The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma

Ah, the eduformers have discovered the progressive charter:

Fueled by a confluence of interests among urban parents, progressive educators, and school reform refugees, a small but growing handful of diverse charter schools like Capital City has sprouted up in big cities over the past decade…These schools attract children of city workers, project residents, New York Times reporters, and government officials, and simultaneously attempt to address the weaknesses of “no-excuses” charter schools, progressive education, and school segregation: “Usually in the places that are all about accountability it doesn’t feel like there is a ton of learning going on as the primary outcome,” says Josh Densen, a former KIPP teacher who is set to open Bricolage Academy next year. “In schools where it’s all about learning, discovery, and projects and teamwork, there seems to me to be an absence of or a reluctance to have any kind of accountability.”

Russo, who’s a pretty even-handed education reporter, touches delicately and indirectly on the cause for the attention: progressive, “diverse” charters spring up in “diverse” environments precisely because the environments are diverse.

Look at the history of most progressive charters and you’ll find they are initiated by white people who fit into one or more of the following categories:

  • Unnerved by the high percentage of low-achieving, low-income kids at their neighborhood school.
  • Unwilling to risk the lottery system for the good schools in their district.
  • Unable to afford private school, or a house in a homogenous suburb.
  • Unsure their kids are going to be able to compete with the top kids in their neighborhood school (particularly in high school)
  • Unhappy with the public school’s treatment of their idiosyncratic little snowflake.

These are people who would move to homogeneous environments, but can’t.

So a bunch of well-off but not super-rich white folks* who don’t want to or can’t move and don’t want to or can’t pay for private school live in a school district in which low-income black/Hispanic kids must be a part of their kids’ school environment. This is not optimal. However, if they can create a charter school and require a bunch of commitments, they can skim the cream off of this population, minimize the impact of low ability kids on their own child’s education, get their kids something close to straight As with far less work than they’d have to do in a public school, congratulate themselves on their tolerance and dedication to diversity, and all for less than the cost of a mid-tier private school. Such a deal.

Unlike low-achieving, majority URM charters, which are generally funded with billionaire grant money or for-profit charters, progressive charters are normally started by parents who are willing to fork out $10K or so apiece to get a charter school off the ground for their kids. Then, once they’ve got seed money, off they go in search of a reasonable amount of low income URM kids.

This kicks off a big hooha with the local school district. First, the charter will never be as “diverse” as the local school district. It will always run considerably behind in URMs. Then, the local school districts will accuse the charter of creaming just the motivated students, of URM attrition, of creating rules and expectations that are tough for the low-income (read Hispanic/black) parents to follow. Then there’s the yearly squabble as the local school district points out that the charters are pulling the public schools’ top achieving low income Hispanic/African American kids whilst leaving behind low incentive kids, special ed kids, English language learners, thus lowering the district school scores, while the charters congratulate themselves for their diversity, tolerance, humanity, generosity and high test scores. The local school district will often reject the charter’s extension, only to be overridden by lawsuits or the state. All done ostensibly in the name of good intentions and diversity, all done actually in the name of minimizing their own kids’ exposure to the lower achieving, poorly behaved low income blacks and Hispanics. (Of course, if the charter’s in a rich enough district, then they don’t even have to worry about finding URMs.)

Am I painting this in the worst possible light? Probably, but it’s not all that pretty. Using taxpayer dollars for upscale liberals (they are, usually, liberals) who don’t want their kids in the overly “diverse” local schools or have a little snowflake who just isn’t good enough to compete in a more competitive public school, gaming the system and using their own dollars to bootstrap a plan to qualify for state and federal dollars? If you’re going to do it, then own it. We can argue about whether or not it’s appropriate to create charters for entirely low income populations, schools that skim the motivated kids without any disabilities or sped problems from the local public schools overloaded with all that and more and then take those kids and mercilessly beat information into them in the hopes of moving them to a better-educated life and middle class jobs. But at least, there, we are working with kids who have no other options, who are being funded largely by grants from billionaires who want to pat themselves on the back for helping the little people.

None of this means that the teachers aren’t hardworking and dedicated and that some low income kids are getting a much safer education than they otherwise would. (In high school, however, it does mean that the kids are all getting much, much better grades than they would be getting in their local comprehensive high schools, which gives them a huge advantage in college admissions.)

The eduformers have started to notice these progressive, “diverse” charters, as well as gentrifying urban schools, which spring from the same motivations. Mike Petrilli** has a book out (What, you didn’t know? You must not be on his Twitter feed.) celebrating the parents who seek out this choice for their kids, despite their concerns about performance and their own little snowflakes’ educations. Why, Petrilli himself suffered through the “diverse schools dilemma”. His own local school in Takoma Park had a student body in which THIRTY FIVE PERCENT of the students qualified for free lunch! I mean, that school almost qualified for Title I! Oh, the humanity. So you can see why Petrilli felt the need to write a book celebrating the parents who brave these schools full of the great illiterate unwashed, and showing them how to find schools that only looked bad on the outside, but weren’t, you know, actually bad.

In fairness, Petrilli, like all educational policy folks, is fixated on elementary and middle schools, which are far more segregated than high schools. So 35% probably seems like a rilly rilly high number to him. But I can list at least five high schools in my general vicinity that have are 65% free-reduced lunch and 65% ELL (mostly Hispanic) with a 30% population of white students, ranging from working class to well-off, a situation that’s becoming increasingly common in many suburbs. So Petrilli’s intro has already spotlighted him as a dilettante. I mean, gosh. 35%!!!

But Petrilli as a eduform policy wonk has been focused on pulling in whites to the reform movement for a while—in fact, I’m deeply skeptical that he ever really researched the issue for his own kids, given how neatly this book ties in with his clear policy goals. In his summary of takeaways from the 2012 election, #1 on his list is “don’t piss off the suburbs”. (And of course, Petrilli didn’t take any of his own advice, running away from the scarily “diverse” Takoma Park in favor of uprooting his family to an expensive house in the suburbs and sending his kids to lily white Wood Acres Elementary, a school he tsks tsks in the intro for being over 90% white. Really, who hands out book deals to people like this?)

So call me uncharitable, but I figure Petrilli and other eduformers are pushing “diversity” as a means of gently tempting house-poor or other economically stretched white folks into seeking out charters in order to further undercut public schools, while also reassuring the suburbs that the reform movement won’t drill and kill their kids to test heaven.

Of course, the real “dilemma” is one I wrote about earlier:

….why are charter schools growing like weeds?

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around, much less black or Hispanic….So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

And so the dilemma Petrilli and others write about involving both progressive charters and “gentrifying” public schools: how can white middle to upper class parents who can no longer afford to move to a homogeneous district sculpt the schools they want while minimizing the impact of the undesirable students?

Clearly, step one is for the parents to publicly congratulate themselves. They’re not avoiding diversity, they’re seeking it out! (They just don’t mention the part about controlling it.)

And then, wait patiently for step two: Eventually, all but the best low income students will either behave badly enough or get tired of the rules and leave the charter schools for the required-to-take-them comprehensives, and eventually, gentrification will be complete and all the low income students, good and bad, will go off to an exurb somewhere.

So all they have to do is cope until that happy day, and avoid the lawsuits. Tiptoe tentatively around the cultural issues in the meantime. If you want to worry, worry that you bet on the wrong neighborhood and that gentrification won’t take hold.

That’s the diversity dilemma, in a nut shell: a white parents strategy to minimize the impact of low income low ability students on their kids without the expense of a private school or a new house. If the economy or the housing market picks up, expect the trend to fade. Sorry, eduformers, but by and large, white folks like big high schools and full-service middle schools.

Anyway. Russo touches on another point directly: the upper middle class white funded charters are, in almost every case, progressive. They hire their teachers from straight from top-ranked ed schools, all of them thoroughly steeped in the tea of social justice, heterogeneous classrooms, complex instruction, and Freire. Teachers dedicated to closing the achievement gap not by drill and kill, but by shrinking the range by pulling the top-end in sharply. Not, to put it mildly, teachers who will provide an academically rigorous education.

What this means in practice is that progressive charters (and, probably, the gentrified publics) do not have a high-achieving white population–particularly at the high school level. The parents who start progressive charters are more likely to have idiosyncratic kids who would be labelled weird in their public school. Others, like the parents of Emily Jones in Waiting for Superman, are worried their kids wouldn’t track into the top group in their local suburban high school, and thus be stuck with the lower achieving kids. Still others just know their kids won’t work terribly hard and will get weaker grades at the local high school than they would at a progressive charter where they’d be the top students (and where, of course, they will be donating quite a bit of money for that sort of consideration). Parents with high achievers are either going to seek out academic charters (which are rare) or leave their kids in the comprehensive high school, where they are able to compete and perform at the top level.

You can see this reality reflected in the research on charter schools, with one of its key findings: Study charter schools’ impacts on student achievement were inversely related to students’ income levels.

Yep. Drill and kill works great for low ability kids, but heterogeneous complex instruction is a lousy way to teach a mixed ability classroom without many high achievers.

But that’s predictable, isn’t it? After all, progressive charters are a hybrid of the worst of both sides of the education debate. Progressive instruction and goals, social justice crap given full rein, all in an organizational structure designed to pull off exactly the sort of kids who wouldn’t benefit from it, courtesy of the reform movement.


* I know many nice parents who send their kids to charters. I get it. But stripped of all the rationalizations, this is what’s left.

**I am normally a middling fan of Petrilli. He does come off a bit like a hyper-enthusiastic, gormless Richie Cunningham. But the minute he decided to move his family out to the homogenous zone, he should have dropped the book deal.

About educationrealist

41 responses to “The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma

  • Sharon Down

    You use the acronym URM: what does it mean?

  • Hattie

    Any parent who talks about the, like, total importance of diversity in schooling should just be forced at gunpoint to send their kids to the biggest, blackest, Hispanic-est, urban-est school available. They clearly don’t believe it, or else they’d be sending their kids there anyway.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Wow. This reminds me of reading Milton Friedman for the first time. I disagreed with him a lot–he was willing to make arguments that went where most people didn’t want to go–but his arguments were so clear and forcefully stated that I found myself trying to find where he had gone wrong. Or, if that didn’t work, where I had gone wrong!

    It made me read more of him. I learned a lot.

  • Bostonian

    Where my family shops, eats, or goes for piano lessons is not predetermined by where we live, and I think education ought to be the same way. Almost anything that undermines the government monopoly public schools, which are more responsive to teachers’ unions than parents, is a good think in my book.

  • Steve Sailer

    Thanks. Wow, that explains a lot.

    Personally, I’m in favor of taxpayers being able to arrange things so their children can attend public schools in cities and not have to flee to the exurbs.

    • educationrealist

      It’s called private school, Steve. (g)

      Also, remember this happens in the suburbs and exurbs as well–these schools take away from existing good schools and lots of white kids who are simply not cut out for progressive schools (or who are too good for progressive schools). So it doesn’t just impact city schools. I think you wrote about this once when you were comparing Summit (the prototype of the suburban charter) and Woodside High. The even more relevant comparison is Summit to Sequoia High, which was forced to house Summit for several years. Summit drew its white students from a) the population that thought Sequoia was too brown, and b) the population that thought Menlo Atherton, the very rich high school just a few miles away, too brutally competitive. In fact, Sequoia is an excellent school, given that it is 65% Hispanic, 65% Title I, 65% Ell, with a big share of gang problems. It has a white population from the Redwood Hills as well as the flatlands (upper income, middle class, and working class white). More than any other school in the district, Sequoia was forced to bear the cost of Summit, and it’s a travesty that a school that does such a good job teaching Hispanic kids was forced to support a progressive charter for parents who didn’t like sending their kids to a school with so many Hispanics.

      End rant.

  • Steve Sailer

    Here’s something that I’ve never seen talked about explicitly. Maybe I’m being overly paranoid, but when people talk about charters, I divide them into two classes:

    – Where the founders start up their own campus

    – Where the founders take over a public school campus

    The newer high schools in Los Angeles cost 9 figures for land and construction. I have to imagine that if you turned over control of 9 figures worth of real estate to me for 5 or 10 years to run the Steve Global Opportunity Academy of Steveness, I could figure out, eventually, how to skim off, say, 1 percent of the value of the real estate. At the Robert Kennedy Schools on Wilshire Blvd. in L.A., 1% would be about $6 million. At the Giant Japanese Robot high school downtown, 1% would $2.3 million.

    Am I being overly suspicious about deals where school districts are forced to turn over vast amounts of real estate to private operators?

    • educationrealist

      This is something I don’t know a lot about, but have noticed ever since I heard Karen Lewis (the union head at CPS) say that when she read the school plan it “read like a real estate deal”. (This is in the famous youtube speech she did a year or so before the strike). Since then, I have been noticing that many reformers talk about how much value is “locked up” in public schools, and how unfair it is.

      This guy, who runs both a charter and a “no excuses” ed school is making that point here.

      BTW, what are we both doing up? It’s 3:30. I, at least, have work in 4.5 hours.

  • ContraStercorum

    I have a high-school-aged relative who’s experiences, as observed by me, may shed some light on the situation. Several years ago she moved from 8th grade in middle school to 9th grade in high school. Her city is one that is most often described as highly diverse. This means that any white parents who can afford it get their kids into private schools as soon as possible.

    To counter this trend, the school department has instituted a tracking system whereby the best students get to attend a program that’s licensed by the international baccalaureate program (?), a very superior system designed for the children of American diplomats and executives abroad. Needless to say, this high track program, where entry is dependent entirely on academic performance, is basically lily-white and Asian.

    In an excess of moral fervor, my relative chose to continue her education in the high track high school program, despite the pleas of her parents to switch to a good private high school which they would have been more than happy to pay for. Before continuing, let me say right now that my relative is outgoing and athletic. To put it bluntly, she can take care of herself, she’s a natural athlete and quite strong, and she knows how to handle aggressive behavior.

    But after her first semester in the zoo she was attending she had the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Only much later did we find that she was the constant victim of physical attacks. (I suspect attempted groping and the like too but she’s never admitted to this.) She carried her possessions in a thirty-pound backpack all day because lockers were constantly broken into and what was not stolen was vandalized in extremely disgusting ways that emulated the behavior of monkeys. The HS she attended that semester later made national news when a gang brawl broke out during that year’s graduation ceremony.

    Her parents worked hard on her recovery and helped her get into a decent Catholic girls HS where she is now thriving. This kid is hardly a snow-flake. She’s a tough, hard-working, high IQ, extremely talented young woman who was nearly destroyed by a public school system that is doing the best it can but is overwhelmed by dysfunctional students and their families. The only hope for this place is to segregate the bright students from the dull and the animals from all the rest. the only hope of this really happening is a bunch of appropriate charter schools with a small public school system to warehouse the dregs uintil they are ready for some other form of institutionalization.

  • Janon

    Just a quibble, but you must be using the term “upper class” in a manner different from how I’ve seen it used elsewhere. The upper class described by Paul Fussell possessed enough inherited wealth not to have to work (i.e. more inherited wealth than the upper middle class, who still had to work). I can’t see any of those people being unable to afford living in a homogeneous suburb or sending their children to private schools if that is what they want.

  • hick

    Totally OT, but I’d be interested to hear your take on the Unz Ivy League piece.

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  • Matthew Levey

    gormless. The breadth of your vocabulary is showing again, ER.

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  • malcolmthecynic

    Okay. I try to set up a system so my children don’t need to go to a school with a higher rate of violence then there would be in a school held to standards of higher cognitive ability. Now why am I a bad parent who believes my kid is a special snowflake?

    I get it, you think they should send their kids to private school. Okay. I might even agree with you. But what I don’t agree with is that they’re doing something morally wrong here. If wrong is being don it’s of the practical and not moral variety, and frankly were it me I wouldn’t give a rat’s behind what happened to the regular public schools so long as my kid didn’t have to go to one, assuming it was a bad environment.

    I just don’t think those parents deserve the contempt you offer them in this post.

    • educationrealist

      White parents who send their kids to progressive charters do so a) to escape URMs and b) because their kids can’t compete with the top white and Asian kids. Hence special snowflake.

      I spelled out the reasons I am contemptuous, and the self-congratulation they give themselves for this effort is much of it. The parents are rarely escaping bad schools. Just less brown ones.

      • malcolmthecynic

        My mother used to work in dangerous, inner city schools with a lot minorities. I won’t say where because I’m trying to stay as anonymous as reasonably possible on the internet but trust me, it was bad. They were dangerous places. You probably have too, I’m sure (I haven’t real all of your articles yet and don’t have information on *all* of your experiences) . But yes, these schools happened to be mostly brown. And? There happens to be a correlation between areas that are more brown, as you put it, and violence. Oh well. Academic achievement isn’t the only measure of a bad school.

        Like I said, I don’t disagree with your conclusions necessarily, but I don’t think they deserve the contempt you give them.

        In fact, for the record, I think your blog is brilliant and have been linking to it a lot lately.

      • educationrealist


        As a rule, whites who live in the city put their kids in private schools. Suburban charters are a different story.

        In any event, I’m not contemptuous of parents who seek out charter schools, but of their touting of their motives, which are a lie. Personally, I’d ban charter schools entirely, regardless of race.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Okay, now I get what you’re saying a little more. Basically, you think they’re liars.

        And your reasoning to ban charter schools is based on the fact that they don’t work, and parents who don’t want their kid in a certain public school have other options anyway, right?

      • educationrealist

        Well, I’m kind of joking. I’d ban charters as part of my large public school plan. Or they’d be the “reform schools” for the public school rejects. In the meantime, I don’t like them and think they’re damaging.

        It’s more than lying. They’re hypocritical and using race to serve their purposes. It’s pretty clear in this essay, and if you don’t see it from that, see the Diversity in Action post (search on Potter).

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