The Bloomington Herald-Times had an excellent series of stories recently about Fairview Elementary School, a local school that struggles with a high poverty rate and low test scores. The series should raise some hard questions.
For example, why are public elementary schools so thoroughly segregated by class and income in this small college town? Can we do anything about it? Should we try?
To answer the third question with a question: Shouldn’t we at least talk about it? As Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation suggests in a 2012 article, America isn’t doing students any favors with its system of schools that are divided by social class.
The research is clear. Low-income students in middle-class schools are surrounded by: (1) peers who, on average, are more academically engaged and less likely to act out than those in high-poverty schools (2) a community of parents who are able to be more actively involved in school affairs and know how to hold school officials accountable; and (3) stronger teachers who have higher expectations for students.
Why are local schools divided by class? The usual answer is that we all want neighborhood schools, and there are rich and poor neighborhoods, so schools reflect this reality. But that’s only part of the story.
Sure, affordable housing tends to get clustered in areas where property is cheap. In Bloomington, there are areas where housing is expensive and areas where it is less so.
But our elementary schools for the most part aren’t what we think of as neighborhood schools, where kids walk to and from school and the buildings serve as centers for neighborhood activities. Most students ride buses to and from school or get dropped off and picked up by their parents. Elementary schools are neighborhood schools only in the sense that each serves an assortment of neighborhoods.
And the attendance area lines are drawn so that some schools serve mostly affluent neighborhoods and others mostly poor neighborhoods.
Fairview, where almost 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, has an attendance area that borders Binford, where fewer than 20 percent of students qualify. Binford and Childs (9 percent free and reduced) border Templeton (70 percent free and reduced). Does that make sense?
Certainly no one ever sat down and said, “Let’s create a school system where schools are divided by social class.” Rather, a series of small decisions, often involving school boards trying to accommodate what vocal parents and homeowners wanted, led to the situation.
The late Indiana University education professor Ellen Brantlinger told part of the story in her 2003 book “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.” She recounted how, when the school in her IU faculty neighborhood closed, parents insisted on moving their children to another middle-class school rather than a nearby elementary attended by lots of poor kids:
These supposedly liberal parents vociferously opposed any suggestion of desegregating schools along class lines. Yet, a few years earlier, many of these same people had condemned the resistance of whites to racial segregation. Of course, they had watched racial desegregation from a safe distance because fewer than 5 percent of (Bloomington’s) population were African American.
Fairview has the largest concentration of minority students (not including Asians and Asian-Americans) in Bloomington, by the way. One in three are black, Hispanic or multiracial.
This sort of class separation probably happens everywhere, but the divisions seem especially pronounced here. The chart below compares students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch at schools in four Indiana cities, all about the same size. The line for Bloomington slopes sharply, from 90 percent (Fairview) to 9 percent (Childs). Lines for Columbus, Terre Haute and Lafayette are considerably flatter. (Lafayette would look more like Bloomington if it were combined with West Lafayette, which has a separate, low-poverty school district).
Could we change this? Of course. School districts including Wake County, N.C., and Jefferson County, Ky., have adopted student-assignment policies aimed at avoiding the concentration of poor children in certain schools. Kahlenberg advocates “controlled choice,” in which parents could choose their children’s schools, subject to guardrails that ensure socioeconomic balance.
In Bloomington, you could make a difference by changing the destination of a few bus routes. (The school board could phase in new districts to cause less disruption). You wouldn’t get to a perfect balance but, with 42 percent of local elementary students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, a reasonable goal might be no more than 60 percent in any school. At the same time, city officials could work with the schools as they make policies that influence where future housing is built. As the Century Foundation argues, “Housing policy is school policy.”
Should we change this? That’s a tougher call.
Redistricting is the third rail of school board politics. Nothing upsets parents like the prospect of their kids being moved to a different school. And nothing alarms homeowners like the possibility of finding themselves in a “bad” school zone. Some local parents remain deeply hurt and angry over redistricting that took place nearly a decade ago.
Local school officials will be asking voters in two years to approve a property-tax referendum to keep schools funded at current levels – so they won’t want to do anything to anger their constituents. And, unlike in the past, unhappy parents can now flee to charter schools or voucher-supported private schools, taking their state tax dollars with them and leaving the public school district poorer.
Also, hopes are high that Fairview will succeed despite its challenges. There’s a new principal, some new staff and an intensified focus on raising student achievement. Other high-poverty schools — Murdock, Miller and Miami elementary schools in Lafayette, for example – have shown poor children to can perform as well as middle-class kids. Nothing would make me happier than to see Fairview do the same.
On the other hand, the research showing that students do better in socioeconomically integrated schools is hard to ignore. An honest, no-holds-barred conversation about the role of social class in our local schools doesn’t seem like too much to expect from the education officials who represent us.
Disclosure: My three children attended Fairview. The youngest advanced to middle school 13 years ago, and most of the Fairview teachers and administrators I knew have retired or moved on. But I still feel a tremendous loyalty to and affection for the school. Anything I write about it is likely to be biased on account of those emotions.