We know the narrative on white flight: Coasting on federal perks like home loans from the Veterans Administration, G.I. bill grants, and heavy subsidization for highways, white families fled northern industrial cities like gangbusters in the 1960s. Whether this was because of financial incentives, or because they were running from court-sanctioned desegregation, the outcome was abandoned communities with devastated city tax bases.
The highest costs of white flight, however, were born by the children left behind in even more segregated, and now almost entirely poor neighborhood schools. Decades of research shows that this resulting racial and economic isolation created toxic, severely under-resourced learning environments for black and brown students, from Detroit to Philadelphia to New York City.
That white and middle-class outflow has reversed, though, in recent years in locales across the country, with many residents returning to the cities their parents had left behind. Gentrification has led to much hand-wringing among policy makers, hipsters, and long-time urban residents who whipsaw between fears of displacement and the desire for neighborhood improvements that gentrification promises. It’s not always clear who wins and loses when communities gentrify.
It would seem that white residents moving into segregated black and brown neighborhoods can only be positive for local schools, though, right? Those wealthier families’ tax dollars must be, at least, invested in neighborhood schools. And when those families send their children to these schools, it has to improve the school services, which are then shared with their new neighbors, no?
Except, they aren’t.
For those living outside of these neighborhoods, this might be gentrification’s dirtiest little secret. For those of us who live in gentrifying neighborhoods, it’s not a secret at all.
“There are many ways to opt out of the neighborhood schools and gentrification has a limited effect on public schools,” said Mincere Keels, a University of Chicago professor who focuses on race and inequality.
“Many of the policies of urban education are focused around bringing upper-income families back into the public school system based on the assumptions that they will come into these neighborhoods and invest in the neighborhood schools and revitalize both the neighborhoods and schools,” she said. “But families that move into neighborhoods that are low-income often opt out of the neighborhood schools and these higher income families take their individual household resources with them and contribute them to” other schools.
Keels, along with researchers from Brown and Cornell universities, published a study in 2013 that looked at whether schools in gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods saw benefits, including improved academics and more economic diversity. They did not.
“These schools remain uninfluenced by gentrifying families,” the study concluded.
Gentrification, it turns out, usually stops at the schoolhouse door.
The researchers found that middle class residents who chose to move into low-income, segregated areas either did not have kids, sent their children to private schools, or utilized public schools “choice” policies that allowed students to attend wealthier, whiter schools outside of the neighborhood.
In fact, “school choice” is often a hallmark of cities looking to entice white and middle-class residents. City officials strike a Faustian bargain with gentrifying parents that if they agree to buy into lower-income, segregated neighborhoods they need not send their children to the same under-resourced and struggling schools as their neighbors. Instead, Keels said, city officials set up elite, un-zoned public schools — often with strict admissions criteria –that educate the children of gentrified.
[Editor’s note: Comedian Wyatt Cenac made these same points about his experience living in Brooklyn in an interview with Grist last November.]
These practices, rather than improve the educational outcomes for neighborhood children, tend to concentrate “higher status children in select public schools that only replicate larger inequalities” and “can create a paradoxical situation in which new public educational resources and opportunities go to those who are least in need.”
It’s a phenomenon born out in proudly progressive cities from Portland, Ore., to New York.
Portland, considered the whitest major city in the country, has been undergoing some of the swiftest and most extensive gentrification in the country. Within a span of 10 years, nearly every neighborhood in the inner North/Northeast sector of the city where the black community had been forced to live flipped to majority white. Even though its black population has always been tiny — today black residents are about 6 percent of Portland’s population — that part of town housed all black elementary and high schools. Those schools, schools such as Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary and Jefferson High, are almost entirely black and Latino even as the neighborhoods around them have turned white.
In New York City, the historic black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of the most rapidly gentrifying. Between 2000 and 2010, Bedford-Stuyvesant’s white population shot from 2.4 percent to 15 percent, while the black population dropped from 75 percent to 60 percent. Yet its public schools have been impervious to gentrification. They remain largely poor and segregated.
But probably the most distressing aspect of gentrification is that it may not only fail to help neighborhood schools and children — it often hurts them.
Individual schools receive funding based on the number of students enrolled in what is called per-pupil funding. When lower-income families are displaced by gentrifiers who either do not have children or do not send their children to the neighborhood schools, enrollment in the local schools drops, as does the school funding. A 2002 study followed this decline in three Chicago neighborhoods, where schools had to layoff teachers and cut programs.
“Dollars will follow the children whose parents opt out of the neighborhood schools and that means the students who remain get less,” said Keels.
A 2005 report by Catalyst Chicago found that gentrification in three Chicago neighborhoods led to declining local school enrollment, followed by a drop in funding, which then led those schools to layoff teachers and cut programs.
Further, districts funnel inordinate resources into Cadillac programs, such as magnets and other “choice” schools, in order to entice middle-class parents. But school districts have finite resources, so to provide elite opportunities at some schools, other schools — those that have the greatest need — get less.
When gentrifying parents do choose to send their children to neighborhood schools, it often results in a takeover where the school flips to white and middle-class and most of the black, brown, and poor children are pushed out, other researchers found. A University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher studied a high-performing black elementary school that began to draw white parents from gentrifying neighborhood in northern California. Within a decade, the school turned from nearly 80 percent black to 20 percent.
Several studies through the years found that because urban districts prize more affluent and white parents, when they choose their neighborhoods schools, districts allow them disproportionate influence over school policy and often bestow academic advantages on their children.
“Increasing the fraction of middle-income families may increase the school’s aggregate cultural, economic and social capital, but at the student level, within-school inequality may be exacerbated,” the Chicago study found.
Still, some have argued that even if gentrifiers don’t enroll their own children in neighborhood schools, their living in the neighborhood still brings indirect benefits because those families will invest in the neighborhood schools and other public neighborhood institutions.
Unfortunately, this is also seldom true. Since schools act as community hubs, when parents opt out, they do not typically put their energy into supporting neighborhood schools where their children to do not attend, Keels said.
So what, then, can be done? Keels said instead of funneling resources to elite choice schools, districts should bolster neighborhood schools and market them as heavily as they do other schools. But more importantly, districts need to adopt policies that break up the high concentrations of poverty that plague many schools and disperse disadvantage more evenly across schools.
And this is where gentrifiers can have a positive impact. Instead of simply securing advantages for their own children, they can advocate for and support district efforts to adopt policies that ensure all students are getting the same opportunities.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is an award-winning reporter for ProPublica. Her investigative report “Segregation Now” was nominated for a 2015 National Magazine Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors in the Public Interest category. You can read more about the impacts of continued segregation in America from Hannah-Jones and her colleagues in the Facebook group Segregation Now: A Conversation on Race in America Today. Read more of Hannah-Jones reporting on race at ProPublica here.