In the podcast “Nice White Parents,” a parent seizes upon a plan of action that he believes will yield multiple positive outcomes: It will “rescue” a struggling school in New York City by filling empty seats, integrating the school racially, and bringing up standardized test scores, and it will provide his child as well as the children of other parents in his social circle the opportunity to attend a conveniently located, highly rated school. The plan is to begin a French program, in which classes and clubs will be taught in French, allowing students to acquire the language immersion-style.
This parent has a career in fundraising. It’s literally what he does. He and other parents take over the PTA and set up a gala to benefit the French program; they succeed in raising a massive amount of money.
And so a struggling school’s test score average rises, empty seats are filled, and integration is accomplished… on paper. But the predominantly Black and Brown kids who attend that school not because of the French program, but because it is their zoned school, experience no change in their schooling experience aside from the fact that now there’s a class full of rich white kids down the hall being taught in French.
“Nice White Parents” chronicles various similar efforts to desegregate and “improve” schools. A common thread is the implementation of “choice” schools, programs meant to encourage integration but which in reality often unintentionally select for high income families who have the means to attend such a school — they have their own transportation and therefore are not impacted by the lack of bussing to such schools, their parents have the time to do the required volunteer hours often tied to attending a choice school, and these parents often have the time to devote to fundraising efforts and to the parental schoolwork management that a rigorous curriculum typically demands.
I am a Nice White Parent. My children are Peruvian-American and so their presence checks the diversity box, but they are financially privileged. My daughter attends a “school for science,” a choice school that looks similar to the kinds of programs described above, though at least at her school, all students are enrolled in the same program. No one within the school is left out. However, in order to attend the school, one of the highest-rated elementary schools in the state, parents must provide their own transportation and must commit to regular volunteer hours. This requires a minimum level of socioeconomic stability and thereby excludes a significant portion of the population.
My son attended a similar science program for middle school in the “bad part of town.” I gave myself a pat on the back for being “progressive,” for expressing my disgust at the racist comments I sometimes heard from other white parents, like, “You’re not worried about sending him to school… over there?” On the contrary, I wanted my kids to attend an integrated school. My kids may be brown, but they are privileged in countless ways, and as far as I know they have never suffered discrimination due to the color of their skin. I wanted them to learn alongside kids from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. I didn’t want them to be surrounded by rich white kids.
Except, what I eventually learned was that the “science kids” would be kept mostly separate from the “regular kids.” To be fair, the science program was populated by many kids of color, mine included, but the kids who attended that school simply because they were zoned for it did not benefit from the existence of that program the way the science kids did. It wasn’t assumed of them that they had the aptitude to succeed at intensive research, and they weren’t offered the opportunity to travel to the Florida Keys for the weekend for “Marine Lab.”
I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the school is located in a predominantly Black neighborhood. The science program is yet another well-intended choice school, meant to integrate the school racially and economically and improve the school’s overall performance. But I don’t believe the kids who live in that neighborhood are reaping the benefit.
Eight or nine years ago, my county proposed a redrawing of district lines so that some neighborhoods would be reassigned to different schools, a move intended to improve integration and level out socioeconomic distribution of families across schools. My little neighborhood, where my then-husband and I had purchased a new home months before, fell into the zone that would be reassigned from the very high rated school to the much lower rated school. Based on the impacts of school zoning on price per square foot, our house could be expected to see a $25,000 decrease in value as a result of the rezoning.
I wasn’t worried so much about the school itself. My kid wasn’t close to middle- or high school-age, and anyway we were in a position to opt-in to choice schools, because privilege. But I didn’t want to go underwater on our mortgage; we had already lost one home in similar fashion during the 2008 economic downturn.
We can all pretend we would happily sacrifice $25,000 for the mutual benefit of our community. But when put in that position, I’m certain the vast majority of us wouldn’t. Most of the families who purchased housing in the area in question did so precisely because they were seeking for their children to attend a particular school. They paid a deliberate premium for that.
I can’t remember if I merely complained about the rezoning proposal or if I signed some petition, or what, but ultimately, the Nice White Parents in the area made such a fuss that the district decided not to redraw the lines. I probably donated several hundred dollars to the ACLU that year, oblivious to my own hypocrisy.
What I didn’t understand back then is that rezoning schools so that more expensive homes fall into a less well-funded school zone is done with the intention of properly funding the poorer, underperforming school so that it may rise to the level of schools in surrounding higher income areas.
Listening to “Nice White Parents” made me take a closer look at my participation in the inequities that exist in the public school system. In my efforts at maintaining my and my children’s interests, I bought in fully to a system that sacrifices the many for the benefit of few. I consider myself a good person, a thoughtful, caring person, and yet I absolutely contributed to that system of inequity, even if unintentionally.
And yet, here’s the question I can’t stop asking after listening to the four episodes of “Nice White Parents” that have been released so far: Why? As in, why are we here? Why are schools so horrifically imbalanced from one district to another, often with these districts literally neighboring one another, that any parent would feel compelled to get involved in the management of their child’s school? Why is this even considered a normal thing to do? Talk to parents from other countries with school systems far better than ours, and they are not required to donate supplies, fundraise, or “get involved.” This is a uniquely American idea.
Why are American schools so underfunded? Why don’t all schools receive the same funding, the same tools, the same enriching clubs, the same quality tech equipment, the same nutritious food, the same well-stocked libraries, the same fresh art supplies and musical instruments, regardless of where they are? Why, why, why is school funding tied to housing prices?
I want all parents to listen to “Nice White Parents,” but not just because it will help us white parents to examine our complicity in a system designed to keep the folks who already lack so much opportunity out of the circle of resources. But I also hope it will get us all to question why it is that school quality and real estate values are linked in the first place. This is a system that is designed to be inequitable, and it should not be accepted as normal.
Every child has a right to a quality education, and if we really want to be “Nice” white parents, we must use our influence, not to build up an exclusive program that will benefit our child and their friends for the few years they attend a particular school, but to tear out the root of this problem where it begins, and that is with how we fund our schools in the first place.
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