I live in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington, DC. It is a very pleasant sort of inner suburb: rich and liberal, economically and racially diverse. Its public schools are of high – but, crucially, not identically high – quality. Not long ago, uneven population growth rates forced Arlington to move some students from one of its high schools to the other two. That’s how the trouble began.
The overcrowded high school, Washington-Lee, ranks between the other two in performance, in income levels and in the share of students who are white. All three are good schools, but the first two are among the very best in Virginia. In determining how to shift school boundaries, the county chose a model which sent a disproportionate number of low-income and non-white students from Washington-Lee to Wakefield (the less good, less rich, less white school), and a disproportionate number of high-income and white students from Washington-Lee to Yorktown (the other one). The proposal, in other words, amplified rather than dampened underlying differences.
Although Wakefield is hardly a failing school, some of the parents whose children were to be consigned to it were apoplectic. In conversations at bus stops parents sought gingerly to work out on which side of the debate the others stood; talk turned to icy silence and exchanges became as angry as suburban norms permit.
The strength of feeling is understandable. Being in a high-performing classroom makes a meaningful difference to individual outcomes. An experiment conducted in Tennessee found that randomly chosen children placed in high-quality classrooms (as measured by test scores) were more likely to go to college and earn more as adults than children not assigned to such classrooms.
Parents know this instinctively, which is why, ever since the state started to provide education, the allocation of school places has been one of society’s hottest potatoes. Middle-class white families have long fled areas in which the schools threatened to become too diverse, and used their higher incomes to exit the public school system entirely when the state became too hell-bent on integration. School segregation, by race and class, is on the rise: driven by high housing costs and falling social mobility, the number of high-poverty schools in which black and Hispanic students make up a majority has doubled since 2001.
Struggling to get one’s children the best possible education is regarded as being among the chief middle-class virtues, but reinforces many of the biases that education is meant to help overcome. When racial minority groups are confined to poor-performing schools, they get stuck in society’s lower ranks, and white families more easily fall into assuming that non-white schools are poor ones – a prelude to outright bigotry.
One could argue that it is the responsibility of the local government to take broad social welfare into account, and to try to prevent public schools from segregating the population economically and racially. But the local government answers to its citizenry and the voices of the well-off often ring louder than those of others. Anyway, the local government can’t stop people from moving their kids from public schools to private ones.
Still, parents faced with these issues might want to consider whether surrounding their children with rich kids in the name of educational excellence really is the best way to prepare them for life. Children learn all sorts of things from the school they attend: such as what sort of people are “like them” and which are part of a strange other, and which priorities are the right ones to have as an adult. How useful is it to send one’s children the message that affluent white people are the only ones worth hanging around with, or that one should go to whatever lengths necessary to secure the smallest advantage for oneself, whatever the cost to others?
My children are small, so I will not face these painful choices for some years. Perhaps I will change my tune when I do.