Like most American liberals, I’m hoping that income inequality and social immobility will be major themes driving the United States’ political conversation this election cycle (and beyond). And schools need to be part of that conversation.
In the United States, we subsidize primary and secondary education for all children, but our mode of allocating those resources is designed to protect inequality and prevent upward social mobility.
Too often, we treat the growing gulf between America’s rich and poor as a matter primarily of bank accounts. And sure, wealth redistribution will definitely be a big part of any solution. But we also need to address the ways that inequality reproduces itself through American policies and institutions.
That is, material capital (wealth) translates into social capital (privilege) through mechanisms built into how our system allocates resources. It’s not just that the rich have more stuff—it’s that we let them leverage their wealth to get even further ahead. If liberalism isn't about disrupting those processes…what is it about?
This is particularly true as far as public education is concerned. Think about it. If you attended public K–12 schools (like me), you probably attended the ones that were assigned to families living in your neighborhood. This spring, Hillary Clinton’s campaign launch video even included a mom explaining, “My daughter is about to start kindergarten next year, and so we’re moving, just so she can belong to a better school.”
This system of school enrollment is American dogma.
And it works fine, of course, except for children whose families can’t afford to purchase a new house in a more expensive neighborhood where they can "belong to a better school." These kids, the children who lose the parental lottery, who are born to families with fewer resources, generally get access to the country’s weakest schools.
Meanwhile, it allows the wealthy to purchase, by means of their mortgages, access to public schools that are exclusively the province of the upper class. Those schools almost always serve to consolidate privilege—they are wealthier, whiter, and better-resourced than schools in less expensive neighborhoods. And their accumulated advantages actually amplify the dynamic: good neighborhood schools raise real estate prices in their enrollment neighborhoods, and that makes it even more expensive to live in the surrounding area.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. In a recent phone interview, former Obama campaign official and RePublic Schools founder Ravi Gupta told me, “‘Neighborhood school’ is almost an Orwellian term. It sounds great—and can be great in a perfect world. But its history is a history of using neighborhood boundaries to segregate.”
Liberals who want to combat inequality and promote social mobility need to care about this. We need to limit ways that the privileged are able to secure access to the greatest amount and highest quality of public resources.
Make no mistake: attacking this bastion of privilege will be a fight. Protection of real estate-based school enrollment has teeth: Low-income parents who try to skirt the system to enroll in privileged neighborhoods schools go to jail.
And yet many liberals want to tighten the relationship between housing and schools. That’s precisely the fight in my town, Washington, D.C. While the District is a liberal stronghold—President Obama carried 91 percent of the vote here in 2012 (down from 92 percent in 2008)—it's also a city awash in a wave of privilege.
The District is undergoing a renaissance; new, mostly liberal residents have revitalized the city and fueled a real estate boom that is equal parts exciting and challenging. You can probably guess the punchline by now: as the price of buying two- or three-bedroom residences in many neighborhoods has shot through the hundreds of thousands towards the millions, the district schools in those neighborhoods have drifted out of reach for most low- and middle-income families.
For children in those families, "moving to belong to a better school" is a cruel joke.
Fortunately, D.C. has a number of "open enrollment" policies—rules that allow families to enroll their children in schools with no weight placed on where they can afford to live. All of the city's public charter schools—and several of its district schools—are open to all D.C. children, whether or not their families can afford to live nearby. If they receive more applications than they have spots, these schools use a (residency-blind) lottery process to determine which students will attend.
Families want to attend these charters, perhaps because research from Stanford University shows that they generally outperform D.C.'s neighborhood schools. They currently serve around 44 percent of D.C. students. The District’s public charters provide a wide variety of educational options, from language immersion schools (in Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Hebrew) to expeditionary learning models to small, inclusion-driven instructional models.
But liberals with a stake in D.C.'s neighborhood schools have gone on the offensive to put a stop to this blend of excellence, equity, and pedagogical innovation. Why? For people who have the resources to purchase homes in neighborhoods with strong district schools, open enrollment policies are a threat to their home values. Those neighborhood schools are more valuable insofar as skyrocketing housing costs remain the primary path for accessing high-quality education.
But that would be deeply uncomfortable for them to admit. So it's not what they say. No, when I confront fellow liberals about defending the deeply hierarchical, inequitable link between real estate prices and school enrollment, they almost always say something to the effect of, “Why can’t we just make all schools great?” (Seriously, I do this a lot.)
Which is infuriating for (at least) two reasons. First, it’s a talking point so abstract as to be impotent. Does anyone oppose making all schools better? No. But doing so is hard work that isn't advanced by this empty rhetoric.
Second, note that it contains an implicit whiff of that old “separate but equal” saw: If we all had great neighborhood schools, we could all build communities around them, and “those kids” wouldn’t need to come across town into our community.
Push these "liberals" on other options for integrating their neighborhoods’ schools by race and class and you'll find stone walls. They gently explain that zoning to make housing more affordable in their wealthy enclaves wouldn't suit “the neighborhood's ecology." They'll explain that busing or flexible enrollment boundaries would "change the character" of their wealthy neighborhood schools.
In the end, these conversations always wind up being about some amorphous group of "those kids." These privileged liberals never specify which kids they mean—which race, which social class, etc.—but they assure me that "those kids" need vocational training, rather than advanced coursework. That "those kids" will be better off if they stay far away, in their own neighborhood communities.
Gupta finds this frustrating: “Any liberal who is considering whether to support the concept of neighborhood schools should ask themselves, ‘What’s the makeup of my neighborhood?’…We all know that the neighborhood you live in is often tied to your economic status. If you believe that, why would you create neighborhood boundaries on schools? Why would you create yet another barrier?”
I have no idea.