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!
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?
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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