So I’m the kind of person that, when I say something controversial, tries to see all the responses from the other’s perspective. I really try to convince myself that I’m wrong and search for all possible methods to avoid conflict. If that doesn’t work, then I either reconsider or I realize that it’s okay to disagree.
That’s kind of how I feel about the whole independent school system idea. I received generous feedback from all points on the spectrum after my recent AJC opinion piece and after carefully weighing the ideas presented by some of the most passionate defenders of independent school systems, I have to say that I still think the idea is a terrible one.
One of Dunwoody’s arguments for an independent school system is that DeKalb County Schools is a “terrible” school district, citing the district’s average 65% graduation rate. Dunwoody High School, though, has a 77% graduate rate and it sends 70% of their graduates to college. Meanwhile, Cross Keys High School — also in DeKalb County Schools — has a graduation rate of 51%. This seems to suggest the students, the school, the families, the community — more than the district — affects graduation rate.
This often-cited argument does not hold up. The idea that perhaps the supporters would like more control of who attends their schools, however, seems more plausible. The most ardent defenders of independent school systems do not have integration of socioeconomic classes in mind. (I won’t even mention race — much — in this post.)
On September 23, Rose Scott and Dennis O’Hare of WABE’s “A Closer Look” interviewed Mayor Mike Davis of Dunwoody, the city leading the strongest push for independent school districts. His responses to many of the questions (listen to the twenty minute interview here) indicated that he and his city leaders are not doing anything to attract working class families.
When asked about affordable housing, he said it was an “interesting question” but Dunwoody is only attracting “high-tech, white collar companies” — which seemed like an attempt at politely stating that’s not really their thing. The only other thing he said about the city’s current “affordable housing” is that they “try to keep it as safe as the rest of the housing in Dunwoody.”
Why does this matter? It’s not inherently wrong for a city to cater to a wealthy demographic. (I think integration of different socioeconomic classes and races is ideal in a city, but this article isn’t about that.)
However, when a city’s stated goals are to continue the trajectory toward more wealth and more homogeneity, then it should become clear that independent school systems, in many cases (not all) will end up without many students from families with lower incomes.
And this should matter to all of us. One of the reasons that there is such a disparity of wealth in the U.S. is because people do not view the children of society as collectively their own kids. (The recent book by Robert D. Putnam called Our Kids speaks to this mentality and the devastating effect when people do not take some responsibility for other people’s kids.) Many people make decisions in what they perceive to be a vacuum, where only their children and their family is affected. Or, because people live together in like-minded clusters (as addressed in The Big Sort by Bill Bishop), the only kids from other families that they are exposed to and have influence on are in the same demographic (generally speaking — there are exceptions).
When kids from lower income homes are only influenced by other kids from lower income homes, their outcomes are on average much lower than kids who are exposed to kids from middle to upper incomes. There are many reasons for this, but some of these reasons include the ability for young people to experience positive peer pressure from people who are already successful, the ability for young people to be influenced by successful families, and the ability for students to benefit from the other amenities that go along with attending school or living among wealthier families (i.e. better parks, better schools, more food options, less crime, etc.).
This matters because if cities are the main groups pushing for independent school systems, yet those cities aren’t doing anything to promote diversity of socioeconomic status (SES), then one must logically conclude that many new city school systems would be quite homogeneous.
And because middle to upper income families often don’t want “poor” areas (like apartment complexes or subsidized housing) to be a part of the school attendance zone within a larger district, I don’t think many of these independent school districts will intentionally seek out these areas to be a part of their new systems either. I’m unsure how these independent districts plan to create diverse school systems — which are crucial for the success of lower SES students.
Yes, the school districts like DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett are all huge and are only projected to grow, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. However, unless the creation of new school districts require certain percentages of the new system to comprise a broad range of socioeconomic statuses, then I simply can’t support it.
People already segregate themselves when deciding where to live and at least at this point, the potential for kids from different SES to attend the same school is a real possibility. Creating independent school systems — if there is no mandate to include a certain percentage of high poverty areas — will result in an even more segregated and unequal school system here in Georgia.