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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