvement and all the money that comes with it. The uproar is not always rooted in a principled objection to marketized education. After all, no one in Clinton Hill has protested the opening of hyper-disciplinary charter schools—such as Achievement First, which recently opened in the neighborhood and has been discussed in Report Card in the past—that are aimed entirely at bringing order to the ghetto and thus would hold no appeal to the better-off parents (most of whom can’t even seem to bring themselves to punish their youngsters for felonious assaults on the playground). Similarly, few on the Upper West Side have been troubled by the existence of such military-style charter schools in nearby Harlem.

Another problem with the parent involvement obsession is that it serves the status quo. At a rally to protest the appointment of the flamboyantly unqualified Cathie Black to run the city’s schools, I ran into a friend and former coworker, now a parent of two children in a West Village public school. We wondered why there were so few parents there with children, and she pointed out that public school is “in many ways politically disenfranchising to parents. We are so busy volunteering for the schools that we have no time for political activism.”

Clearly, parent involvement has done wonders for many schools in Brooklyn. It’s the reason so many of our schools are as good as they are. If middle-class parents were to stop volunteering, we’d see an even more profound collapse of—and crisis of faith in—the public sphere, and even more children growing up to be ignorant and poorly prepared for adulthood.

But when we only focus on volunteering, at the expense of any attention to social justice, all we do is make our own neighborhood schools better, and as the Park Slope parent coordinator put it so crudely but honestly, improve our own property values. Then our neighborhoods gentrify and become more exclusive—and so do our schools. That’s not, obviously, helpful to poor kids, whose families can no longer afford the neighborhood, or get slots in the new and improved schools.

What’s the answer? We need more public investment in all schools, and more jobs, income assistance, and services for the poorest communities. By definition, school reform by gentrification can’t fix everybody’s schools. 

Contributor

Liza Featherstone

LIZA FEATHERSTONE is a Clinton Hill writer and mother whose son will begin public school this fall.

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