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Saturday, September 05, 2020

What "Nice White Parents" leaves out

I've been listening to Nice White Parents. First of all, it's wild to hear so much reporting about something I've spent so much time inside -- I was a parent at an integrated charter school less than a mile from IS 293, I visited around 20 schools in the neighborhood, and I also worked as a substitute teacher in schools in the neighborhood. I also worked for several years teaching math and college counseling with mostly black high school students from nearby Bed-Stuy.

There's much in the show that I recognize and appreciate. And, I think the show has a tendency to fall into progressive assumptions and simplifications that make the answers look easier than they really are.

One thing that rankles me is the way the show vaguely references white parents getting more "resources" than parents of color. (Or "hoarding resources".) For all the reporting they've done, they haven't really identified significant funding gaps between white students and students of color. But it seems like if those gaps were there, the show would be talking about them. 

Does this omission matter? I would argue that it's indicative of a shell game that the series is playing. When an opportunity arises to show an imbalance of resources--say, the fundraising for the French dual language program that isn't shared with the broader school--the show pounces, and summarizes the trend in phrases like "hoarding resources". But contrary evidence is either skipped over or never explored. Is there a difference in effective per pupil expenditure for white students in Brooklyn public schools, vs students of color? If so, that seems like it would hugely support the show's thesis. But they either never found out, or never thought to try, or perhaps they looked into it and the answer didn't fit their thesis. In another example, consider the effect on resources of a white student's parents sending them to private school. The city doesn't give a refund to families for not using the public school system; to opt out of it is effectively to contribute significant resources. It may seem like a stretch to look at the effect of these parents' decisions on funding this way, but is it as much of a stretch as describing the overall situation as white parents "hoarding resources"?

Another gripe is that there is so little credence given to the legitimacy of a school being "bad". Early on they interview one white parent who says she didn't send her kid to a school because it seemed like the kids were misbehaving, not listening, and chaotic. The host points out that these perceptions can be colored by racism, which is absolutely true. But they are also perfectly real and valid. The host mentions sending her child to their "zoned" Brooklyn public school, which she describes as integrated -- in other words, she lives in an expensive gentrified neighborhood. (Many or most white parents in that part of Brooklyn send their kids to a school outside their "zone" -- I'm going to say the odds that she considered that are 99%.) I'm guessing that here are dozens of schools near to her that have few white students. It would serve the overall quality of education much better for her to send her child to one of those schools, but she instead chose a more white and upper middle class school. Why didn't she? Why doesn't she talk about that?

I also think the show fudges aspects of the intersection of race and class in gentrified Brooklyn. The show mentions "the projects" a few times, but what people not familiar with NYC might not understand is that in neighborhoods such as IS 293's Gowanus, the gap between the income of a random black person and random white person is much higher than it is nationally. In other words, even more so than the main as a whole, in these neighborhoods, segregation is more economic than racial. That's not to excuse it, at all. But I know many middle class and upper middle class black parents in Brooklyn who advocate, shop around, and fundraise much like the white parents the show focuses on. They also avoid nearby public schools where the students' families are overwhelmingly poor, and they don't do that because they are racist. How much would it have depend the show's portrait of the situation--and undercut its confrontative thesis--to include them in the picture? And, conversely, to exclude them?

These may be nitpicks, but I was very disappointed by the series. I think there are truly difficult problems in education and that integration is vital -- we sent our kids to one of the most integrated publicly funded schools in Brooklyn, and they rode the school bus every day as the only white kids on the bus. From everything I've seen, the problems that the show identifies are real. The system, as it plays out, isn't fair. But the show doesn't seem serious about trying to understand the way the system works, and instead prefers a progressive fantasy that there's "one weird trick"--white parents not being so racist--that would meaningfully solve things.

Some schools really are more chaotic or dangerous than others, and this isn't just the racist perception of white visitors--teachers, parents and students are asked about this, and the numbers are reported. Some schools really don't notice if teachers aren't teaching, and kids aren't learning. I've been on a scheduled school tour in Brooklyn public schools when the school staffer leading parents around realizes, in a shock, that a teacher is asleep at her desk with a class full of students. I've been on a scheduled school tour (at a different Brooklyn pubic school) when the school staffer leading parents around realizes, in a shock, that none of the classrooms have students in the because practically the whole school is watching Monsters, Inc. in the auditorium. I've been in New York public schools where teachers turn on Netflix, to occupy second graders with Spongebob because they have nothing else to do. I've spoken to a Brooklyn pubic school principal, during a school tour, and heard her make half a dozen grammar mistakes in just a few minutes of conversation. Critics such as Diane Ravitch insist that claims that public schools are failing are nothing more than propaganda. Other critics cite the need to replace equality of service with equity of outcome in our apportionment of resources. I have sympathy for those arguments. But it's significant that these philosophical arguments seldom come with a frank description of the reality on the ground in New York's public schools, as I've seen them. It's as though the real problems are too hard to even begin to address, and so clever critics have come up with more attractive and intriguing problems to replace them--a sort of Malcolm Gladwellification of the school reform issue.

This is bad for many reasons, but most of all because systemic racism is very real, and very destructive. Systemic racism doesn't care that you have come up with a clever reframing of the problems facing education equity. Systemic racism laughs at the parent, who chose not to send their kid to the school that needed their family's involvement the most, and who wags their finger at another parent for doing the same. Systemic racism knows it can let black and Latin kids watch cartoons in school on a regular basis, and there's no chance that will get mentioned in progressive media because it sounds like something a conservative might say.

What do I think would solve things? I think you need to start by acknowledging that professional parents, of all races, often put necessary pressure on schools to improve; and by acknowledging that it is rational for involved parents to choose schools based on a combination of perceived quality, transportation convenience, and societal goals like racial integration.

The "pressure" piece is huge, and I think Nice White Parents misses the implications of its own reporting. There needs to be more pressure applied from professional parents, not less. I agree with the show that parent choice allows more active and informed parents to collect in a small number of schools; a goal should be to distribute them among more schools, while not incentivizing them too much to leave the district, the city, or the public school system.

This distribution is also important because advocating for your school to improve takes a lot of real labor. Parents who would be willing to be one of, say, a dozen active families working on replacing an abusive teacher or an incompetent principal, will balk at being one of, say, three. I've seen this multiple times; parents have told me that they worked for years to improve their kid's public school, but finally gave up and moved to a different neighborhood.

As I've argued with Nicole Hannah-Jones, this is fundamentally a collective-action problem, more than a problem with the values that individual parents are applying. That means it needs a collective-action solution, like assigning families to a school that may not be the nearest school to them--AKA "busing".

Currently in Brooklyn, there are school "zones" within school "districts". Everyone is assigned a zone based on their home address, and that essentially guarantees their children entry into the zoned school. A school "district" may contain two dozen "zones", and parents who send their kids outside their zone get preference within the district, over parents from outside the district.

The zones and districts seem to be to primarily function to help real estate buyers see the schooling implications of a location. Needless to say, this fuels housing segregation. They should be done away with entirely.

Instead, the NYC Department of Education should assign parents to one school, and give them a small cash incentive to go there. The assignment can be chosen to emphasize racial and economic integration, while also staying reasonable about transportation. Parents can send their kids to other schools if they prefer, but there wouldn't be a preference for schools near them, and they wouldn't get the cash.

If professional parents know that dozens of other professional parents are also being assigned to the school, they will consider it, even if it is day from their first choice. And poor parents who don't know as much about how to work the system, and who would prefer a closer school, will be more willing and able to send their kids to a "better" school in a different neighborhood, having been assigned the school and knowing that other people near them will be going to. The cash incentive would help everyone stick to the system, while still allowing parents to get their kid out of a school that's a bad match for them, or to keep them with extended family.

Key to this working would be transportation. The DOE's system of buses is antiquated and underfunded; the buses are too large to navigate city streets quickly, and there is too much car traffic. There needs to be a citywide fee system for cars, and higher taxes on Uber. Every family with kids in the school system should get a student unlimited MetroCard, plus one adult 20x/month MetroCard for accompanying them. And every family should be guaranteed school bus service that will take no more than 1 hour each way, so long as they attend their assigned school.

One thing that Nice White Parents gets right is how difficult a political sell this sort of integration policy would be to parents. For how much the system is failing, people still seem to prefer their neighborhood schools. Many white parents would resist, though I think there would be much more than racism fueling their resistance. Many parents of color would resist, too. But consider that there would be little taken away from parents--just the guarantee of admission to their zoned school.

It would be worth it, and, I think, ultimately could become a popular policy. 

Integration is really, truly crucial, but I think it can only be achieved by facing how the system actually works now, not by hiding our heads in the sand and repeating fairy tales.

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