Across the country, a growing number of white, well-educated young professionals are choosing to live in cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Although these so-called “gentrifiers” grew up in mostly white suburbs and attended predominantly white schools, they are choosing to live in more diverse, cosmopolitan, and global communities.
Related to this desire for a hipper 21st-century life style is a willingness among some of these parents to put their children in public schools. Those who are opting for public city schools note they want to prepare their children for the “real world.”
Gentrifying parents are adamant that such preparation does not occur in schools where all the children come from the same backgrounds and are of the same race. And yet, according to our interviews with white parents in one New York City community school district, racially and socio-economically homogeneous schools – or separate programs within schools – constitute the majority of their choices. School and classroom diversity in New York City's public schools is in short supply, even in districts such as the one we studied, where the overall student demographics would lend itself to more and not less racial and ethnic integration.
In a city as diverse as New York, our racially segregated schools and programs seem odd and out of place. Meanwhile, our research, published last month in the American Journal of Education, asserts that the scarcity of racially integrated schools and programs in New York City reflects a failure of public policy and political will and not a lack of demand on the part of parents.
To better understand the impact of urban demographic changes on public schools, we conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of parents participating in the kindergarten lottery in one of the increasingly white community school districts in New York City. The majority of the white parents we interviewed said one of the reasons they live in New York City is so that their children will grow up in a diverse environment. They bemoan the degree of racial segregation between and within the public schools, noting that this makes them uncomfortable and contradicts their sense of who they are and why they chose to raise their children in the city.
Despite these intentions, when these white, affluent parents are faced mostly with choices of racially segregated schools or majority white gifted education programs within otherwise diverse public schools, they tend to make decisions for their children that perpetuate these racial distinctions. As one parent we interviewed for our larger research project noted, when you only have the choice of segregation, you choose segregation.
Meanwhile, we learned that the vast majority of these white parents harbor a great deal of anxiety about the school choice process, as they worry about their children’s futures in a highly unequal society. Thus, they choose schools deemed most “viable” by other parents like them, even if such choices contradict the value they place on diversity in public education – at least in the abstract.
Other white and affluent parents choose private school, either because they don’t get their first choice of public schools or they are bothered by the racial separation within and between New York public schools. This private school choice is somewhat ironic, given that New York Public School officials originally established gifted and talented programs to help keep more white and middle-class families in public schools. Yet, our interview data indicate that fewer such parents would opt for private schools if there were more excellent and racially diverse schools and classrooms from which to choose.
The one school in the district we studied that was diverse at the school and classroom level and seen as a “good” school also had a long waiting list of white students.
Our research led us to conclude that although some white parents in New York City will probably choose separate, predominantly white schools and programs – especially those labeled “gifted and talented” – no matter what, there is a large, and potentially growing, group of white parents in the system who would choose otherwise if New York City policymakers would only listen and create more viable, racially diverse schools and programs within them.
One way to achieve this goal is to create more magnet schools that draw students of different racial backgrounds from across a community school district or the entire system. The U.S. Department of Education is once again emphasizing the benefit of diversity in its competitive magnet school funding process, and local officials should build on New York City’s history of magnet school success to bring home more of that federal funding.
In short, racially diverse, vibrant public school options in which teachers think of student diversity as an asset to explore and build upon in the classroom would keep more affluent parents and their resources in public schools. This should be an important goal for maintaining the economic vitality of our city while helping to provide more equitable educational opportunities for all children.
Thus, while we are not naïve enough to think that all parents would enroll their children in racially diverse schools if given the option, we do know – and we speak from personal experience as well – that many would. Why not give these parents more choices?
Based on our research and our own understanding as New York City public school parents, we encourage the D.O.E. to shift its focus away from school choice policies, such as charter schools, which consistently lead to greater racial segregation. Instead, they should emphasize integration and cross-cultural understandings to prepare all of our children for a global society.