Suburban Poverty and the Diverse Schools Dilemma

My colleague Michael Petrilli from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a neat little monograph late last year entitled The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. (Disclosure: I read and commented on a draft of the manuscript.) It’s an engaging exploration of the choices that middle- and upper-income urban-dwelling parents face when confronted with the socioeconomically mixed public schools in their own neighborhoods. Should they endure the potential academic risks of sending their kids to these schools in order to gain the potential rewards of exposing them to a diverse learning environment?

What does any of this have to do with suburban poverty? Well, much of the research and school case studies for the book draw from the Washington, D.C. region. Petrilli frames those data around his own family’s experience in choosing a school (and thus, neighborhood) for his children. And it’s set right here in D.C.’s inner suburbs.

The book tells the story of the Petrilli family living in Takoma Park, Maryland, right over the District line in Montgomery County. Their local elementary school for grades three through five, Piney Branch Elementary, enrolls a highly diverse student body. About one-third of the students are from lower-income families (eligible for free and reduced price lunch), and black, white, Hispanic, and Asian children all make up significant proportions of the student body. By Petrilli’s account, Piney Branch Elementary has a strong principal, positive test score trends, and a commitment among its faculty and parents to embracing diversity. But Petrilli also describes the school building as looking “more like a prison than a joyful place of learning,” with discipline issues more characteristic of an inner-city school than one located in a middle-class community.

Schools in Takoma Park and Montgomery County are clearly confronting the challenges of suburbanizing poverty in America, and their place on the front lines of the trend is one of the key themes we explore in our recent book. Indeed, there are more Montgomery County students in the free and reduced-price lunch program (for families under 185 percent of the poverty line) today than there are students in all of D.C.’s public schools.

But what made me think about the intersection between Petrilli’s book and our book wasn’t the state of Piney Branch Elementary today. It’s what the school—and the community more broadly—might look like down the road if they can’t manage to attract and retain middle-class families like Petrilli’s. Will Takoma Park and its schools go the way of the many D.C. neighborhoods that suffered from middle-class flight and increasing poverty over the last several decades, ironically at the same time (as Petrilli details) that the middle and upper classes are repopulating some of those D.C. neighborhoods and their schools?

This is one concern that Myron Orfield and his colleagues detail in their work on what they call “diverse suburbs,” places like Takoma Park where white residents make up between 20 and 60 percent of the population. They point out that integrated schools are one of the key strengths of these suburbs, and like Petrilli detail the voluminous research findings on the benefits of such schools in an increasingly diverse American society. (Here’s some new evidence on that subject.) Yet for lots of reasons—discriminatory housing and school attendance policies, exclusionary zoning, and prejudices and preferences—these places are also susceptible to “resegregation,” in which racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income households become an increasingly large part of the population. Which is just another way that suburban poverty happens.

That brings us to the epilogue to Petrilli’s book. (SPOILER ALERT!) After deciding they needed a bigger house to accommodate their growing family, Petrilli and his wife end up relocating to the nearby Maryland suburb of Bethesda. The reasons were complicated, but it suffices to say that the local elementary school in their new neighborhood, as it turned out, had the distinction of being the least diverse school in all of Montgomery County; in 2010-11, only 1 percent of its students were on free and reduced-price lunch, compared to 31 percent county-wide.

Petrilli and parents like him are hardly responsible for rising suburban poverty in this country. There are many factors at work. Yet his experience highlights the central role that suburban schools will play in determining whether their communities can achieve and maintain economic integration, or will instead see ever-rising poverty and many of the same challenges with which urban communities have struggled over the last few generations.