A reader writes:
I find it interesting how many people on all ends of the political spectrum insist that BenOp requires heading to the hills, when there are examples of other versions everywhere. And not just orthodox Christian ones. There are secular BenOps all over the place. (So… SecOps?) Seriously. What else would you call what’s happening with education in New York City?
A look at the history of District 3, which stretches along the West Side of Manhattan from 59th to 122nd Street, shows how administrators’ decisions, combined with the choices of parents and the forces of gentrification, have shaped the current state of its schools, which, in one of the most politically liberal parts of a liberal city, remain sharply divided by race and income, and just as sharply divergent in their levels of academic achievement.
In 1984, two years before Ms. Shneyer started kindergarten, less than 8 percent of the district’s 12,321 elementary and middle school students were white. Not a single school was majority white, and the only school where white students made up the biggest group was P.S. 87 on West 78th Street. At the time, many white parents would not even consider their zoned schools. James Mazza, who served as deputy superintendent, and then superintendent of the district, from 1988 to 1997, recalled in an interview that parents would sometimes come into his office carrying a newspaper with the test scores of every school in the district and explain that they didn’t want to go to their zoned school because of its place on the list. Though scores are often used as a shorthand for quality, they correlate closely with the socioeconomic level of the children in a school.
“We tried to encourage people to make the decision about what school to attend based on more information than test-score results,” Mr. Mazza said, adding that that was often difficult. So the district pursued another strategy for attracting white, middle-class families: adding gifted classrooms, dual-language programs and schools that were open to all students from around the district.
Thanks to these options, more white families began sending their children to District 3 elementary and middle schools. Today, over a third of the roughly 14,000 elementary and middle school students in District 3 are white. But they are unevenly distributed. All but one of the zoned elementary schools below West 90th Street are now majority white. But because white parents elsewhere in the district take advantage of alternatives to their zoned schools, elementary schools in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, like Manhattan Valley and Morningside Heights, remain largely black and Hispanic, and poor. Their test scores trail those of the district’s mostly white schools, and as the neighborhoods gentrify, their enrollment is declining.
(Back to the reader’s comments):
Upper class liberals are segregating themselves from minorities just as completely as white southern conservatives did in the era of school desegregation. These people have the opportunity to send their kids to school with blacks and latinos, but don’t. In fact, they spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to avoid doing just that. Of course, others take another path and just move to the exurbs. Still others go full monasticism for their kids and send them off prep schools in the mountains.
Why? They will tell you it’s for “academic excellence.” But really that’s just a code for “those other people don’t value what I value.” Which of course is exactly what the white Christian southerners said, right?
The key to all of this, I think, is that the BenOp is way easier when you either don’t know or don’t admit what you are really doing. A lot of potential BenOp fellow travelers really don’t want to confront or otherwise sandbag their existing parishes. They don’t want to admit that what they are doing is not working. So for those who have to ADMIT it, it’s really hard.
Look at the rich liberals. Look at the links. See them squirm and object when it’s pointed out what is really happening. NO! THIS IS NOT A REJECTION OF MINORITIES! We LOVE minorities! Look at my music collection! I went to Harvard with an Iranian guy, and there are like three Indian guys in my orthopedic practice! Diversity!
Maybe they don’t reject their neighborhood minorities because of their skin color. That would be declasse. No. We just… really care about STEM classes! Or… we really care about the arts! Of course, this is saying that people living in their neighborhoods DON’T care about STEM and the arts. Or don’t care as much. And, you know, those families just so happen to be black and latino.
Fact is, those black and latino families are way more likely to be led by single mothers. They are more likely to religious. They are more likely to engage in super gauche activities like smoking and smacking their kids to punish them. The SecOp families know that it takes a village. It takes a culture. It takes a forceful rejection of the liquid modernity of their neighborhoods. So they build their own institutions and build walls around them and keep the smokers and kid smackers out, so Bryson can concentrate on getting into Princeton without, you know, those people. And those Indian guys from the orthopedic practice send their kids to the private school, too, so … diversity!
We know BenOp does not require heading to the hills because the Dalton School is totally BenOp for secularists. And it’s not in the hills.
Amen. Oh, the lies people tell themselves to conceal from themselves and their friends what they’re doing and why.
Look, I don’t fault any parent of any racial, religious, or socioeconomic background for trying to get the best educational situation they can for their kids. I don’t blame anyone for wanting their kids to be in a school that’s safe, orderly, and focused on learning, and where the students, their parents, and their teachers share the same values. This is normal human behavior. But come on, let’s not be hypocrites about it, okay?
UPDATE: Lots of good comments below. I especially like this one from reader Fran (not “Fran Macadam,” to be clear):
So I’m a left-leaning moderate who has always had a sort of romantic populist bent (I’m a bit ridiculous). I grew up in an upper-middle class family and was educated in good public schools. When it was time for my oldest son to start school, I assumed we would send him to public school. The schools in our city aren’t great, but they’re good enough. My son is very bright, and it was a safe bet he would be put in the gifted program.
My husband comes from a working class family. His parents left the mills to move to the city, where presumably their children would have better opportunities. He, too, was educated in public schools and (unlike me) was an exceptionally bright student. In sixth grade, he got an F on a piece of writing because his teacher assumed he’d plagiarized it (he hadn’t, but his working class parents would never question a teacher; the teacher was the boss). In high school he had a science teacher he feels fairly sure was functionally illiterate.
So my husband had very different ideas than I about teachers, the efficacy of public education, and where my son should go to school. We put in an application to an elite private school, where my son was accepted and will be graduating from later this month.
Was my husband’s goal to keep my son apart from the black and latino kids in the public school system? I don’t think so. Mostly I think he wanted my son to have the sort of schooling he wished he’d had. This is not uncommon among my friends who grew up working class, by the way, conservative or liberal. I have another friend who grew up working class and was put in remedial classes for years, until she was caught reading “Crime and Punishment” in 7th grade. Like my husband, she doesn’t have fond memories of her public school years and also sent her son to private school.
I do feel some shame about separating my kids from black and Latino kids. It does feel racist to me. There are of course black and Latino students at our school,for the most part from professional families. Those who come from poorer neighborhoods have parents like my in-laws, who are making sacrifices to get their kids to a better place. These are the kids we point to when we want to feel okay about sending our kids to private school, but it has to be noted these are students who come from the same sort of households (regardless of income) as ours: orderly, functioning, goal-oriented, etc.
I also feel guilty because public schools need as much parental involvement as they can get, and a lot of them don’t get much. I’ve seen some that do, though, and it makes a huge difference. I travel to elementary and middle schools as part of my work, and there are some pretty poor/rural schools that do amazing things because the parents step up and make amazing things happen. I could have been one of those parents in the public school here.
My husband, on the other hand, is fond of saying that he will not sacrifice his children on the altar of public education.
How much guilt does my husband feel? Zero. He works hard. I work hard. Our kids are getting amazing educations. It’s the American dream, right? His parents didn’t go to college; he did, and his kids are going to the best private school in the state, and come August my son is going to one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country.
So yeah, I feel liberal guilt, but I also know that we’ve given our children a gift. I wish my in-laws were still alive to watch their grandson cross the stage in three weeks, take his diploma, and walk into a life they could only dream of and worked hard to make happen.