Parents’ choice: diversity or the suburbs?

Young Aidan or Amelia will start kindergarten soon. Urban gentrifiers must decide: Do we send the kids to a diverse urban school where some of their classmates will be poor and need lots of teacher attention? Or do we move to the boring suburbs where all our kids’ classmates will come from educated families? Facing that decision as a Washington D.C. resident, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli wrote The Diverse Schools Dilemma, which looks at the risks and benefits of schools with socioeconomic diversity.

Though whites make up half of public school students, 87 percent attend majority-white schools. Even in cities, “neighborhood schools still tend to be segregated by class, if not by race,” Petrilli tells the Washington Post. In the Washington D.C. area, less than 3 percent of white public school students attend schools where poor children are the majority, according to Petrilli.

Charter schools, which draw from wider areas, are an option for parents who want to stay in the city. Some of D.C.’s most popular charters are very diverse. But high-performing charter schools often adopt a “no excuses” culture that turns off middle-class parents.

“Many of the charters have uniforms and a rigid discipline code,” he said. “It’s not a culture that celebrates a lot of individualism, personal style or autonomy, the kinds of things that middle-class parents may want. So there are significant differences and cultural clashes that take place.”

Some cities use “controlled choice” to integrate schools by socioeconomic status, but it’s controversial.

Petrilli made a common choice: He moved to Bethesda, Maryland. At his son’s elementary school, 1 percent of the children are low-income, 2 percent are black and 5 percent are Hispanic.

Last month, I visited a wildly diverse charter school in Grand Rapids — lots of poor kids, some of them from African refugee camps, all colors and creeds. A white mother told me she’d chosen the school, in part, for its diversity. I was surprised. People talk about the wonderfulness of diversity, but their choices usually tell a different story.

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  1. Petrilli lived in the Montgomery County section of Takoma Park, not in the DC neighborhood of Takoma Park–they’re very different. Many people think that DC is part of Maryland and/or Virginia or that the Maryland and Virginia inner suburbs are part of DC, but DC is an independent city that is not part of any state. Takoma Park, MD has long had a healthy (though not solely) middle to upper middle class population. For more information:,_Maryland

  2. I lived in the DC suburbs for many years and my kids were raised there. I also commuted into the District to grad school, for many years. I know few people who object to poor kids or kids of any particular flavor or color, but my experience has been that the negatives primarily boil down to behavior and academics. Disruptive kids, whether spec ed, poorly socialized or class clowns, are a problem for the rest of the class. Since few ESs group kids homogeneously by subject, even a kindergarten class may have kids who are several years behind those of the urban gentrifiers, and the gap may widen over time. If public schools had the same insistence on appropriate behavior as do charters (and as public schools did in my era) and if they grouped homogeneously by academic preparation/need, I think more urban gentrifiers would be satisfied. Even better would be really strong curricula, like CK or classical, plus Singapore Math (with strong teachers and efficient instruction). Of course, there will always be those unwilling to consider uniforms and/or a more regimented approach – but some kids do benefit from it.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Very well said, Momof4! Thank you!

    • The trouble is, there’s no imperative for district schools to insist on appropriate behavior. That’s as contrasted with charters and private schools which, if they’re as indifferent to disruptive behavior as are district schools, will eventually drive away the kids who aren’t disruptive by retarding the education of those kids, angering their parents. And sealing the schools doom.

      As for the whole “diversity” issue I think its the dying gasp of the left’s inflammation of racism as a political advantage.

      While many unimaginative, and unbending, lefties insist on crying “racism” at every opportunity it’s clear that the political value of the issue is largely exhausted. The irony is that to try to extend the political value of the issue of racism “diversity” posits racial differences sufficiently important to make proximity between kids of differing racial persuasions desperately important.

      Those differences are notable by virtue of the careful avoidance of explicitly identifying them which does raise the question of what the heck it is that makes “diversity” such an unquestionable good?

      Will white kids, due to a proximity to black kids, find the strength to resist the siren song of racism? Seems like a pretty silly reason to value “diversity” to me with a black guy sitting in the Oval Office. After all, if not from their parents who voted Obama into office, who are those white kids going to learn their racism from? Or is it black kids who’ll benefit by having their insufficiencies seen too by being within some critical distance of white kids? The delicacy with which the benefits are explored by proponents suggests that there’s less there then is widely, and wildly, implied.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    I have never understood the diversity is strength argument. If diversity was truly strength the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire , the Holy Roman Empire and Brtish Colonial Empire should all have eclipsed the United States. They were all more diverse than we are.

    • Robert Putnam has found that diversity erodes social capital, leading to things like “bowling alone”.

      Of course, some people beg to differ.

      • George Larson says:

        Ramzpaul in your link agrees with Robert Putnam. What is Cultural IQ? What is it good for? Can it be measured? Can it be taught? Is it something that is learned because people of different ethnicities go to school together?

      • His most recent book discussed diversity within, not across, races and the negative effect of diversity on cohesion still holds – even in rural South Dakota, where diversity means inviting a Swede to a Norwegian picnic.

        • GEORGE LARSON says:

          I found this at

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          • We offer online tools for assessing CQ.
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          The center offers the only academically validated instrument to measure cultural intelligence.

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  4. A benefit claimed for “diversity” is that children learn that others of a different race are “just like them.” But that only works when it’s true; if the white kids are middle-class and the black kids are poor (or the reverse, of course, if there is anywhere that happens — Prince George’s County, maybe? somewhere near Atlanta?) all children are likely to conclude people of different races are importantly different in other ways as well. I think that’s the lesson of John Ogbu’s work on Shaker Heights, though he doesn’t draw it. It’s also a factor in college-level mismatch (which was already apparent when I was teaching college math, around 1970.)

    • Very true. Several years ago, I read about a study done on racial attidudes/beliefs of college freshmen and seniors at very competitive colleges. The freshmen had much more positive views about the abilities/performance of black (and Hispanic, I think) students than did seniors. Given the mismatch effect, which means that white/Asian students likely scored 300-450 SAT points higher than their black classmates, the results aren’t surprising. Recent data from UT show AA black admits have SATs 390/467 points lower than whites/Asians. Such large gaps mean that AA admits cluster at the bottom of the class,so it’s not surprising that they are seen as less competent. That reputation really hurts those black/Hispanic kids whose records show they need no AA, because they are assumed to have been admitted on that basis and have to prove otherwise. I know a number of such kids and it really hurts.