School Reform and Metropolitan History

As I wrote recently, part of what makes Andrew Highsmith’s new book Demolition Means Progress so compelling is his attention to schools, and particularly to the intersection of the “community school” concept and segregated real estate markets, as drivers of racial and economic polarization in metropolitan Flint. There are many books coming out that seek to examine the role of schools in urban and suburban history, not just by explaining how changing communities affected schools, but how schools figured in those changes. Emily Straus’s  Death of A Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, California, Brett Gadsden’s Between North and South, and Ansley Erickson’s forthcoming Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits exemplify an important trend in scholarship.

That said, there is another trend that I think is worth noting, that of long-form journalism that engages with this sort of academic history. Some of its practitioners, like Jelani Cobb, are both academics and highly prolific public intellectuals, which fills a blogger like me with envy and gratitude at once. Gratitude chiefly for pieces like Cobb’s New Yorker article on the demise of Queens’s Jamaica High School, once a thriving center of opportunity in a neighborhood in transition from white ethnic working class to African American and now truly multicultural but disadvantaged (you can google the title and access the article through the search page if you’re not a subscriber).

In his opening, Cobb writes that

The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.

All too often such a “somehow” is made to be an all-purpose deflector of analysis, on par with “mistakes were made.” But Cobb digs in to “somehow” in ways that avoid a reductive narrative of white flight and neighborhood disinvestment. Jamaica thrived, though not without challenges, as the first Black students entered, and continued to thrive, though with escalating challenges, through economic crises that spanned Cobb’s own years as a student at the school, even as whites left the area and the school’s population became poorer. So why is it closing?

Historians tend to look toward long-term antecedents, processes set in motion by decisions that, because they happened long ago, are surprising to read as relevant to the present. And, for sure, Cobb writes by way of conclusion that

In a way, the protests over school closure are a bookend to the riots that broke out over busing four decades ago. Like “busing” and “integration,” the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.

But good historians can recognize more proximate causes, and narrative breaks.

Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward. It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective. It’s the schools.

Indeed, the idea of failed schools is the principle innovation in the opportunity hoarding of educational opportunity, replacing the ideology of the neighborhood school that condemned busing in the 1970s. In New York, it’s been a post-millennial phenomenon. First, the school campus was cannibalized by smaller independent schools because the New York School administration was in thrall to Bill Gates’s ultimately failed experiment in small high schools. Then, further reform, also driven by large philanthropists, kicked in:

In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation, and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea. It’s even possible to see the Bloomberg plan as a long-awaited response to Arthur Levitt’s claim, in 1954, that the problem in New York was not segregated schools but segregated neighborhoods. But it also meant that students whose parents—owing to language difficulties or work demands, immigration status or a generalized fear of bureaucratic authority—could not or would not pursue other educational options for their children found themselves relegated to increasingly unappealing schools.

Indeed, both neighborhood schools and “choice” have worked within a political economy where educational opportunity was scarce, and therefore susceptible to hoarding and exclusionary behavior. The invocation of neighborhood schools was effective in the 1970s as a way of linking territory, property in real estate, and a presumed property right to superior educational opportunity. Today, when pertinent divides of socioeconomics and race are as likely to be expressed by differences among central city neighborhoods and among suburbs as by the city-suburb divide, the wealthy and influential seem, at least in metropolitan areas, to be asserting a presumed right to superior educational opportunity by deterritorializing education–other than in neighborhood schools of last resort–and letting those with privileged mobility claim the spoils.

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3 comments on “School Reform and Metropolitan History

  1. […] of the privatization-by-charter approach that Jelani Cobb identified in his recent New Yorker article on Jamaica High School–a process that creates “failed […]

  2. […] point that I’ve been thinking about lately, in response to some insightful academic and non-academic writing on the relationship of schools to urbanization. Cities are habitats for humanity, but what […]

  3. […] first of these comes from Flint, Michigan. I’ll refer you to Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress for the definitive history of that community and the connections between housing, schools, […]

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