For years, I have experienced the world of education through the role of a teacher. I’ve engaged in discussions about fair funding formulas and school segregation. I’ve advocated for access to effective charter schools. I’ve mentored students who, due to systemic racism both in education as well as housing, find themselves without the financial access to postsecondary opportunities that their work has more than earned for them. I’ve thought deeply of the inequities of our educational system and have fought for my understanding of social justice.
But now it’s different.
Now, I’m getting my first exposure to the world of education through the lens of a parent and, more specifically, as a parent of a child with autism. The process of finding a quality educational opportunity for my son has me questioning my integrity as I face the dilemma of having one’s interests run perpendicular to, rather than parallel with, one’s morals.
Having Access to Choice
My family is a White family living in a relatively newly gentrified area in West Philadelphia. I am a high school English teacher and my wife is a critical care nurse in Camden, New Jersey. We think of ourselves as political progressives who have committed our careers to doing what we feel to be good work.
Our oldest of two boys has autism, the type that until recently would have, correctly or incorrectly, been referred to as Asperger’s. He is 5 years old and will be entering kindergarten this coming fall. After dinner, when the boys are asleep, my wife and I perform the rite of passage that American families perform across the country, that of worrying about where our children are going to go to school.
I want to make something extremely clear at this juncture. I am fully aware of, conflicted by, and grateful for the privilege that empowers my family to actually discuss options for my family, for that indeed is perhaps the most paramount of privileges, that of having access to choice.
One of the choices is, of course, private school. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and attended a private school for nearly my entire educational upbringing. I grew up privileged to be the benefactor of generations worth of wealth accumulation not barred due to racism or other social barriers.
While my wife and I are not millionaires, we have the family resources to afford private school. However, as parents of children with special needs know, it isn’t that simple. Private schools, in general, have the prerogative to choose whom they enroll and do not necessarily have to provide special education services. While there is some likelihood that a private school could work for our son, it is by no means guaranteed. Due to the inherent exclusionary aspects of private school, public school seems the more appropriate choice.
‘Are you in the Catchment?’
Our choice of public school is defined by location. We live a handful of blocks outside of an invisible line in the pavement known as the Catchment. It’s a word of hushed import in the neighborhood, one that finds parents at the park asking one another, “Are you in the Catchment?”
The Catchment is, in many real ways, the demarcation line that separates something akin to social class. To be within the Catchment is to be eligible for a lottery to an elementary school with ties to a local university. The school is among the highest-performing elementary schools in the city. The special relationship with the university has empowered the elementary school with a greater share of resources that allow for smaller classes, choice educators, extra curricular programs, and a physical site that far outstrips the other neighborhood elementary schools.
In a city whose racial demographics, according to the 2010 census, had a racial makeup of 45 percent White, 44 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian, the elementary school’s racial makeup for the 2017 kindergarten class was 37 percent White, 15 percent Black, and 38 percent Asian.
According to a leading online database meant to inform parents about school options, 88 percent of the elementary school’s students were proficient in English and 77 percent were proficient in math compared to a neighboring elementary school mere blocks away wherein 4 percent of students were White, 80 percent of students were Black, and 6 percent of students were Black and 23 percent of students were proficient in English and 5 percent were proficient in math.
Real estate values have followed suit with average home prices nearing half a million dollars, compared, according to a leading online real estate website, to the Philadelphia housing average of just over $140,000.
A visual schematic of the data may be helpful here.
The Catchment, therefore, has turned a local neighborhood school into a de facto private school; one my family is trying to join. My wife and I imagine scenarios selling a home we love, the home to which we brought our boys from the birth center, in order to move into a smaller, more expensive home that will place us in the Catchment zone, thus enabling us access to high-quality education for our children. And there’s the rub.
What does it mean to work for equitable access to quality education as a teacher and advocate, but to also play the shady game of access, with all the privileges that have given me a head start in the race when it comes to helping my own children? Am I hypocrite, a vacuous talking piece devoid of that most basic piece of honesty that says that I will do that which I preach? Or am I simply doing the best thing for my family, the same that all parents everywhere try to do for them and theirs?
And what about the other neighborhood schools? The schools that so many families refer to as “good, but not great,” which likely speaks volumes about the biases that surround urban education and brick school buildings filled predominantly with students of color. Does “good, but not great,” mean that test scores are low? What do low test scores mean?
The educator in me knows the myriad of social components and truths that go into such data and knows how much more truth there is to a school’s identity and ability than a school rating one finds on Google. But, to be totally and perhaps shamefully honest, the parent in me has already made the decision against it.
As I’m writing this, no decision has been made. We still do not live in the Catchment, but we may soon. We still feel that private school isn’t the best option, but we change our minds daily. We may leave the city entirely for the suburbs, thus opening an even deeper avenue of choice fraught with ghosts of White flight, racial isolation and possible hypocrisy. And at night, when I lie awake thinking about how to best provide for my boys’ futures, I feel the nagging mental discord of my educational politics and my parental responsibility.
I don’t write to provide answers, but rather to lay bare a reality that I feel reflects many sad truths of our educational system; it is unequal, unfair, unforgiving and oligarchic. And it’s people like me that contribute to its continued existence.