Settling for cherry-picked or incomplete evidence isn't necessary.
Gentrification Presents Both Challenges and Opportunities for Cities and Schools
The debate over charter schools and segregation, driven by the fact that many charter schools locate in segregated city neighborhoods, is about to be overtaken by events. The rapid movement of young college graduates into previously low-income neighborhoods opens up a new opportunity for effective integrated K–12 education, to which charter schools should contribute.
The National Community Reinvestment Coalition recently reported that between 20 and 40 percent of all low-income areas in Washington, D.C, San Diego, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Portland (OR), Pittsburgh, and Seattle had transitioned from majority minority and low-income to predominantly white and Asian, young, and high-income areas. Significant gentrification is also evident in cities as diverse as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Austin, Denver, St. Louis, and Providence.
These facts have stirred alarm about a future of cities without children, the plight of low-income residents in areas with rising rents and taxes, and the dispersion of communities and the loss of community institutions (for example, churches and businesses) and political power.
New analyses by the Brookings Institution and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia soften the alarms considerably. Large numbers of families with low incomes and families of color are often able to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods even as well-heeled tech workers move in. Those who stay apparently benefit from living in less poverty-stricken neighborhoods, as measured, for example, by the total number of years of education completed. Both incoming and established residents have children, and want to send their children to public schools. Because gentrifying neighborhoods become much denser, the numbers of children can rise even if average family size falls.
Schooling options figure heavily in decisions made by both incoming and established families. Neighborhoods where there is no choice among public schools are less likely to be gentrified. Gentrifiers want options and the ability to find a match for their children, so the existence of charter schools makes an area more likely to be gentrified; when charters are present, district-run schools experience significant population change.
However, gentrifiers show little interest in existing charter schools in formerly low-income neighborhoods—at least in New York and Washington, D.C., where they are more likely to enroll in traditional public schools than in charters. From the evidence available it’s not clear whether newcomers dislike charters per se or are just not interested in the “no excuses” types of charter schools prevalent in inner city areas. But it is clear that they want to be able to make choices.
Implications for Districts and Charter Schools
Gentrification is not universal. In all cities, including those gentrifying fastest, many low-income neighborhoods are still not being transformed. Districts and charter school providers will still need to work hard to meet the needs of children in those areas, even as other parts of the city change.
Where it does occur, gentrification creates opportunities and poses serious challenges for both school districts and charter schools. The greatest opportunity, in my view, is to create racially and income-integrated schools in places that have been racially isolated. The greatest challenge is to do that in ways that will last—keeping the confidence and patronage of white, black, Asian, and Latinx parents.
Compulsory school assignment won’t work in neighborhoods where everyone has the option to leave—including low-income families, who can follow former inner-city residents to the suburbs. Cities can’t drive integration at a pace designed to meet some numerical-quotas vision of desegregation without considering how stable, integrated schools must grow and develop.
Schools must serve families that have different expectations, and develop instructional approaches that are challenging and produce college readiness for all without separating racially identifiable groups of students. As 70 years of hard experience with school desegregation demonstrates, this is not easy and is seldom done. It requires hard work and good will among all parties, including parents—who must be heard when it comes to their children’s needs but who must learn about what success in an integrated school requires.
Public school choice is a necessity, both for keeping gentrifying families in public education, and for maintaining stable integrated schools. Choice can—but doesn’t always—mean that schools can serve kids from diverse backgrounds but with common interests—in arts, community affairs, applied sciences, for example. For choice to maintain integration in newly gentrified areas, districts must give schools clear missions and the freedom of action to hire teachers and administrators, make distinctive uses of time and money, and engage parents. Charter schools now working in such areas must adapt their instructional approaches to attract middle-class students as well as disadvantaged students. New charter schools, designed from scratch to give all students high-order intellectual challenges and demonstrate the rewards to persistence, will be indispensable. Existing “no excuses” charter schools must also evolve to offer what higher-income families want: more inquiry, arts, social emotional learning, etc.
Will these things happen, or will the opportunity for integrated schooling fly by as parents flee racial tensions, making schools rapidly move from racially diverse student bodies to those including only white students or only students of color? It depends on:
- Whether school boards, states, and judges give integrated schools time to develop, or whether they succumb to pressure to jam groups of kids together whether or not the schools are prepared and likely to be stable.
- Whether newly integrated district schools will be able to keep the middle-class children they enroll, or whether middle-class families drift away to private and suburban schools. To my knowledge no one is analyzing the experience of D.C. and New York City traditional public schools as their student populations change.
- Whether charter schools can take advantage of their flexibility to develop new advanced and intellectually stimulating learning models for diverse student bodies.
- Whether states and philanthropies use gentrifying cities as places to learn from experience, rather than imposing solutions developed on legislative committees and foundation boardrooms.
Gentrification is a challenge to cities and schools, but it also presents a huge opportunity. All children in a city—but particularly children from low-income families and children of color now stuck in isolated, struggling schools—can gain a great deal of learning from new schools good enough to attract and keep newcomers, as well as established residents.
If we continue to focus only on adult divisions, kids will lose.
Future schools will need charter-like freedoms to fully take advantage of new ways to personalize learning to meet students’ interests and needs and provide meaningful experiences.