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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'White flight' from overachieving Asians?

A "B" grade is an "Asian F" and a "white A," they used to say in Silicon Valley high schools. Maybe they still do, if they have enough white students left. Lynbrook High in San Jose is 81 percent Asian, 7 percent white. Fremont's Mission San Jose High is 90 percent Asian, 4.5 percent white.

Photo: Vantha Thang/Pexels

As more Asian-American students enroll in public schools in wealthy California suburbs, more white students leave, concludes a new paper. Researchers aren't sure what motivates the "white flight," but suspect affluent parents fear their children won't be able to compete with high-achieving Asian students, writes Kevin Mahnken on The 74.

Asian Americans do much better than any other group on measures of academic excellence, he notes. While only 6 percent of K-12 students, Asian Americans make up 43 percent of all test takers scoring over 700 on the SAT math section. They earn higher GPAs in high school and are take advanced courses are nearly double the rate of whites.

In the 1980's, Asian immigrants -- typically computer engineers -- discovered the excellent schools in Cupertino, where Apple is headquartered. At first, educators worried about an influx of students who spoke English as a second language, I recall from my days at the San Jose Mercury News. It didn't take long for these children to be high achievers.

Then white parents complained that the newcomers cared too much about grades, studied too much and went to after-school tutoring centers if their grades slipped below excellent. They weren't "well rounded." They ruined every curve.

"Two area high schools, Monta Vista and Lynbrook, experienced precipitous drops in enrolled white students," wrote Anjali Enjeti in Pacific Standard in 2017. "Parents blamed Cupertino for becoming too Asian." (The city is now 69 percent Asian, 24 percent white.) For nearly two decades, writes Mahnken, there have been reports of white families leaving heavily Asian schools with parents complaining of academic competition from the new arrivals.

The new study confirms it's not just anecdotal. "With each arrival of an Asian American student in a high-income suburban district, .6 white students left — mostly departing the community entirely, rather than relocating to a private or a charter school," he writes. "After adjusting their observations for moving patterns (different sub-groups enrolled at schools at markedly different rates, with South Asian and Chinese populations growing faster than Koreans and Japanese) the effect was even greater, such that each Asian student was associated with the departure of 1.5 white students." “We don’t see this kind of white flight (from Asians) from low-income suburbs,” said Leah Boustan, the Princeton economist who co-authored the study. She doesn't think it's "racial animus."

An increase in Asian students "was tied to elevated average test scores in that school — but typically not for white students," writes Mahnken. "In other words, the new Asian American pupils were bringing stronger academic performance to the schools they enrolled in, but also potentially making their white classmates look somewhat worse by comparison."

Parents might fear that would hurt their child's college admissions chances, said Boustan.

People pay a premium for homes within the boundaries of schools with high test scores. I suspect Asian immigrant parents are more willing to pay that premium.

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