School Gentrification: Not Necessarily a Fix

Steve Bogira says that CPS should focus on bringing in more non-poor students instead of raising test scores. Or, really, it should focus on bringing in more non-poor students in order to raise test scores.

The thinking is that CPS doesn’t actually do a terrible job of educating its children, given the demographics. If you compare low-income students in Chicago to their peers around the state, things are about the same. But 85% of CPS students are poor, and only about half of all Illinois students are poor, so the fact that low-income students do worse than non-poor students pulls down the district’s overall score.

Of course, there’s something kind of disturbing about this line of reasoning, namely that it’s not okay for poor students to fail at school just because they’re poor, and improving test scores by cherry-picking which students you have is not the most honorable way of improving your district data. Bogira says yeah, but poor students do better when they’re not in economically segregated schools, so having more middle class kids would improve their scores, too. In fact, it seems like increasing the number of non-poor students is the most reliable large-scale change we can make to improve a school’s test scores. I’m basically with him on that.

But how do you do that? Note that we’re not talking (yet) about desegregating within CPS. If 85% of CPS students are low-income, total desegregation would just lead to every single school being overwhelmingly low-income. We’re talking about bringing non-poor kids in from outside the district.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two ways to do this: the voluntary way (by creating situations in which middle-class families would rather send their kids to CPS schools than somewhere else), or the non-voluntarily way (by striking down Milliken v. Bradley and correctly concluding that there is no good reason to allow municipal borders to be used for the purpose of segregation).

The non-voluntary way is clearly not going to happen any time soon, which is probably why Bogira focuses on two voluntary proposals: increasing the number of seats at high-scoring CPS magnets, the best of which currently rank among the top public high schools in the state; and creating inter-district exchange programs, which seems to be basically the same as the first, except without requiring families to actually move to the city to enroll their children in CPS.

Neither of these is a terrible idea, but I think it’s worth considering that the number of children currently attending public schools in Chicago is north of 400,000, and so getting to the state average of 50% low-income enrollment would require creating literally hundreds of thousands of new seats for middle-class suburban kids. Emanuel’s expansions at Payton HS, Jones HS, and Lincoln Elementary – all highly desirable, top-scoring CPS schools – are going to create only a couple thousand new seats, and they’ve already provoked some backlash from people on the South and West sides who saw their community schools closed not that long ago. Imagine if City Hall announced a program a hundred times larger, aimed exclusively at not just North Siders, but suburbanites. It’s just not an option, even if it were logistically or financially feasible.

All this also ignores that CPS has already figured out – sort of – how to get families with money to send their kids to neighborhood schools: allow demand for magnet seats to greatly outstrip supply, and watch as residents in middle-class neighborhoods decide it’s easier to band together and gentrify their local schools than to move to the suburbs or cough up private school tuition. So far, the scope of this trend is limited – fewer than two dozen elementary schools – but given how quickly it’s advanced over just the last four or five years, it’s not at all difficult to imagine that in ten or fifteen years, bad elementary schools in gentrified neighborhoods will be the exception rather than the rule.

But then what? All that will have been accomplished for most low-income kids is the economic integration of the district without much of any integration at the school level: the same mechanism that has maintained the rich suburb v. poor suburb/city divide – real estate prices – should be just as effective at keeping families with meager resources out of prized attendance areas in Lincoln Park or North Center. The problem, at bottom, is that when a significant chunk of the middle and upper classes define “good schools” in terms of their economic makeup – and, in turn, schools’ economic makeup actually does have major influence on its academic profile – segregation of the public schools isn’t just an unfortunate byproduct of the market; it’s the point. To mitigate it, the attendance system will have to be purposely designed to create obstacles to that kind of sorting.

But that kind of design, precisely by reducing segregation, will make CPS schools less attractive to the middle class, and will give the city less desegregation material to work with, so to speak. Nor am I convinced that City Hall will see an influx of middle-class students to resegregated public schools in gentrified neighborhoods as a failure. That said, I’m not an expert on education policy, so maybe there is some education Mt.Laurel out there ready to turn me away from pessimism. Any hints?


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