Friday, March 29, 2013

White flight and school choice

“These data counter choice advocates’ claims that school choice policies will give less-affluent parents access to the same good schools that privileged parents with resources currently seek out for their children, as the most coveted schools are, from the most privileged parents’ perspective, those schools without low-income students or students of color” (Holme, 2002, p. 203).  

The decision where to send one’s children to school—whether to home-school, to enter a lottery for a charter or magnet school, to seek out a scholarship to a private school, or to choose the neighborhood school—is an intensely personal choice.  Perhaps there is nothing closer to a parent’s heart than the welfare and success of their children.  However, I have begun to come to a slow and grinding halt in my way of thinking about where I want my White children to go to school.  

I live in the city of St. Louis, which means that I have all of the choices I listed above.  My husband and I seriously considered homeschooling first, since that was what his mom did, as well as many of the people in our White community.  After we decided that we probably would go crazy staying home full-time, we started looking at charter and magnet schools.  Somewhere in the middle of reading about the social construction of “race” and racial inequality in education, I had an epiphany.  I realized that, in my mind, my child was more valuable than other children.  For example, I believed that while it was okay for other children to attend neighborhood schools, it was not right for my child.  After all, my child is “gifted,” above average, special.    

In Holme’s (2002) study, most of the White participants relied on the opinions and suggestions of high-status, White friends and families to help decide where to move in order to have access to the best schools.  Although it was framed in terms of wanting the best for the children, the parents’ discourse also revealed their underlying beliefs about the superiority of high-status families and children.  In essence, Holme discovered that parents valued schools based on where other high-status parents were sending their kids, not based on substantial factual information.  The perception of these schools was first socially constructed, then as Holme concludes, “the facts that the parents did obtain, which consisted primarily of test scores, confirmed what they had heard about particular schools through their social networks—that schools serving Whiter, wealthier students were, in fact, better” (p. 201).  

It seems like this would be a natural response for any parent.  In fact, this kind of thinking is all I had been exposed to in my White network of friends and family.  A common conversation starter among White people in the city might be, “Oh, you live here? So where are you going to try to send your kids to school?”  The expected answer is never “a neighborhood school.” 

The results of this kind of conversation are very real.  In the St. Louis Public School District (SLPS), only 13% of students are white; 80% of the students are Black.  Even further, most of those White students are in magnet schools, schools that were opened with the purpose of drawing White students into the city.  This leaves neighborhood schools with upwards of 90% Black students, racial segregation almost on par with the Jim Crow era.  This is "White flight" without even having to leave the neighborhood.

The situation is further compounded when one considers the free/reduced lunch (FTE) percentage, a common way to determine poverty levels.  Over 80% of children in SLPS qualify for free/reduced lunch.  Just as a reference, to qualify for free lunch, a family of four has to earn less than $30,000 per year.  Currently, my family would qualify for reduced lunch, but most of my friends and family are safely within the range of middle class.  This means that when we have hard times, we have resources in terms of money, food, transportation, and childcare.  Our family and friends are priceless, but their support has very real monetary value.  

In fact, social networking is a way that many schools make ends meet, as well.  Charter schools are not the only ones who survive on fundraisers, as Jonathan Kozol (2005) discusses in his writings on inequalities in education.  Districts which already boast high property taxes to support the local schools also have constituents who are able to raise large amounts of money, set up non-profits and charities, volunteer at the school, do pro bono work, or donate new or used materials, such as computers or photography equipment. All of this money contributes to schools with more resources, which then theoretically should help children to learn, thereby improving test scores.  Again, this money is over and above what the school district already pays per student.  Kozol (2005) reported huge disparities between wealthy school districts and segregated urban districts in terms of per-student funding.

It isn’t natural to have racially segregated schools, but it is the byproduct of a long history of systemic, institutionalized racism.  All parents want what is best for their children, and all children are equally deserving of a well-funded school with good teachers. Additionally, Kozol (2005) points out that we don’t even call our current state “segregation,” but instead use words like “diverse” or “urban” to talk about schools populated by children of color. 

The idea that Whiteness is privileged does not mean that White people are more important or more deserving, but it does mean that Whiteness carries with it prestige and power.  When all the White people or more generally, all middle-class people leave a school district, the children left in those schools are left without powerful advocates and a network for obtaining resources.  

How do I disrupt the patterns of racial segregation, use my privilege to advantage others, but without coming in like a “White hero”? These thoughts are still formulating in my mind, but these articles are so appropriate for the decisions I need to make in the near future.  Bottom line—I want to find a way to pursue education for my children in a way that does not socially reproduce racial segregation. 

  • Holme, J. (2002). Buying homes, buying schools: School choice and the social construction of school quality. HARVARD EDUCATIONAL REVIEW, 72(2), 177–205.
  • Kozol, J. (2006). The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Reprint.). Broadway. 

What are your thoughts on school and neighborhood choice?  How do your choices impact your neighborhood? 


  1. This is an interesting subject. We are seeing many non-white families move out of our community (Clarkston, GA) for this same reason. They are looking for a better school or school system. It is the number one reason given when I speak to Vietnamese or Nepali friends of mine who have moved or are considering moving. It seems that this parental desire for our kids to succeed is very common across cultural lines. Many times, as soon as the immigrant is capable, they move to a community with a better school system.

  2. True. I don't mean to imply that only White parents care about where their kids go to school. I am speaking as a White person, and addressing trends of White people staying out of neighborhood schools. But Black, Hispanic, Asian working and middle class folks also choose charter, private, or magnet schools, or move out of urban areas when possible. I would argue that the overall impetus for all of these trends begins with anti-Black bias, however.


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