Cities Are Trying to Fix Their Schools by Luring the Middle Class: It Won't Work

These initiatives cannot substitute for reforms that address the root causes of concentrated poverty, budget shortfalls, and failing schools.
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A tree trunk lies in the entrance way to West Philadelphia University City High School (Tom Mihalek/Reuters)

For people who care about public education, the news from Philadelphia is grim. Even for a city accustomed to doomsday budget scenarios, this year’s fiscal crisis is staggering. The School District of Philadelphia, with a total budget of $2.4 billion, faces a shortfall of $300 million. In an effort to close this gap, the district has shuttered dozens of schools, laid-off thousands of employees, and made previously unimagined cuts to school-level programming and staffing.  The consequences of these cutbacks were apparent when schools opened this September: in many schools, classrooms are severely overcrowded, secretaries and assistant principals are gone, materials are in short supply, key staff (such as guidance counselors and nurses) are dividing their time between several schools, and arts and other programs have been scaled back or cut altogether.

This year’s budget crisis, like those that have preceded it and those that are likely to follow, can be traced to the vicious combination of middle-class flight to the suburbs and a school funding model that relies on declining local property taxes. The result is a cycle of underfunded schools and rising poverty. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the School District of Philadelphia spent $13,000 per pupil on a student population that is 77 percent poor and 76 percent African American or Latino. A few miles away, in the affluent suburb of Lower Merion, where the student population is 7 percent poor and 10 percent African American or Latino, per-pupil spending neared $27,000. Is it any surprise Philadelphia’s schools are struggling?

In this context, the renewed interest in urban public schools among some middle- and upper-middle class families seems promising. As groups of middle-class families in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston choose to remain in the city and send their children to public schools instead of fleeing to the suburbs, it is tempting to see this development as a solution to the problem of urban school failure. However, while more middle-class families in cities and city schools would certainly help, attracting such families does not and cannot substitute for reforms that address the root causes of concentrated poverty, budget shortfalls, and failing schools.

Philadelphia’s experience is a case in point. Young professionals have flocked to the revitalized downtown (“Center City”) over the past few decades. So much so that the population of Center City increased by 26.6 percent. Center City residents tend to be well-educated: Only 22 percent of all Philadelphians aged 25 to 35 have college degrees, but 86 percent of young adults in Center City do. While this influx of young professionals bodes well for the on-going development of Center City, many still leave for the suburbs when their children reach school age, seeking higher-performing schools in the suburbs. From 2004 to 2008, business and education leaders in Philadelphia implemented a novel program to interrupt this pattern. Called the Center City Schools Initiative, it was designed to convince downtown middle- and upper-middle-class parents to invest in their local public schools rather than paying for private schools or moving to the suburbs. 

In collaboration with school officials, a local business improvement district marketed a handful of relatively high-performing downtown elementary schools specifically to professional families with young children. The marketing campaign began with a professionally designed website, intended to provide parents with a “customer-friendly virtual front door” to the downtown schools. It also included a school fair and other public events, fliers promising parents that sending their children to Center City public schools would allow them to “personally” introduce their children to Philadelphia’s rich culture and history and to enjoy the “unique, shared experiences that come from working, playing, living, and learning right here.” In addition, public and private funds supported staffers to serve as liaisons between Center City parents and the school district, often facilitating special access to district officials. Meanwhile, district leaders urged principals in the area to improve their customer service and changed the admissions policy for elementary school to provide Center City families with “enhanced school choice.”

The areas targeted by the initiative (Center City and its surrounding gentrifying neighborhoods) were largely white and middle- and upper-middle class. Proponents believed that if these parents became invested in their local public schools, all of Philadelphia would benefit from higher property tax income, increased downtown revitalization as more affluent families continued to live and spend in the city, and—eventually—a better school system.

The marketing worked: According to my analysis of School District of Philadelphia data, by 2009 the number of Center City children enrolled in first grade in the three most desirable public schools had increased by 60 percent, from 111 to 177. Through fundraising and the activation of social and professional networks, these new families helped bring resources to the schools, including new playgrounds, libraries, and arts programs. But these Center City children weren’t taking empty slots. When they enrolled, they left fewer spots for low-income students from North and West Philadelphia, who had for years used those schools to escape failing ones in their neighborhoods. During this period, the number of first graders in Center City schools from outside the neighborhood decreased by 42 percent, from 64 to 37. Not surprisingly, this shift had racial dimensions: The percentage of white students in these schools in the early grades increased by 30 percent, and the percentage of African American students decreased a corresponding 29 percent.

Research I conducted at one of the targeted schools shows parents received very different messages about their importance to the school community. Recruitment efforts were so intense for one white, middle-class mother that she mused, “If I had been an athlete, maybe I’d have gotten a car!” In contrast, an African American, low-income mother who did not live in Center City was so frustrated by the fixation on “neighborhood” (or Center City families) that she exclaimed in an interview, “What’s so important about this person from the neighborhood coming here?  It’s not like this is a private school, where their money is cash and mine is from the government!” Whereas middle-class parents received special treatment from school and district officials, low-income parents felt marginalized and excluded.

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Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara is an assistant professor of urban education in the College of Education at Temple University. She is the author of Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities.

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