Gentrification in the Public Schools

This is an ovewhelmingly great essay in The Atlantic by Maria Bloomfield Cucchiara about the many problems with having middle-class and professional families move into previously segregated and poor public schools. I’m particuarly excited every time I see someone mention that Milliken v. Bradley is one of the most disastrous Supreme Court cases of the last 50 years.

But I’m worried that the title – “Cities Are Trying to Fix Their Schools by Luring the Middle Class: It Won’t Work” – isn’t cynical enough. What if, in fact, it works exactly as well as it needs to? The evidence suggests that when a committed group of middle-class parents integrate a public school, as long as there are enough other gentrifiers around to keep their numbers strong, test scores at that school skyrocket. Does it increase segregation? Does it fail to address the needs of schools not fortunate enough to be located in gentrified neighborhoods? So what?

Urban politicians have weathered the problem of school systems that fail the poor and non-white for many decades now. What has clearly animated them – and the sort of moneyed business class that holds a lot of influence with them – instead is the fact that a lack of decent public schools is chasing away middle-class parents who might otherwise live in the city. But in many places, we appear to have found the solution to that. Given a critical mass of middle class families in a given neighborhood, there’s a pretty clear path to gentrifying the local school – not easy, maybe, but it’s been done at least a dozen times in Chicago.

From the mayor’s perspective, the problem has, in fact, been “fixed.” But that’s because he’s not talking about the same problem that Bloomfield Cucchiara is.

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One thought on “Gentrification in the Public Schools

  1. Further evidence of your point: In the mid-1990s, Mayor Daley announced that the Chicago Public Schools would give priority for entrance to families living in neighborhoods around magnet schools — I believe within a 1.5 mile radius. Access to generally higher scoring magnets for regular neighborhood folks, right? Except that when you took, a compass and drew the circles around the magnets, you saw that families in Lincoln Park now had priority access to 3 – 5 schools apiece, and families on the West and South sides had gained exactly nothing.

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