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.

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.

In addition, there is no evidence that middle-class parents’ efforts reached beyond those their children attended.  According to grant proposals, public and private spending on the initiative topped  $500, 000  but the vast majority of Philadelphia’s schools—and especially its poorer students—did not benefit. The marketing initiative targeted 13 elementary schools, and actually focused on only four or five in the most affluent downtown neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the other 160 elementary schools received no special attention. As a district official observed, comparing downtown schools to those in poorer neighborhoods, “making sure the schools in Center City are successful is pretty high on the radar screen. As opposed to, say, Tilden [in impoverished Southwest Philadelphia]. Nobody is really that focused on Tilden, until there’s a major incident.”

Finally, the greater investment on the part of middle-class families in some Philadelphia public schools did not prevent the district’s latest—and most severe—budget crisis. The story of Philadelphia should remind us that the demographic shifts and fiscal policies that led to the current situation defy reforms or marketing efforts (however well-intentioned) that focus on a few schools or a small group of families.

In other cities—most notably Chicago and Boston—school district officials and local leaders have reached out to middle- and upper-middle-class parents, hoping to convince them to remain in the city and enroll their children in the public schools. In the absence of comparable research on these efforts, it is difficult to know if they produced the same outcomes as Philadelphia’s did.  But in both cities, newspaper articles have extolled the improvements middle-class parents made to some schools, telling stories similar to those in Philadelphia of new libraries, refurbished facilities, and enrichment programs. However, research by Northeastern University sociologist Shelley Kimelberg suggests that, because middle-class parents tend to “cluster” in certain schools, their actions have the potential to increase racial segregation in Boston public schools. In her research on school reform in Chicago, University of Illinois professor Pauline Lipman has found large and growing disparities between schools serving poor students and those serving the more advantaged.  In addition, while Boston’s system appears to be relatively stable, Chicago’s latest funding crisis and resulting budget cuts—and its closing of dozens of schools this year—have made national news.

Americans have long accepted two aspects of the present education system as a fact of life. First, we are resigned to the idea that urban schools will always have financial struggles. Second, we do not discuss the divisions between city and suburbs.  Yet these divisions and the vastly different fates of urban and suburban schools they have created are not inevitable; rather they can be traced directly to a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley.  In this case, the Court rejected a plan to create a “metropolitan” system that integrated the largely African American school district in Detroit with the white suburban systems surrounding it. This decision essentially created an institutional wall between city and suburbs, meaning that cities have to deal with their social, economic, and educational problems alone, without their more affluent neighbors who nevertheless choose to live near cities because they remain centers for the arts, culture, government, and employment.

Perhaps it is time to start questioning this decision and the educational inequality it has led to. One solution is increased funds for urban schools and greater cooperation at the metropolitan level. In Pennsylvania, for example, the bulk of funding for schools comes from local property taxes, a system that creates vast disparities between wealthy and poor districts. If Pennsylvania, and other states with similarly unequal systems, were to shift their funding formulas so that a smaller portion of district resources came from local taxes, and then supplemented these funds with money collected statewide, it would significantly alleviate the current crisis and help disrupt the larger pattern of scarcity and failure in urban schools. On the federal level, a renewed focus on funding equity—accompanied by a greater provision of resources—would also signify a political commitment to educational equity.

It is also worth revisiting the conversation, active during the 1990s and early 2000s, about regional approaches to metropolitan development and governance. The fragmentation of our metropolitan areas, which inhibits regional cooperation and planning, has a myriad of negative consequences, including suburban sprawl, the deterioration of inner-ring suburbs, reduced economic competitiveness, and entrenched inequalities. In his book Hope and Despair in the American City, sociologist Gerald Grant shows that Wake County, North Carolina’s plan to bring city and suburbs together into one system allowed district leaders to create economically integrated schools that were so successful that “there are no bad schools in Raleigh.” While efforts to similarly integrate cities and suburbs elsewhere would face formidable political challenges, they could also prompt a larger conversation about our shared destinies. Short of full integration, it is certainly possible to imagine greater cooperation across districts, including the implementation of programs that allow students to attend schools in other systems and/or the formation of city-suburban coalitions advocating for more equitable policies.

If handled carefully, an increase in the number of middle-class families in urban public schools could be a triumph for equity and diversity. However, in the absence of reforms that address inequitable funding and the city-suburban divide, efforts to attract middle-class families will inevitably fall short of preventing the next crisis. Indeed, by singling out the middle-class for special treatment, they could end up creating even more unequal systems.