Tuesday, September 8, 2015

No Zip Code Tyranny

A John Hopkins researcher says that the wealthy do not choose choice.

The conclusion comes from research by Julia Burdick-Will who has a joint appointment in Sociology and the School of Education. "Neighbors but not Classmates" has just been published, and while the conclusions we can draw from it are pretty narrow, it offers an interesting tidbit of anti-conventional wisdom.

Burdick-Will took a look at 24,000 rising ninth graders in Chicago. In neighborhoods with median income over $75,000, the students attended one of two or three schools. In neighborhoods with median income under $25,000, students were divied up among around thirteen different schools. This chart from the news release about the report pretty well gets the idea:

I find the travel distance most notable-- the more wealthy students get to stay close to home. The non-wealthy get to tromp all over the city. The average travel distance in wealthy neighborhoods was 1.7 miles, and in non-wealthy neighborhoods it was 2.7.

Burdick-Will gets in a couple of good quotes:

We think of children in poor neighborhoods as ‘stuck.’ But they’re not stuck in one geographic place. They’re stuck navigating a complicated and far-flung school system.

I see a couple of caveats for this report. One is that we're only looking at one high school grade, and only in Chicago. The much larger one is that we're looking at 2009. On the one hand, the landscape may have changed in some significant ways in the six years since then. On the other hand, as Burdick-Will notes, that also means that all the talk we've been subjected to about how the poor are "trapped" in their "failing" neighborhood schools has been, at least in Chicago, high grade baloney.

Burdick-Will notes the costs in social capital (something that poor neighborhoods already lack) that come with students who have to navigate cross town, often alone, to schools where they know few folks. And she also underlines the obvious-- what the wealthy really want, and get, is a good school in their neighborhood.

“We think of choice as a thing of privilege,” she said. “But what we see is that there is a privilege of not having to choose.”


  1. I look forward to reading the paper based on this research once it is published. One interesting question is how a neighborhood is defined.

    I suspect that ones desire to send a student to school outside the. neighborhood depends on the perception of the quality of schools in the neighborhood. If you are relatively wealthy you will move to a district or catchment zone that you like and can afford. If you can't afford to move, your only option would be for your child to travel to the better school. Not only did a quarter of the students in the Normandy school district choose to travel nearly thirty miles to a better school, they sued to have the right to continue to travel that nearly 60 mile round trip every day when the state of Missouri tries to force them back inside the school district walls.

    1. Once again, the point zipped right over your head.

    2. Dianne,

      Do you think that the talk of students being trapped in the Normandy school district is "high grade baloney"?

    3. TE, until you can master basic reading skills and get my name correct (I can only assume it's intentional since you do it repeatedly), I have nothing further to say to you, other than, you still don't get the point.

    4. Dienne,

      Sorry about the misspelling. I will try to do better in the future.

      Presenting an argument might help in a discussion. You could state what you think the point is and try to demonstrate that my comment does not address the point.

      My view is that the point of the post is that students are not trapped in poor performing districts, at least in Chicago. My post pointed out that students in the Normandy school district were in fact trapped in the district. When the state of Missouri accidentally let those students out, the state tried to herd them back into the district.

      I look forward to your argument against my interpretation.

    5. The argument is that the choice the vast majority of parents want is a good, neighborhood, public school. Parents in wealthy districts have that choice. Parents in poor districts do not. Instead of giving parents what they want (for instance, what the people on a hunger strike in Bronzeville in Chicago are demanding), we instead give them the "choice" to run all around town and go miles from their homes and communities to find a good school. The point is that parents don't want "choice", they want good schools in their neighborhood.

    6. What happened in Normandy is that, because of white flight, it ended up being 98%black and 94.5% poverty. I am sure it did not get the resources it needed. In 2010, it was merged with a smaller district which was 100% black and 98% poverty and had already been taken over by the state. The superintendent from that time says this was crazy; schools in this position should not be merged together, they should be merged with a much larger district that is doing well.

      Because of transfer laws in Missouri, some students were able to transfer out to other districts. In 2014 the state took over Normandy and somehow this nullified the students being able to transfer, and the white districts that students had transferred to refused to keep the students.

      The state says that somehow Normandy is going to magically improve, but it doesn't sound like they're getting any more resources. It does not seem like the state is really trying to improve the situation for these students.

    7. Dienne,

      The relatively wealthy have the choice to move into a school district/school catchment area that provides what they think is the best education (or, like you, they send their children to private school). The relatively wealthy CHOSE the strong district/school. That is why a home in the PS 321 catchment area costs $100,000 more than one outside the catchment area.

      If you listen to the This American Life episode, you hear that in the statements from the folks in the receiving district when they describe families deciding NOT to move into the district and themselves moving out of the district the moment they do not like the school.

      How many years do you think it will take before the Normandy district provides students there with a good education? How many other peoples children are you willing to sacrifice to the attempt to improve education there?


      Normandy will never get the resources it needs. The parents in the district want to send their children 30 miles away because they were not allowed to send their children to a strong school district 5 miles away. Forcing these students to stay inside the district walls as the state of Missouri attempted to do is immoral.

    8. And why are they not allowed to send their children to the district 5 miles away?

    9. None of your sob story is relevant to the issue at hand, TE. If there is a "failing" school, why does it make sense to create other schools which will further damage that school, rather than simply fixing that school? If you were to poll people "stuck in failing schools" whether they want their neighborhood school fixed or whether they want the "choice" to run all around town finding a better school, most of them would make the choice to have a good neighborhood school.

  2. I saw this report too, and it immediately brought to mind the remarks of Jeanette Taylor-Ramann of the Dyett 12 on the Melissa Harris-Perry MSNBC show. She made the point that her daughter will have to travel 16 miles to attend another school outside of Bronzeville - either on 2 trains and a bus or 2 buses and a train. Everyday, in the heat or cold, across a city so infested with gang activity that the school system gets out adults to make a corridor of safety for kids on their way to and from school. And of course, lower income parents are less likely to have a car or the kind of jobs where they can easily take the time to oversee their children's school commute. I kinda doubt that happens in Lincoln Park.

    Christine Langhoff