It’s A Good Time To Reflect On Equity Imbalances
By Margaret Fogarty
It’s the peak of school choice season and many Denver Public Schools parents are getting ready to submit applications ranking their preferred schools by the Feb. 18 deadline.
Schools offer tours, DPS provides information online and in print and at least one online news service has published helpful tips for parents. (Search for “Eight tips for school tours: What to look for and what questions to ask,” at Chalkbeat.org/co/.)
Erin Pier’s November PHNEE column in these pages illustrated why parents should look beyond DPS’ School Performance Framework (SPF) when choosing a school. Indeed, DPS has recognized the SPF’s limitations and biases and is currently reimagining it, suggesting that its current iteration may not be with us for long.
With these tools, most parents engaging in school choice, like me, are well on their way to finding a school. But in doing so, I have decided to challenge myself to look not just at schools, but at myself and my values when making choices.
Demographics of the neighborhood
Throughout DPS, some schools have become islands of economic privilege, which don’t reflect the socioeconomic makeup of DPS’s student body as a whole. DPS is comprised of roughly 75 percent students of color, and 65 percent of its student population qualifies for free or reduced priced lunch (FRL) – an indicator of economic disadvantage.
Comparing elementary schools in Park Hill, one such island exists here. Just 14 percent of Park Hill Elementary’s student body is FRL-eligible, whereas Hallett and Smith have populations exceeding 80 percent FRL. Only Stedman reflects the demographics of the district as a whole.
District-wide, and in our neighborhood, this translates to vast disparities in needs and the resources to meet them. Not only are our low-income schools under-enrolled, leading to lower school budget allocations from the district, these same schools are at a disadvantage when it comes to parent fundraising.
The capacity of schools across our neighborhood to raise supplemental dollars that enhance the educational experience varies widely, leaving less-privileged schools with tougher spending priorities and in some cases, an inability to offer resources and amenities that privileged schools enjoy. In other words, children facing economic vulnerability at home also lose out on the benefits of a highly resourced school.
These disparities are largely the result of decades-old school boundaries resulting in schools in Greater Park Hill reflecting the socioeconomic segregation of the neighborhood. In theory, school choice can mitigate this imbalance by giving families the opportunity to choose any school, regardless of where they live.
But, without any requirement that schools have a socioeconomically balanced student body or provide transportation to students that choice in, the system provides more options for parents who are already privileged than for those who may benefit the most from attending a non-boundary school. This leads to opportunity hoarding by privileged families at the expense of those with greater needs.
A zero-sum game
“Opportunity hoarding” is a sociological concept utilized by Charles Tilly in 1998 to explain the growing range of phenomena related to social inequality. As society bifurcates more and more into the haves and the have-nots, the haves control resources in such a way as to exclude, whether intentionally or not, the have-nots from access to them.
School choice is a zero sum game because schools have limited capacity. Some students “win” the lottery at the expense of those who lose it. When privileged families have more information and more options to help them exercise their choice, they often exclude other, less privileged groups, from benefiting.
In this season of school choice, it’s a good time to ask whether a public school district should be comprised of islands of privilege, and islands of economic vulnerability. Is this condition in keeping with the vision of public schools as a public good for society’s benefit and to maintain a healthy democracy? Or are our public schools merely a market commodity available only to the highest bidder?
Reducing concentrated privilege does mean that schools will change. For example, where one school’s fundraising capacity might decrease as it becomes more socioeconomically diverse, another school’s will improve. This could feel like a sacrifice for some, given parents’ natural instinct to want the best for their children.
The best education
To me, the best education includes strong lessons in responsible citizenry, which models the values most of us want to instill in our children – including respect for fairness, equal opportunity, and inclusion.
Advocating for equity in education and/or choosing a less-privileged school are meaningful actions aligned with those values. In return, parents and children can be in true community with a diverse group, which is becoming harder to do in our historically fractured society. From this perspective, it’s hard to see a sacrifice at all.
If we want to bind these fractures for our children’s future, let’s think about starting with ourselves and our choices about schools.
What do you think?
Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education seeks the community’s opinion on various policies, like school choice and school boundaries, which contribute to the existing inequities in our neighborhood schools. Visit PHNEE.org/oneparkhill to learn more and take a survey about potential solutions.
Margaret Fogarty is a mom of two DPS elementary students who attend different Park Hill neighborhood schools. She is a corporate communications professional by trade, and an active member of the Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education (PHNEE), which works toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in the neighborhood. For more information, check out the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/phnee, or send an email to email@example.com.