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Opinion: Where have all the White kids gone?

White public school population has declined for decades.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

An entrenched, two-tier educational caste system has evolved in the Philadelphia region in which Whites increasingly go to private schools or well-resourced suburban public schools, and the city’s underfunded public schools serve a predominantly nonwhite, poor population.

This is a large part of what school segregation means today in Philadelphia and other cities around the country. In spite of years of legal efforts to desegregate education, the school experience for children today remains separate and unequal.

As of the 2003-04 school year, fewer than 15 percent of the students in the Philadelphia public schools were White, a decline that has continued unabated since the 1960s.

During this same period, the White population of the city has also continually dropped, with Whites losing their majority status in the last census. However, the drop in White public school enrollment is much more drastic. Whites make up 42 percent of the city’s population.

In some part this is because the city’s White population is aging, causing a lower percentage of school-age children relative to nonwhites.

More fundamentally, the low numbers of Whites in public education reflect the growing rejection of public schools by the majority of Philadelphia’s White families with school-age children. As of 2000, over half of White children as opposed to roughly 1 of 10 African American children were enrolled in private schools (see chart below).

While it is not easy to document, it seems clear that race is a major factor in the decisions that Whites make about their children’s education. The decline of the city’s public schools is frequently cited as a key reason for White and middle-class flight from the city to the suburbs and for the failure of the city to attract or retain new middle-class residents. What is less acknowledged is that this decline has coincided with the ebbing of White political support for the city’s public schools, rise in support for vouchers, and resistance to efforts to desegregate the schools.

Whites, depending on their economic status, can exercise a number of options. Some Whites leave the city altogether to take advantage of better schools in the suburbs (in the 1990s, the city lost 181,444 Whites). Many institutional forces contribute to White flight. The real estate industry, for example, promotes the idea that the suburbs have a near-monopoly on good education.

Others, frequently those who lack the means to move, turn to the Catholic school system, which for generations has provided an affordable (for some) alternative to public schools, not simply for Catholics but for the residents of White ethnic neighborhoods generally. The overall consequence, if not the intent, of the Church’s role has been strong institutional support for segregation, in spite of the existence of some schools that are relatively diverse. The effect of the Catholic system can be seen at a school like St. Bridget School, a mostly White elementary school in East Falls, sitting just a block from Mifflin School, which is only 10 percent White.

Other Whites send their children to neighborhood public schools that are predominantly White or pursue admission to magnet schools that are disproportionately White. For some, charter schools have become another option for those seeking a largely White setting. The charter school population has a higher concentration of Whites than regular public schools, and five charter schools in the city are more than 75 percent White, with most Whites in charters going to one of these schools.

Whites typically have no difficulty with their children attending school with some children of color, but in racially changing areas, they may balk when the numbers reach what sociologist Maureen Hallinan calls “the tipping point.”

Writing in the Ohio State University Law Review in 1998, Hallinan argues: “To the White mother, the school is integrated if it has 10 percent or fewer Black students. It is viewed as becoming threatening when that number rises to 20 percent and it is intolerable if it reaches 40 percent. At that point, the school rapidly becomes all Black.”

Hallinan notes that in surveys, most Whites don’t object to sending their own children to a school that is racially integrated. “However, when you begin asking White parents how they would feel about certain percentages of Black children in schools or classrooms you begin to get the perception that their tolerance for the presence of Black children in their children’s classrooms is relatively low,” she adds.

This explains why Whites have no difficulty with neighborhood schools that have a small number of African American or Latino students but many have adamantly opposed busing plans that would create a more equitable racial mix. It also illuminates why in racially changing neighborhoods, schools become all Black well before the neighborhood does. White parents tend to assume that a school with substantial numbers of African Americans will hurt their child’s educational progress, an assumption not supported by research.

It should be noted, however, that over half the White children in the District attend schools in which Whites are not in the majority. This indicates there has been some real acceptance of integration among Whites in the public school system.

The terrible costs of segregation for Black children are clear enough. But what about for White students, the apparent beneficiaries of our system of de facto segregation? Whites are clearly privileged in the sense that the majority-White schools many attend generally have more resources, more experienced teachers, and higher expectations than their nonwhite counterparts. But these advantages are relative, particularly for less affluent working class Whites. Neighborhood schools in Port Richmond or Mayfair may have better educational outcomes than schools in West Philly or Kensington, but they still have class sizes among the highest in the state and low rates of proficiency in reading and math.

If Whites, instead of focusing on protecting their privileges within the city’s public schools or promoting support for private education, were willing to join with people of color and fight for quality, desegregated education, the likelihood is we would have better schools for all. In this sense, White children also pay a price for segregation.

There are also the less tangible but equally important costs that racial isolation imposes. White children who have little interaction and few relationships with children of color are more susceptible to stereotyped racial thinking and are poorly equipped to participate in building a multiracial, democratic society.

It is ironic that as we “celebrate” the anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which ruled that the doctrine of separate and unequal was unconstitutional, our schools are as separate and unequal as ever, and the legal and political challenges to segregation with few exceptions have been shelved.

The working assumption of policy makers today is to focus on making improvements in the segregated schools. Reform forces in the Black community for the most part concluded long ago that because of White resistance to desegregation, community control of schools in some form was a more effective strategy. Even White progressives have shown little willingness to challenge the prevailing consensus.

But if we want genuine education reform, desegregation needs to be part of the agenda. Reformers should think through what meaningful steps could be undertaken to begin this process. Given the need for equity in resources and the changed demographics, an effective desegregation plan would have to be metropolitan in scope. Separate but equal was a dangerous myth in the 1890s when it was first elaborated and it is no less so today.

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