School as Gated Community

by Robert Pondiscio
February 1st, 2011

In the midst of all the rhetorical overkill about the Ohio mother who lied about her address to get her kids into a better school, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli reminds us that nearly 3,000 schools nationwide function as de facto gated communities. 

Petrilli and Janie Scull issued a report about a year ago on “America’s Private Public Schools,” which found that in some metropolitan areas, “as many as one in six public-school students — and one in four white youngsters — attends such schools,” which exclude practically all low-income kids.  That’s a whole lot of “Rosa Parks moments.”

“Before you throw stones at Copley-Fairlawn, be sure that your own neighborhood school isn’t one of the excluders,” Petrilli writes.


  1. Having grown up in the DC area, I checked the report and was interested to see that some (but not all) of the schools in my neighborhood were counted as “private public schools.” As far as I can tell, these are just schools in upper middle class areas that don’t use busing or other programs to bring in lower-income students. The schools themselves (to my knowledge) aren’t exemplary in terms of class size or per pupil spending or other top-down factors.

    I take issue with calling these schools “excluders” (Petrilli’s term). With the exception of the magnet schools on the list, these schools simply enroll students who live inside their boundaries, just like other schools. Enrolling students in schools near their homes will always result in some schools with higher income students and other schools with lower income students, due to residential housing patterns. The only solution to this situation is forced busing of students to schools far from their homes or (similarly) redrawing boundaries so that students don’t attend the schools near their houses. Is this what Petrilli is arguing for? Frankly, I don’t really understand his point.

    Comment by Attorney DC — February 1, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  2. Districts with “good schools” = districts with a high-percentage of well-off kids. The kids make the school. When you opt for a “good school” you’re usually opting for a school that has somehow excluded the difficult-to-educate.

    Comment by Ben F — February 1, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

  3. I think it’s *FAR* past time to do away with geographic restrictions on which schools a child can attend. All taxpayer-funded schools in a metro area should be open to all students the way charter schools operate. Right now the only parents who have true school choice are the wealthy; in my neck of the woods it is those who can afford to pay $1M+ for a house zoned for a decent school or private school tuition that is $7k-$25k per year per child.

    My kids would easily score among the top in the district for their respective grades on an admissions test but they are denied access to the best elementary school in the district simply because we cannot afford to buy or rent in that neighborhood.

    Why should a bright child from a low-to-moderate income family be denied a slot in a good school in favor of a dumb-but-rich kid?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — February 1, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  4. yeah I asked that too.It’s like they’re just wasting the great minds and they just thought about money. Is that really important? How about helping them?tsk

    Comment by John K — February 2, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  5. Crimson Wife: I somewhat agree with your idea that children should be able to attend nearby schools, if they so desire. However, if the county is require to provide buses for each individual child who wants to attend a school 5, 10, or 20 miles away, it would become extremely expensive. If the parent is willing to drive the student (or the student can take public transportation), that’s an easier matter.

    However, Perilli almost seems to be suggesting that the entire system of having students attend school near their homes is bad, and I shudder to think of the forced busing that would ensue if the goal becomes distributing kids by race, socio-economic status, etc. rather than location. Taken to an extreme, in homogenous areas of the country this could require bus rides of hundreds of miles to reach an equilibrium! On a more practical note, I do not agree with busing kids long distances to schools far from their homes without a good reason. Busing has many downsides, including wasting 2+ hours a day of the students’ lives (on the bus), making it hard for parents to participate in school activities, and making it difficult for students to participate in after-school or evening events or to simply get enough sleep.

    Comment by Attorney DC — February 2, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  6. I think we could start small: Let parents enroll their children in any school as long as they transport their children. Perhaps we should give families bus tokens if they don’t have transportation. We could also have limits on how many students schools had to take. We could see how this works and make changes as needed.
    I’m sure that this wouldn’t solve everything and I doubt it would work in rural areas, but it might open more opportunities.

    Comment by Genevieve — February 2, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  7. Our district doesn’t offer transportation except for special ed students so it would not cost the district anything to open up all schools to all district students. Most families would presumably pick a nearby school (as what typically happens with private & charter schools) but if a parent is willing to commute, that should be his/her prerogative. I’d certainly be willing to drive 20 minutes each way in order to have my kids attend the best school in the district.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — February 2, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  8. Busing? Does anyone remember Boston’s busing chapter from the 70′s? It was a disaster, demographically, culturally, politically. Judge Arthur Garrity was well intentioned but the results were a nightmare.

    The “solution” for many affected families was white flight. Sadly, bigotry and racism ruled the day. Boston School Committee members, Louis Day Hicks and Pixie Paladino, led the charge of the imbeciles – and they proved themselves such.

    I remember it as if it were yesterday. No one wants their district, and especially their children, to have to experience an abomination like that again. It’s simply NOT the answer

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 2, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

  9. I didn’t grow up in the city, so forgive me if I don’t understand the clamor to get into the “best” school in the city. A look at some of the most successful people in the world reveals they did not attend the “best” school or private schools. They were taught people skills, a work ethic, entrepreneurship, and morals. None of these require school at all, let alone the “best” school. I’m all for school, but I wonder if what we are looking for is the “best” substitute for what we aren’t willing to do ourselves?

    Comment by Cindy — February 2, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

  10. “Judge Arthur Garrity was well intentioned but the results were a nightmare.”

    I’m reading a lot of well intended comments … all equally nightmarish.

    Living between the two public school districts being discussed, let me offer some modifying comments: First, only the media has initiated the “quality” of the schools. The mother, an employee of their local district has never said that- only that she did not like the neighborhood where she lived. Her father lives in the other district; and they used his address as residence. That would have been fine if the girl lived there; but she commuted from her mother’s residence -where there were such reported “dangers”.

    Second, the severity of her offense was that once confronted (as have been dozens of other families) she was the only one that did not move into the district or pay as a non-resident; but repeatedly lied and continued to send the girl to classes.

    Third, there is no reference to the type of student involved.

    Fourth, and only my personal opinion, the outrage over her not being able to complete her teaching credentials is a joke. What school would want such a person who openly disregards local and state laws.

    All we need now is Jesse Jackson to wade in. Oh, did anyone mention that the woman is “black” and is only being prosecuted for that reason? We all know that white people would not get in trouble for these reasons.

    Comment by ewaldoh — February 2, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  11. Genevieve’s proposal sounded good to me at first blush: “Let parents enroll their children in any school as long as they transport their children.” However, the more I thought about it, I began to realize there would likely be problems with implementation. Schools have a limited capacity (number of classrooms, number of teachers) and if 200 kids want to transfer to a school with a capacity of 500 that already has 450 students, what do you do? I suppose a lottery, or a “first come, first serve” approach. But if all kids within the school’s boundaries are allowed to attend the school, then limited spots will remain in the school for transfer students. I believe this is part of the problem with the provision of NCLB that allows parents of students in “failing” schools to send them elsewhere in the district: Not enough spaces in the “good” schools (among other issues).

    Comment by Attorney DC — February 2, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  12. My district operates 32 elementary schools. If I were in charge, I would designate 3 of those as exam schools (one in the western part of the district, one in the eastern part, and one in the northern part). The remaining schools I would do admissions via lottery.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — February 2, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  13. Michigan has open enrollment, not only within districts, but between districts. So we have plenty of experience with the “solutions” (parent-provided transport, receiving schools setting limits) that commenters have suggested.

    It’s worked out pretty much as you’d expect: Rural schools seldom get transfers. Schools in the suburban ring around Detroit get lots of transfers–each comes with the state per-pupil allowance. Districts can set up portable classrooms and take as many students as they like in tough financial times. And Grosse Pointe, which butts up to Detroit, tracks all new registrations to ensure that the students actually live in Grosse Pointe, and takes immediate and vigorous legal action to prevent fraud. Receiving schools can claim that there’s no more space–or offer as many seats as they choose.

    School of choice policies are–IMHO–fair and just. As are charter policies. But they have not solved the problem of inequality. Only further sorted kids down to what Wm Julius Wilson called the truly disadvantaged.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 3, 2011 @ 10:52 am

  14. I may have grown up in the same neighborhood as AttorneyDC — my elementary school is on the “private public schools” list (Horace Mann, now called simply Mann School). Frankly, there wasn’t then — and maybe is not now — anything that spectacularly excellent about it. Most of the kids when I went there were from middle-class, but not affluent, families. Dads were civil servants, embassy employees, military families. Of course some doctors and lawyers, too. There were some very modest homes in the neighborhood, but no public housing. The school was at capactiy when I attended, and some students were bused in.

    My district (where I work) has open boundaries, depending on space available. Some of the “rich” schools have low enrolment. Lower-income families could enrol their kids, but they are not rushing to do so. An insider in our curriculum department, who did a major research study with funding from a local university, told me that the teaching and programs in some of the “inner city” schools far surpassed what went on in the wealthy part of town. She shook her head and said, sadly, “Those kids at Richville P.S. need a special program for them — the teaching and quality of curriculum is much more pedestrian, workbook-oriented and less engaging than in the high-needs schools in our study.”

    That surprised me, but she had just spent six years in three schools at each extreme and was vehement that the “wealthy” schools were actually NOT high-quality in instructional terms. I believe Richard Elmore has made similar points about “nominally high-performing schools.”

    Comment by palisadesk — February 3, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

  15. @AttorneyDC,the space limitations are a problem. That is why I stated that schools should be able to limit how many students they take.
    My state has fairly liberal open-enrollment and generous state aid. However, the most desirable districts limit open enrollment because of space. For the most part it is justifiable because they are truly crowded. I would like to see every school, or at least all of the schools with very low free/reduced lunch rates, take at least 5% of their students from open-enrollment, phased in over a few years. If this was the law, then schools would build it into their building plans (I should mention that our state provides money for building new schools from a state sales tax, though fast growing districts also have to raise money through bonds).

    That being said, I’m not sure how much this would help the poor in my area. The majority of parents I have met that want out of a certain school/district are not poor. They are blue collar or middle class parents and they don’t want their children to go to schools that have high rates of poverty, low average achievement, and often a great deal of classroom disruption (I don’t blame them). Sadly, our district has a diversity policy that doesn’t allow these parents to leave the district and often times the school they are zoned for. There are also few surrounding areas accepting open-enrollment because their buildings are full. Some parents chose private school (Catholic school tuition is pretty low here), some home school and many move as soon as they can get the money together. These are the families that would most be helped by having more open-enrollment, charters, etc.

    On the other hand, many of the poor families I know prefer the neighborhood schools. I also understand this,somewhat, as we are a relatively segregated metro. There are very few minorities in the wealthier areas.
    I’m less familiar with the attitudes of the immigrants in our area, but I do know that the Catholic schools serve a lot of Latino students.

    I suppose my long drawn out point is that this is a policy that would help the middle and working classes the most. It isn’t a cure for a broken system.

    Comment by Genevieve — February 4, 2011 @ 1:07 am

  16. I’ve read the comments by Nancy Flanagan, Genevieve, palisadesk, CrimsonWife and others, and I believe they clearly show the nuances of the debate about school choice: It can be a boon to some students, but does not solve all the problems facing our nation’s students.

    There are many obstacles in using school selection to equalize the plight of the less-wealthy among us, from rural schools (where distance is simply too far for this to work), to limitations on capacity at the “better” schools, to the choice of some parents to keep their children at neighborhood schools for a variety of reasons.

    I think this discussion highlights the opportunities that are available for motivated, lower income parents to move their children into better schools, but it still leaves open the questions: What happens to the children who don’t have highly involved parents? And what happens to children who will not be accepted by other schools due to discipline problems, special education needs or other personal circumstances?

    Comment by Attorney DC — February 4, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

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