Friday Freakout: Responding to “Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools”

“You don’t want to make the same choice I made. That must make you (fill in the blank).”

In an atmosphere where statements like that are the dominant rhetoric, it’s hard to have a real, productive conversation about educational choices. In today’s freakout, we endeavor to nonetheless.

Last month, Atlanta-area teacher and mom Abby Norman published an essay titled “Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools.” More recently, Norman gave an interview that delved deeper into her arguments.

In the original article, Norman quickly jumped from singing the praises of her family’s neighborhood public school to labeling her neighbors for choosing other school options. When asked how she knows her neighbors don’t choose the local school because it’s “too black,” Norman admitted she doesn’t know that for sure. She said she just assumes her neighbors’ concerns about school safety are “coded language” for race. Finally, she goes on to blame school choice and funding issues for her school’s “F” rating, about which she believes other parents shouldn’t worry when choosing schools because she doesn’t. Something easier said with the safety net of her skills and education as a teacher than can be done for most other parents.

We’ve tackled some of Norman’s arguments in previous posts, including school choice funding myths, the idea that the public schools of students with tough home lives cannot be successful without more money, and the reasons parents actually choose private schools. So let’s set those issues aside and assume, for argument’s sake, that Norman is right in her assessment of her neighbors.

If it is true that those white parents are self-segregating because they’re afraid of having too many children of color around their kids, what is the best solution to that problem? How can we systematically discourage self-segregation, ultimately increasing integration in all schools? Here are three options:

1. Apply social pressure.

This is the tactic Norman employed in her original article, and it’s one many have tried. The logic goes: If we can make people feel bad enough about their choices, they’ll choose something else—at most, because they are reformed and at least, to save face.

It works some of the time for some people, and it might work very well for particular issues. But social pressure alone doesn’t work when it comes to education, where parents are making a choice that affects a precious part of their life—their child. The bottom line is that parents will do what they think is best for their children and their children’s futures because that is simply more important than earning the social approval of John Doe or Susie Q.


2. Force ZIP Code assignment so schools will look like neighborhoods.

Another option is to take away all educational choices, including charter schools, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, and simply force every child to attend a neighborhood school in their ZIP Code-assigned area. After all, research shows that neighborhoods are integrating, so a public school-only system would, therefore, better integrate schools, right?

Not exactly.

Our recent study, The Integration Anomaly, shows that during the era of forced integration, parents who could afford to move (read: affluent white parents like the ones in Norman’s neighborhood) simply picked up and went to the suburbs, where home prices were at a premium. At the same time, locking lower-income black families into ZIP Code-assigned schools kept them concentrated together, often into schools that didn’t fit their children’s needs.

Those struggles should sound familiar because many states without school choice options continue to experience such school-driven family flight to this day. Historically, we know restricting peoples’ freedom to choose only breeds resentment, feelings of injustice, and, in the case of education especially, cries for reform.


3. Create a universal system of educational choice.

The final option for systematically preventing white parents from self-segregating, as Norman argues they’re already doing, is more expansive school choice. That means all public education funding follows children to the schools or other learning environments their parents choose for them. No more locking kids in or out of schools of any sector. If Norman’s school truly is a destination school for parents who share her values, school choice will allow them to flock there. (Remember, we’re operating within a hypothetical for this post, but in reality, many more families desire the same cultural diversity Norman wants for her children than she gives credit.)

More to Norman’s original point, this strategy would prevent most white families who want to self-segregate from doing so. How? By giving families of color, who might feel stuck in certain schools because of our current system, the freedom and the means to access the same educational options to which white families would have fled, whether that’s in private schools or wealthy suburban public schools.

Will this solution be a perfect magic bullet? Of course not. Nothing is. But this system is more likely to minimize segregation on a wide scale than the other two strategies above, and evidence supports it. Seven of the eight empirical studies that examine the effects of school choice programs on segregation find the programs indeed improve integration in schools.

From Norman’s post and interview, it’s clear she’s taken flak from other parents in her neighborhood who happen to disagree with her choice of schools. Parenting in an era where everybody has an opinion and isn’t afraid to state it can be tough. But that doesn’t justify her claims. If the families she accuses have chosen to raise children in a culturally diverse area, it likely follows that they also value diversity in the classroom. The truth is the reasons families make the educational choices they do are probably much more complex than Norman is willing to admit.