According to recent research by Weissbourd and Torres out of Harvard, "white, affluent parents value school quality more than integration and view integrated schools as 'educationally inferior.'" These researchers further found that school quality itself was evidenced by these same parents in the extent to which children of white, affluent parents send their children to a particular school.
"The survey findings – namely, the hesitancy or refusal of white, middle- and upper-class parents to actively choose integrated schools even when they say they value them – speak to why so few school districts have successfully tackled integration and expose the biggest sticking point in the dozens of schools districts currently trying to tackle the issue: the intransigence among many white families."
The short of it is that school integration is a great idea in the abstract, but not an attractive proposition where the rubber meets the road of actually enrolling one's child in a racially and ethnically diverse school.
A deeper analysis of the underlying governing dynamics would take a look at Cheryl Harris' notion of "whiteness as property (Harris, 1993, 2003)."
Harris, C. I. (2003). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8).Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard law review, 1707-1791.
The vast majority of parents – regardless of political affiliation, race, class and where they live – strongly favor schools that are racially and economically integrated. But when it comes time to enroll their children, white, affluent parents who actually have a choice often choose schools based on the number of white, affluent students enrolled.
[ READ: Report: School Borders Remain Divisive ]
"Despite parents' espoused support for integration, in districts where parents are actually given greater opportunities to choose schools, schools appear to become more segregated," Harvard University researchers concluded in a searing new report that strikes at the heart of the contentious integration and school boundary debates roiling school districts across the country.
Researchers at Making Caring Common, a center housed at Harvard that focuses on the moral and social development of children, conducted a survey of more than 2,600 parents, individual interviews and focus groups to explore whether and how much parents value school integration and other factors that shape their thinking about sending their children to integrated schools.
The majority of the people who participated, 73%, identified as white and most of them were also middle- and upper-class. The majority, 60%, also had a child enrolled in a traditional public school in their district, while 21% had a child enrolled in a secular private school, 7% in a religious private school and 6% in a public charter school.
The researchers' findings confirmed well-established research: Most parents agree that, all things being equal, racial and economic integration is important, and they say that they would prefer that their children attend schools that are "substantially integrated both racially and economically."
That preference holds, they discovered, for both men and women, Democrats and Republicans, and people of all races and levels of education and income levels.
"I did not expect the level of in-principle support for integration," says Richard Weissbourd, director of Making Caring Common and co-author of the report. "I knew from other research that we cite that parents tended to support integration. But, you know, they tend to support it across the political spectrum and they tend to support it at high levels. I was not expecting that."
According to survey results, 81% agreed that it was important for students of different races to go to school together and 63% said that low-income and high-income kids going to school together was important.
When asked specifically about sending their children to schools with differing levels of socioeconomic diversity – a school where 10% of students are poor, for example, or a school where 90% of students are poor – most parents said they'd be most comfortable with a school that is comprised of 50% low-income and 50% more affluent students and for schools that served an equal numbers of white students and students of color.
Yet, when it came time for parents to enroll their children in school, competing priorities – things like a school's academic profile, it's safety record and location – tended to outrank integration as a priority.
"Very few people rank it high," Weissbourd says. "In a way, the support is broader than I thought and also less deep than I thought."
When asked to select the top three features of a school that were most important to their decision about where to send their children, parents overwhelmingly chose academic quality and school safety as the top two most important features, with 81% picking academic quality and 70% picking safety. Meanwhile, just under 10% picked racial and economic diversity in their top three."In some ideal sense, the great majority of parents do want to send their kids to integrated schools," says Eric Torres, a doctoral student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and co-author of the report. "But when parents are faced with choices that they feel pit these priorities, they tend to choose the things that they believe are most important for the success of their own children."
Some of the resistance to integrated schools relayed to the researchers from white, affluent parents focused on whether students in schools that serve large numbers of poor students might come to school hungry or from a traumatic home life – introducing into their classrooms problems that could overwhelm teachers. Other times, white, affluent parents said they were simply constrained by their district's complicated school assignment and choice policies, which, for example, may not allow them to send their children to a school that they both think is a good fit for their child and that is substantially integrated.
However, the most common reason researchers heard from white, affluent parents about why they tend to pick whiter and more affluent schools is because they value school quality more than integration and view integrated schools as "educationally inferior." In fact, many white, advantaged parents, the researchers found, appeared to determine school quality by how many other white, advantaged parents send their child to a school.
"Simply the presence of substantial numbers of black children in a residential area appears to affect white parents' assessment of school quality," Weissbourd and Torres wrote in the report.
"Making matters worse, because white, advantaged parents may use the number of white, advantaged parents at a school as a measure of its quality and avoid schools with large numbers of children of color, their choices become self-fulfilling," they wrote. "These parents add to the number of white, advantaged parents at these schools, which simply attracts more white, advantaged parents (and on and on)."
White, affluent parents also expressed concern that their children might be a minority in a school, the survey showed.
"Many white parents favoring integration don't seem to think twice about expecting black and Latinx parents to send their children to schools where they are the minority, but they don't have that expectation of themselves," they wrote.
The survey findings – namely, the hesitancy or refusal of white, middle- and upper-class parents to actively choose integrated schools even when they say they value them – speak to why so few school districts have successfully tackled integration and expose the biggest sticking point in the dozens of schools districts currently trying to tackle the issue: the intransigence among many white families.
Those debates are playing out in real-time in communities big and small all across the U.S.: in places like New York City, where students are walking out of classrooms to protest the segregated nature of their schools; in places like Howard County and Montgomery County in Maryland, where parents erupt in heated town hall meetings about proposed changes to school boundaries; in places like Fairfax County in Virginia, where even the suggestion by school board members to study its boundaries caused panic.
So what can be done?
For starters, Weissbourd and Torres urge parents to stop relying so heavily on academic ratings, school report cards and levels of proficiency posted to school websites. Metrics like average test scores aren't helpful when attempting to gauge quality, they underscore. White, affluent parents especially need to step outside their social circles, which keep them insulated in information bubbles rampant with bias and rumors.
"Those perceptions aren't really based on much," Weissbourd says. "They're often developed in a bubble, among a small circle of friends. And if you're a white advantaged parent, you're probably only talking to white advantaged parents. Rumors spread and we live in a country where we have our biases."
Instead, they say, parents need to physically go to their available schools to evaluate for themselves if they are a good fit – talk to teachers, principals and other parents whose children are enrolled there. School districts and schools themselves must play their part, too, by marketing themselves better, showcasing to parents the things they do best.
"It's unlikely in any wide scale way we would get parents to shift this hierarchy of priorities," Torres says. "But what we can do is remove perceptual and real barriers. In part it's just a matter of encouraging people to go and check out these schools and see that they are of adequate quality for their children."