Recently, I’ve been listening to online dialogues of public school parents in our district related to the “accelerated algebra in middle school”/tracking debate, as well as conversations about the need to attract middle/class families.

I wanted to share them with a wider audience in the hope of expanding the conversation, which at times feels a bit one-sided. This is one of several that I’ll be sharing over the coming week/s.

A few days ago, a fellow parent wrote this email and shared it via the Parents for Public Listserve (PPS-SF). It generated quite a bit of constructive dialogue about the “value” of our middle class families in public school. Emily Grimm is a SFUSD parent, high school drop-out, college graduate, professional M in the STEM, armchair-math-teacher, and back-seat-driver. With her permission… I’m sharing her piece below:


Measuring the “Value” of Affluent Families in Urban Public Schools

By Emily Grimm

Too much emphasis is placed on the needs of families who have the ability to choose between private and public education.  SFUSD’s mission is to create great public education, not attract would be private school families.  Luckily many policies can further both, but only the first should be our goal.  If all SFUSD schools were high quality then a happy by-product would be increased public enrollment and slower growth of private schools. Private school enrollment can be useful data, but it can also be a disastrous metric.  Competition with private schools is a distracting and misguided goal.

Families who don’t have a choice are committed to SFUSD and have the most to lose.  When priorities are competing, it is irresponsible to place the needs of a minority of students who are marginally attached to public education above the mission of providing a high quality education to all students.

Some parents bring up their ability to opt out of public schools as if it is a credential that gives more weight to one’s point of view.  There is an assumption that these folks should be SFUSD’s target audience, and that affluent families are more valuable to SFUSD than everyone else.  That’s wrong on so many levels, but especially harmful when the threat of “going private” is used to perpetuate isolation and inequity.

To be clear, some affluent families believe they are more important to our schools than other families.  It’s an honest belief, and it’s held with a generous spirit.  Some say that they donate more money or more time. Others say that SFUSD can’t survive politically without affluent advocates in our schools.  While these are all true, the effect magnitude is over stated.  Recently, 75% of SF voters reauthorized PEEF demonstrating that even people without kids or without kids in SFUSD support public education and services for kids.  Under the new funding formulas, affluent students that are non-ELL without special needs bring in less money from the state.  Private donations are often not well matched to student body needs.  PTA-PTO-PTSA’s do wonderful work but some needs are harder to fundraise for than others.  For example, some parent organizations have decided to fund academic interventions for individual struggling students while others are uncomfortable funding projects that do not benefit all students equally.

There is a general assumption that wealthy families improve a school just by being there to provide the upper end of socio-economic diversity.  Their presence provides beneficial “exposure” to poor kids.  The problem is that affluent families attend schools with other affluent families, and that concentration brings unintended consequences.  It can literally cost more to attend an affluent school.  Over all, about 60% of SFUSD kids qualify for free and reduced lunch, and many programs target schools with more than 50%.  At our school, about 30% of 530 kids qualify.  After school programs can cost more or not provide free after school snacks.  Wealthy schools are unlikely to ever provide free morning snacks.  On the whole, our school is wealthy, but our 170 individual kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch won’t benefit from programs targeting lower-income students.  Relying on parent fundraising to fill in gaps is unsustainable and increases inequity both within schools and between schools.  Realistically, a minority of low-income students’ priorities are not going to be the focus of parent group fundraising and activities.  At our school, all families were given the opportunity to have their names listed as donors in a school mailing.  Our elementary students have the opportunity to pay $20 for yearbooks (coincidentally, nearly the same percentage of students don’t buy yearbooks as do qualify for free and reduced lunch).  I question if some “exposures” are beneficial.

Broadly, I believe:

  • No student is more important than another.
  • Segregation and isolation harms everyone.
  • Segregation cannot be the answer to “white flight.”
  • If private schools are a threat to public education, the answer cannot be privatizing public schools.
  • If you build it, they will come.

I’d like to add… So, go on, and grab a brick!

Value-of-affluent-families

What do you think? What efforts should public schools be making to attract/retain our affluent and middle class families? What are the benefits or disadvantages of prioritizing such a strategy? Tell me what you think?

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. Other parents:

    If you’re a parent in SFUSD, I suggest you learn as much as you can about Critical Pedagogy, Paolo Freire and “Social Justice in Education.” These are important drivers for Alison Collins and other education “reformers.” Indeed, in another post, Alison writes: “[i]t is because of … amazing writers like bell hooks and Paolo Freire that I am an educator today.”

    Sadly, these approaches to schooling have failed for the last 30 years. Even worse, they fail *most* the very students from disadvantaged backgrounds that Alison and other SFUSD talking heads claim to be trying to help.

    If Alison was more broadminded she’d recognize the failure of this “critical” worldview to help the oppressed and adopt the approaches that have been successful. Too bad she is likely too indoctrinated to believe that there can be success for the disadvantaged and traditionally underserved without reverting to further identity politics. Ditto for many other “educators” in SFUSD.

    Just ran across this blog and thought I should pass on the info.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry, but if you’re going to pick a fight, you’ll have to be specific: For which specific education “reform” (from the past 30 years) did Paolo Freire or bell hooks advocate? Are you talking about NCLB? … NOPE. Tracking? … Uh uh … Charter schools? … mmm, no.

      And… our schools are doing WORSE than 30 years ago? For whom? White middle-class students? English Language Learners? Students receiving special education services? … Girls? Funding has definitely gone down in CA over the past 30 years. That said, I am very glad we’ve moved away from the days of schools with “special education students in the bungalows” and remediation classes for black and brown kids.

      Reply
  2. I find the tone of the letter to be incredibly petty and offensive. The district holds diversity up to be a fundamental guiding principle and yet the author of this letter basically comes out and says that one minority group doesn’t have “value”, that their voice should not be listened to, their needs should not be met, and their participation is at best tolerated and certainly not something to be sought out.

    Diatribes like this do nothing to advance any reasonable goal and just creates antagonism and alienation amongst stake holders in the public school system.

    Reply
    • I don’t understand why you feed offended. No one says affluent families needs shouldn’t be listened to. Emily is questioning the assumption that many parents seem to make when they imply that the needs of affluent families should take precedence over the needs of underserved kids. Whether you acknowledge it or not, our schooling system is still heavily weighted in favor of middle income and upper income kids who have parents who have the time, language (e.g. speak English) and capacity, to advocate for their children’s needs. I’m all for parents advocating for their kids, whatever their income level. Unfortunately, some affluent families advocate for their kids AT THE EXPENSE of other kids needs.

      Reply
  3. I challenge you to cite any written source where somebody is saying the needs of affluent families should take precedent over the needs of underserved children. It’s a classic stawman argument. The whole post is inventing an antagonist that I frankly don’t believe exists. By all means work to improve outcomes for low income children, but you don’t need to invent villians to do so.

    Reply
  4. San Francisco spends less than districts with over 8 times the per pupil tax revenue we get, including Manteca, Pleasanton, etc. The fact so many go to private school leads voters to vote for the state funding minimum. We don’t vote for general fund money to go into schools to pay for tutoring for the poor. We vote for the minimum and spend more per homeless person, who add nothing to our City and cause damage, than per child, who could be quite successful. We spend on police to imprison people for victimless crimes.

    The fact so many don’t have kids or have kids in private school means that we vote for no general fund money to go into our schools. Manteca is poor yet spends more per pupil, and Baltimore spends more than double per pupil. If we gave every poor child a tutor we could make a difference.

    Reply
    • Why should anyone support SFUSD, when its leadership has explicitly stated that they don’t give a darn about the kids of the top 80% of income earners? They are Communists who believe it is their mission to provide fake education to the 80%, while providing triple per-pupil spending on the bottom 20%. Totally inequitable practices by SFUSD and predictable response from SF’s residents.

      Reply
  5. Emily apparently defines “wealthy” as those making over $60,000/year with $10,000 in the bank. That is the status our family finds itself, but if SFUSD keeps its anti-academic stance by outlawing differentiation or studying above grade level, then we most certainly will budget to spend over 50% of our income towards private school tuition for our two kids. Hopefully enough SF residents will learn the true motivations of Supervisor Carranza and the BoE before our kids reach 3rd grade, when academic mediocrity is unacceptable for intellectually gifted and hard-working students.

    Reply

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Life-long Learning, Social Emotional, Social Justice Parenting

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