Private and charter schools, and public schools in expensive communities, fuel inequality.
Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy.
For many parents, when it comes to their children’s educational opportunities, they want only the best. American parents are often driven by the belief that educational advantages will allow children to accomplish ambitious goals. Thus, parents’ educational decisions are deceptively simple — do whatever it takes to get children into the best school available.
But in 50 years, we’ll look back at how a declining public sector has led to a dizzying array of increasingly out-of-reach options — whether that’s private schools, charter schools, or “good” public schools in inaccessible expensive areas — and consider it unthinkable. We’ll be living in a much more demographically diverse country, likely reconsidering what choosing “the best” looks like and thinking more about how all too often, uncritical definitions of what’s best reproduce racial and economic inequality. In this light, it will be necessary to reinvest in public education so that it becomes more of a democratizing force and less a mechanism for maintaining inequality.
Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, most US students attended local public schools. Of course, these were also strictly racially segregated. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court struck down legal segregation that a demand for private (and eventually charter and religious parochial) schools really began to grow, frequently as a backlash to integrated public institutions. In 2012, for instance, a study done by the Southern Education Foundation showed that in Mississippi, white students comprised 51 percent of all school-age students but an overwhelming 87 percent of all private school students. This pattern holds across Southern states that demonstrated resistance to school integration.
Today, proponents of our current educational system of unfettered school choice argue that diverting local, state, and federal funding to these varied types of schools creates necessary options and gives parents more control over their children’s education. But this narrow, individualized focus maintains the racial and economic disparities that desegregation was supposed to eradicate. School is viewed less as a public good and more and more as something we buy access to, and thus driven by income and wealth.
Those with more money can afford to live in areas with top public schools or pay to send children to private school. Study after study has shown that all children are not exposed to the same educational opportunities, but that those in high-income families have a significantly easier time accessing high-quality education. Additionally, as intergenerational mobility has stalled, higher-income parents have become even more devoted to hoarding educational opportunities for their children. In a changing world with less social mobility, parents often believe that education will give their children elusive tools necessary to advance in an increasingly competitive society.
This individualist attitude toward picking the “best” school for kids also reproduces racial inequality. Sociologists have shown that for white families, “best” is often shorthand for “white,” even if the school in question does not necessarily evince better educational outcomes than its more multiracial peers. White families often use cash gifts and inheritances passed down from family members as a way to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods or send their children to predominantly white schools. Doing so serves to reproduce residential racial segregation, while maintaining the wealth gap that leaves black Americans with approximately one-tenth of the wealth held by whites.
No one is suggesting that in the future, parents will (or should) solve this problem by finding the worst possible schools in which to educate their children. But as people of color are an increasing segment of the US population, educational barriers that disproportionately affect a growing majority of our citizens are counterproductive. Instead, we’ll need to recognize that investing in the public sector (including but not limited to schools) helps a wide segment of Americans. If not, we’ll look back and realize that sacrificing the public sector on the altar of “school choice” and individualism has left us unprepared for an increasingly multiracial society.