The New Reformers: City-Loving Millennials Who Want Quality Schools Not Tied to Their ZIP Code

Nothing makes Washington, D.C., parents as anxious as the lottery. Not the DC-5 or the Mega Millions, but the bigger one, the one that really matters, the one that everyone plays: the schools lottery.

That’s because Washington, D.C., has one of the country’s more advanced open enrollment systems. All of the district’s 38,905 charter school students were admitted to schools by lotteries that are blind to their families’ places in the real estate market. Thousands of other students took advantage of D.C.’s lottery to enroll in district-run schools outside their neighborhoods as well.

As it happens, D.C.’s open enrollment system is a fascinating experiment in the shifting terrain of education politics. As in many cities, the district’s demographics are changing: Its schools have more children now than before (including both of mine, as of this fall), and these children are more diverse. These trends are altering the city’s political context for education policymaking.

But this isn’t just a Beltway story. It matters for other cities — and the rest of the country. Cities are synonymous with the social and cultural cutting edge. It’s no accident that “urban” and “urbane” share a common Latin stem. No surprise, then, that cities have repeatedly been the cradle for reformers in education (and in so many other policy areas).

If city demographics are on the move, presumably that colors the political context for urban education policymaking. And the ensuing evolution of urban education policies will shape the future of education reform across the country.

The future of education reform is almost certainly going to be partly determined by urban demographics. So: Who lives in cities now — and who will live in them in the future?

Obviously cities will have lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, but it looks likely that young, educated millennial parents are going to play an increasingly large role in U.S. cities’ futures. There are many reasons for this. Some boil down to preferences: These young urban families want to live in walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. They’re less interested in highways, car ownership and parking.

But much of downtown’s draw for millennials has to do with money: The economics of being a 20-something (or even a 30-something) today are tougher than they used to be. So working families who are trying to advance professionally, pay down their student loan debts, save for retirement and generally build a stable middle-class life migrate to U.S. cities where incomes are higher and labor markets are dynamic. Trouble is, they’re not alone — they’re in a race with their peers to move to these cities before demand for those economic opportunities drives housing costs sky-high.

In other words, these new young urbanites have some of the cultural and educational markers of privilege, but they don’t usually have the income or savings to match. This combination puts them in a position where their familial interests don’t align with those of wealthy, older families who have already secured their places in broadly privileged neighborhoods. And that has implications for the future of cities’ zoning, transit, public safety and open space policies. Why not schools?

Urban designer Ryan Gravel, in his recently published (and outstanding) Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities, explains how the process works for transit:

Transportation infrastructure does more than move people. It builds communities, and it constructs our way of life. In short, it matters what kind of infrastructure we build, so we should think carefully about how we would prefer to live and make sure that the policies and projects we invest in are supporting those lifestyle goals.

That is, cities are shaped by the beliefs and preferences of their inhabitants, but they also shape those beliefs in return. Gravel points out that infrastructure (be it transit, zoning, safety or schools) advances in response to people’s preferences — but each change also shapes those preferences and subtly “constructs our way of life.”

So as urban millennials become parents, what will they want from their cities’ schools? Do they care about teacher evaluations or federal accountability policies or alternative teacher certification pathways? No. Like most parents, they care first and foremost about access to quality schools. Advocates on those aforementioned issues can try a two-step approach — more/fewer/no teacher evaluations of this or that type will lead to more quality schools — but they’ll be fighting an uphill rhetorical battle to catch parents’ interest.

But policies that touch directly on access to quality schools always matter to parents — of any generation. Don’t believe me? Just take a gander at the blowback around efforts to redraw which neighborhoods (i.e., which sections of the real estate market) get guaranteed access to neighborhood schools. And that’s why open enrollment policies like those in Washington, D.C., are only going to get more popular as the number of not-quite-wealthy-enough millennial parents increases.

Consider: These folks are comfortable with using public transit to trek across high-density cities in search of various private and public goods. Open enrollment policies that allow them more freedom to find a school that suits their children would appeal to millennial parents. Furthermore, skyrocketing urban housing costs make it difficult for them to purchase homes in areas with guaranteed access to strong neighborhood schools, so these families are likely to be interested in policies that break that link.

Here’s another one: Young families love quality public pre-K programs. This is partly because two-income households have an easier time weathering today’s tough economic headwinds. Quality, full-day pre-K programs help parents get back to work sooner after the birth of a new child — and they save families from paying a year or two of huge child care bills. And much as they might want to, many of these families can’t afford to keep a parent home for years — or decades — to raise children. I’ve said it before, gonna say it again: Universal pre-K is coming.

Perhaps these ideas sound terrible to you. Perhaps these millennial families sound every bit as awful as you’ve read. Don’t worry — you can keep them out of your city. Just set education, transit, zoning and other policies like those in famous millennial-scarce “boomtowns”: Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana.

This should be good news to education reformers who support school choice, open enrollment policies, and/or increased access to high-quality pre-K programs, but they shouldn’t get too comfortable. While it would be reassuring to believe that macroeconomic trends will shape new city demographics to restore reform to political popularity, that’s not going to happen. The future of education reform will involve thinking hard about whether the reform-y policies that these new urban residents favor are still working in the service of equity. That is, while these new urban parents are open to these sorts of reforms, they’re also going to be interested in finding ways to massage these systems into protecting their privilege. This is not abstract. As each lottery season passes, I hear frustrated white parents grumble on the playground that all this open enrollment of schools is unfair, and that there oughta be a law to force our area’s high-performing charter schools to enroll the (increasingly wealthy, privileged) neighborhood children.

In this sense, millennials are no different from any other generation of parents: They might like the idea of justice in theory, but when it comes to their own children, they quickly revert to thinly veiled justifications for protecting their own privileges.

Sometimes education politics can lose sight of what — and who — education policies are really for. The big debates come to seem like a series of battles between proxy combatants. Each new reform gets framed in terms of what it means for “data” or “accountability” or “teachers unions” or “the reform movement” or the U.S. Department of Education.

But at the end of the day, a good chunk of the context for new education policies comes from families. Reformers from Chicago to New York to Newark to D.C. have learned (often the hard way) that winning ideas are always those that actually meet families’ needs and preferences. That is, education policies might not matter for most big elections, but they’re still subject to the basic rule of democratic politics: Helpful, popular ideas beat unpopular ones.

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