Two thoughts on the latest Steiny column

Julia Steiny has another column up.  It’s sort of about “good” public schools charging tuition to outsiders, sort of about social justice, and sort about ambitious plans for economic integration. I think her conclusion is something like, “Cross-pollinating school districts is a good idea”, which seems right, as far as it goes.

If you’re interested in such things, go read the column.  But it did leave me with two very distinct thoughts that might be worth mentioning.

Thought #1:

Uh-oh.  Someone just sounded the horn of cultural imperialism.  Here’s an unreasonably out-of-context paragraph pulled from Steiny’s latest piece:

Actually, research has a magic number: 40 percent.  The percentage of students who qualify for federally-subsidized lunch, the big poverty indicator, should never exceed 40.  More than that creates a critical mass of kids growing up with “street” values and limited perspective.

She said “values.”  She implied that some systems of values held by people in poverty are incompatible with education, and thus probably (hushed whisper) worse.

No, she couldn’t have meant that, could she?  I mean, it’s not like she actually said that poverty values were bad and middle class values were good, did she?  She didn’t raise one way of thinking and living above other legitimate cultural choices, did she?  Let’s see what she says next.  I’m sure it will help explain what she meant.

The middle-class background of the 60 percent steeps low-income students in a cultural environment that helps them achieve at higher levels than their peers in segregated schools.  Yes, middle-class parents often enable their kids in silly, helicopter ways, but generally they also expect decent performance from them.  And they definitely demand the best from the school itself.


Steiny clearly didn’t get the memo that right-thinking people aren’t allowed to say things like this.

She gonna get in trouble…

Thought #2:

This is an excellent opportunity to point out that what Steiny is talking about is economic integration, and to contrast it with what Professor Kirp was discussing the other day, which is race-based integration.

Take, for example, the impressive story of Wake County, North Carolina.  In 1979, the suburban County school system absorbed the school district of gritty inner-city Raleigh for the express purpose of economic desegregation.  Over time, using a choice program instead of forced busing, the merged district shifted student populations towards the 40/60 balance.

And lo!  The biggest winners were low-income Afro-American males.  Books have been written about Wake County’s success with challenged students. Middle-class kids were in no way harmed.

Quite the opposite.  At the time, the booming economy allowed Wake County to build super-attractive school programs in Raleigh, to attract the 60 percenters back into the inner city.  The suburban middle class hated the 45-minute bus rides, but loved the high-tech high, engineering magnet, or fabulous performing arts program at the other end.   (Sadly, some of that middle class recently elected a school board to dismantle this good work.

Now, the two may be functionally the same, dealing with dramatically similar allocations of students.  But there’s a legal difference between treating people based on race and treating them based on economic circumstances.

The trick, of course, is getting all the parents in the district to agree to it.

* * * * *

I could be wrong, of course.  That these thoughts were worth mentioning, I mean.



  1. Cranberry says:

    It’s not possible to keep the percentage of federally-subsidized lunch under 40% for all schools.

    Among the first to call attention to the increases were Department of Education officials, who use subsidized lunch rates as a poverty indicator in federal testing. This month, in releasing results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they noted that the proportion of the nation’s fourth graders enrolled in the lunch program had climbed to 52 percent from 49 percent in 2009, crossing a symbolic watershed.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Oh, come on!

      We could rework the rules to qualify for federally subsidized lunches to get the number down below 40%.

      We could rename it federally subsidized brunch. Then no one is on the federally subsidized lunch plan and we don’t need to move any kids!

      We could redefine 52.


      None of these, of course, will address the *actual* need (assuming that it is correct … of which I’m skeptical).

  2. “Low-income families crave another schooling option for their kids since the charter-school waiting lists are humongous.”

    Duh. That’s because many educators are actively preventing those charter schools.

  3. Cranberry says:

    They’ll also face an ACLU challenge, on the basis of discrimination:

    The problem with the district’s proposal, said ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown, is that it would reportedly charge students $12,800 to attend Barrington schools while special education students would face a $58,000 fee.

    #“As the proposal stands, the school district has indicated it would charge special education students more than four times the tuition rate that would be charged other students,” stated the ACLU press release, adding that a 1999 opinion issued by the U.S. Department of Education that said students with disabilities should not be “subjected to discrimination on the basis of their disability.”

    $12,800 sounds awfully high. There are parochial schools in the area which charge less.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I agree with the idea that this is impossible– Right now, a family of 4 making around 43K is eligible for reduce lunch. Median incomes for a family of four (on the state level) range from 48K for NM to 92K for CT.

    So, in CT (Small state, wealthy population) this may be easy to achieve. In NM (large state, more poverty)? Not so much. It’s even worse if you look at it by county– there are places in the US where more than 50% of the families are eligible for free or reduce lunch. What are we going to do? Have forced jetting from CT to NM?
    The math just doesn’t work.

    • Genevieve says:

      I dislike how Free/reduced lunch becomes one category. Depending on your state, 40K can go pretty far. I don’t think a school where the majority of families make 30-40K is going to have the problems that a school where the majority of families makes less than 15K.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Hmmm… kid from two parent homes do better in school than single-parented kids— Why not mandate a two-parent percentage for each school?

  6. “It’s not possible to keep the percentage of federally-subsidized lunch under 40% for all schools.”

    Good catch. I was wondering about that.

  7. I’m addressing Michael’s perspective that it’s unacceptable to lay out the picture that Steiny does. I don’t agree. Her view reflects the description by African-American Yale sociology Prof. Elijah Anderson in his book “Code of the Street,” which everyone interested in education in relation to the most marginalized communities should read.

    I found a big chunk of the book excerpted online, and I’m excerpting from the excerpt:

    Almost everyone residing in poor inner-city neighborhoods is struggling financially and therefore feels a certain distance from the rest of America, but there are degrees of alienation, captured by the terms “decent” and “street” or “ghetto,” suggesting social types. The decent family and the street family in a real sense represent two poles of value orientation, two contrasting conceptual categories. The labels “decent” and “street,” which the residents themselves use, amount to evaluative judgments that confer status on local residents. …

    The resulting labels are used by residents of inner-city communities to characterize themselves and one another, and understanding them is part of understanding life in the inner-city neighborhood. Most residents are decent or are trying to be. The same family is likely to have members who are strongly oriented toward decency and civility, whereas other members are oriented toward the street—and to all that it implies. There is also a great deal of “code-switching”: a person may behave according to either set of rules, depending on the situation. Decent people, especially young people, often put a premium on the ability to code-switch. They share many of the middle-class values of the wider white society but know that the open display of such values carries little weight on the street: it doesn’t provide the emblems that say, “I can take care of myself.” Hence such people develop a repertoire of behaviors that do provide that security. Those strongly associated with the street, who have less exposure to the wider society, may have difficulty code-switching; imbued with the code of the street, they either don’t know the rules for decent behavior or may see little value in displaying such knowledge.

    At the extreme of the street-oriented group are those who make up the criminal element. People in this class are profound casualties of the social and economic system, and they tend to embrace the street code wholeheartedly. They tend to lack not only a decent education—though some are highly intelligent—but also an outlook that would allow them to see far beyond their immediate circumstances. Rather, many pride themselves on living the “thug life,” actively defying not simply the wider social conventions but the law itself. … Highly alienated and embittered, they exude generalized contempt for the wider scheme of things and for a system they are sure has nothing but contempt for them.

    Members of this group are among the most desperate and most alienated people of the inner city. For them, people and situations are best approached both as objects of exploitation and as challenges possibly “having a trick to them,” and in most situations their goal is to avoid being “caught up in the trick bag.” Theirs is a cynical outlook, and trust of others is severely lacking, even trust of those they are close to. Consistently, they tend to approach all persons and situations as part of life’s obstacles, as things to subdue or to “get over.” To get over, individuals develop an effective “hustle” or “game plan,” setting themselves up in a position to prevail by being “slick” and outsmarting others. In line with this, one must always be wary of one’s counterparts, to assume that they are involved with you only for what they can get out of the situation.

    … One is not always able to trust others fully, in part because so much is at stake socially, but also because everyone else is understood to be so deprived. In these circumstances, violence is quite prevalent—in families, in schools, and in the streets—becoming a way of public life that is effectively governed by the code of the street.

    … In decent families there is almost always a real concern with and a certain amount of hope for the future. … This means working hard, saving money for material things, and raising children—any “child you touch”—to try to make something out of themselves. Decent families tend to accept mainstream values more fully than street families, and they attempt to instill them in their children. Probably the most meaningful description of the mission of the decent family, as seen by members and outsiders alike, is to instill “backbone” and a sense of responsibility in its younger members. In their efforts toward this goal, decent parents are much more able and willing than street-oriented ones to ally themselves with outside institutions such as schools and churches. They value hard work and self-reliance and are willing to sacrifice for their children: they harbor hopes for a better future for their children, if not for themselves. …

    So-called street parents, unlike decent ones, often show a lack of consideration for other people and have a rather superficial sense of family and community. They may love their children but frequently find it difficult both to cope with the physical and emotional demands of parenthood and to reconcile their needs with those of their children. Members of these families, who are more fully invested in the code of the street than the decent people are, may aggressively socialize their children into it …
    In fact, the overwhelming majority of families in the inner-city community try to approximate the decent-family model, but many others clearly represent the decent families’ worst fears. Not only are their financial resources extremely limited, but what little they have may easily be misused. The lives of the street-oriented are often marked by disorganization. In the most desperate circumstances, people frequently have a limited understanding of priorities and consequences, and so frustrations mount over bills, food, and, at times, liquor, cigarettes, and drugs. Some people tend toward self-destructive behavior; many street-oriented women are crack-addicted (“on the pipe”), alcoholic, or involved in complicated relationships with men who abuse them.

    In addition, the seeming intractability of their situation, caused in large part by the lack of well-paying jobs and the persistence of racial discrimination, has engendered deep-seated bitterness and anger in many of the most desperate and poorest blacks, especially young people. The need both to exercise a measure of control and to lash out at somebody is often reflected in the adults’ relations with their children. At the very least, the frustrations associated with persistent poverty shorten the fuse in such people, contributing to a lack of patience with anyone—child or adult—who irritates them.

    People who fit the conception of street are often considered to be lowlife or “bad people,” especially by the “decent people,” and they are generally seen as incapable of being anything but a bad influence on the community and a bother to their neighbors.

  8. We would never say that children who live at the median income (just over the amount needed to not qualify for free or reduced price lunch) are very similar to those at the top 10% of the income scale; by the same token, children who just barely qualify for subsidized lunch are usually very different from children in the bottom 10% of the income scale. I have thought this for years (and experienced it), but have not seen this reality acknowledged in any academic or popular articles. It’s a distinction that needs to be explored much more thoroughly.