The Problem with the ‘Good Schools’

High School ClassroomWe live where we live for a lot of reasons. We feel its a good place to grow up for our kids. A big reason for this, the biggest reason we are here, is the schools. We moved here for the schools. It’s a common refrain.We’re starting to meet the other parents of kids who will be in Charlie’s kindergarten class and so many of them mention the schools as a part of why they are here. There was a state wide ranking that came out around the time we moved here declaring our school the top rated public school in the state.

We can’t afford private schools and neither my wife nor I are interested in them. We were public school kids and we wanted the same for our kids. We wanted them to have a real connection to the place they grew up. Besides public schools fit better with our politics as well. But I can’t help being a little uncomfortable with the idea of ‘moving here for the schools.’ I can’t help but think there’s some coded message in the phrase, some coded history that reflects how we’ve gotten here.

My town is 85% white, 10% Asian and just over 1% African American. These numbers are from the 2010 census. We have a train station that allows one to easily access commuter lines to NYC. Broadly speaking New Jersey is a diverse populace, particularly as you approach the city. So why this largely homogenous population? I have some ideas.

The great migration of African American’s from the south to cities of the northeast and Midwest made northerners confront the realities of a diversifying population. We white folks didn’t really handle it all that well. What many of my contemporaries now see as an organic, self segregating impulse that has left many communities largely homogenous was in fact anything but organic in how it came to be.

Many of you will surely recognize at least some of what I’m saying. Perhaps your history makes you aware of the great migration. Perhaps your history makes you aware that diversity can be more an economic issue than a racial one. Perhaps you can see that the community you live in, the one you moved to, perhaps for the ‘good schools’, is largely homogenous but feel that this being a free country that the whiteness of your town is coincidence more than design. If you think this last thing you might be right. Surely there are some communities that this is true of and those communities have other issues. Also, they are unicorns. Generally speaking the communities we live in are homogenous by intent if not design.

When African American families moved to the north they met opportunity to be sure. They met successes that would have been unthinkable in some areas of the rural south they left. They met new challenges and new problems as well. One of those being that despite the north being on the side of the angels in the war, it didn’t mean their was any less racial animus here. It didn’t mean that there was a smoother integration. In fact, it turned out, so much of the racial tolerance many expected was completely absent and there was new, sophisticated ways in which they were experiencing racism. Subtle ways that kept them struggling no matter how hard they tried. Wage deflation, employment discrimination, poor funding of schools, legal bias and housing discrimination.

Housing discrimination was rampant. If you were a young black professional with a family you were shown the ‘black’ parts of town. You were refused tenancy in ‘white’ areas, at least the desirable ones. The ones where you were barred from as your presence would ‘bring down property values’. Steering people to one place based on a perceived undesirability, having brown skin in this case, was how we ghettoized the African American’s who moved north for a better life. So the young, black child of that young black doctor couldn’t go to the schools where the young white kids of the young white doctor went, where they had other young professionals and tax bases were strong and schools well funded. The ceiling of achievement was thus lowered to meet their blackness. Furthermore those young, bright, possibly world changing young kids segregated into ‘black’ areas were losing the value of home ownership that was growing for their white counterparts since there was the burgeoning reality that the areas where African Americans lived were losing value as they could only sell to ‘blacks’, who were increasingly poorly educated by underfunded schools.

For a generation or two black businesses working with largely black clientele may have thrived, but the communities were crumbling under increasing financial pressures being put upon them to relocate as their neighboring ‘white’ neighborhoods, growing richer from generation to generation needed to co-opt more property to keep the growth going. Gentrification is a beautiful and euphonious word considering how destructive a force it has been in so many communities of color over the years.

White folks in white neighborhoods started to see themselves as more capable, more worthy and ultimately more valuable. Over time the system reinforced these views and before long what was simple racism could now be seen as inherent superiority. I’m a white guy, but I have to imagine that the grinding gears set in motion to devalue our brown skinned brothers and sisters was internalized by generations of young children seeing the world they lived in as one that punished them for being ‘black.’ You may not see self esteem and self worth as a socioeconomic issue, but that’s probably because you are afforded more opportunity to define your own worth. That’s what I’m afforded.

As historically African American areas were slowly or swiftly overrun by the ever more prosperous white community the neighborhood that was once there would have to move. While there was good money to be made selling ones property to the gentrifying crowd, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the skyrocketing costs of living in the area. So they moved just outside the area, to the ghetto down the street, where they could afford to relocate and stay employed. It wasn’t always a great idea to look to move away as there might not be a lot of options there for employment, but what there was they had and there was no doubt value, however little, in the undervalued work had vs. the undervalued work elsewhere that was likely already had.

Eventually the ‘white’ folks could move out of the city. They could find a nice place to live, a place where the kids can play outside in big back yards. Where there is purposely not a lot of business or opportunity. Where you’d make it expensive enough to keep out the riff-raff. Where you could be happy that your kids would get a good education due to the high tax base. Where you could charge whatever you want as young professionals, like everyone, wants to give their kids the best chance to succeed.

There’s nothing wrong in my decision to live here. Nothing wrong for wanting to move here for the schools. But there’s something terribly wrong in thinking that the world doesn’t favor me at the expense of others. There’s something wrong in thinking there was not a ton of external factors that have brought us to this place. Something awful in thinking others aren’t here simply because they don’t want to be.

I moved here because I could. For the schools.

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11 thoughts on “The Problem with the ‘Good Schools’

  1. Marian

    Great, hard hitting honest post. Thank you for writing it. I’m facilitating a book group using Jim Wallis’ book “America’s original sin: racism, white privilege and the bridge to a new America”. It discusses a lot of what you put in your post. So I think I’m going to have to send your blog on to everyone in the group!

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  2. Julia Benjamin

    Your very thoughtful post really hit home. I think we all want the best for our children. We’ve also grappled with the choice to not move for “the better schools” but to remain in our diverse community where we feel more comfortable for a myriad of reasons. That said the playing field in education is not level. I highly recommend the film: Park Avenue, Money, Power, and The American Dream. I think it explains it all. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/park-avenue/

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  3. That Shameless Hussy

    Brutally honest and forthright. And hard. Up to now I’ve been happy with my kids schools. The highschool district we are in will put my son at a school that I know the police visit regularly, requires metal detectors and security, that I know is underfunded and is surrounded by low income housing. Do I send my kid to a school where he may be in danger to make a statement? Do I sacrifice his education for principle? Or do I move? What if it were my only choice?

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    1. joejmedler Post author

      We chose to move and would do it again. I’m saddened by the realities of the world and make many statements, among them staying public in school choice. I don’t think there’s an answer that alone is impactful to change history, but as far as I benefit, and I do, there feels something wrong in not acknowledging the good fortune I’m afforded and the cost that good fortune has charged others for awful unfair reasons. I’m white and have options. There are white folks who don’t and brown folks who do. But on the whole the tide of history that brought me here has left some serious, heartbreaking damage in its wake.

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  4. Gretchen Kellaway

    I’ve never had the luxury of moving some place because of the ‘good schools’- in fact I was lucky to live just on the right side of the tracks to go to the elementary school that was considered “better”- lucky in that it was overcrowded because everyone was clamoring to keep their children there.

    No one saw the holes or the hunger in my eyes, they saw the freckles and the white skin and assumed we had that silver spoon, until they saw our falling down house that had a lovely view of the tracks and the only privilege we had is that my family had owned it since my granny and grandpa decided Rahway was a good place to live after Metuchen.

    I moved back here a year after my ex husband left me because couch surfing with toddlers seemed a lot better than living in a tin can with my drug addict brother and his drug addict wife. Because if I was going to work two jobs, I might as well do it in a town that understood my heartache and the trains played my soul song.

    Still- while we are destitute, we don’t have the luxury to pick a town based on the good schools, and now, I don’t think I would. I live in a rented house, backed up against the same tracks I could see from my attic bedroom growing up. I still hear the sounds that accompanied the hungry growls. Yeah. Privilege exists- it’s a visual cortex, multiplied by one hundred and it’s not even the truth. If I didn’t tell you my story you would never know the truth.

    I will take my mediocre schools, with their blended families, their black history month pagents, their hands placed on hearts, their story song poetry, where when you say you grew up here a real brotherhood is formed. Because once from here, lived here, loved here, raised here, no matter how brief or long, you are always home here. It’s funny really- we have this sense of solidarity, where we defend this town with all our might, where we want to leave at 18 and yet we all run back when we have children of our own. It’s a pride I have seen no where else. Ah. I am rambling Joe, I appologize. Didn’t mean to do that. This was an amazing read as always. Thank you so much for sharing.

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