If you’re a middle-class parent in Boston, the question inevitably occurs: Should I raise my family in the city or abscond to the suburbs, where the public schools are a more certain bet? Anecdotally, it seems that increasingly parents are choosing to stay, and a new study based on in-depth interviews with Boston parents begins to explain why.
Sociologists Chase Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg of Northeastern interviewed 32 middle-class parents with kids enrolled in the Boston Public Schools. Many of them lived in the city’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods—Jamaica Plain, the North End, South Boston, the Fenway, Charlestown—and all of them had the means to leave once their children reached school-age.
Instead they decided to give the BPS a shot. And, as the interviews reveal, the decision was based largely on the belief that, through major investments of time and money, they could shape their local elementary schools into the kinds of places they wanted their kids to attend.
Urban public school systems are famously intractable, and it’s hard to believe that against such sprawling bureaucracies, parental initiative can make much of a difference. But, as the authors explain, the parents they interviewed do much more than organize bake sales and chaperone field trips. They also guide strategic planning and curriculum development, sit on hiring committees, recruit other middle-class families into their schools, and write grants (including one that pays for a second kindergarten teaching assistant).
Billingham and Kimleberg explain that this type of concerted effort is only possible because Boston's complicated school assignment policy favors the preferences of parents who want to send their kids to the schools in their neighborhoods. (It also has a lottery element that allows parents worried about their nearby schools to try to send their kids to better schools across town, with consequences this Globe story reported.) This means that parents of grade-schoolers can often keep their public school investments close—working to improve their kids’ schools with less worry that the broader issues that plague the BPS will undermine their efforts.
In middle and high school, however, the system assignment system gives [[even< For city officials, middle-class parents are a seduction and also a policy riddle. They’re a boon to the schools their kids attend and a great source of tax revenue for the city in general. But keeping middle-class families in the BPS as their kids grow up might mean allowing more local control over high schools—which is good for the families who live in middle-class neighborhoods, but may effectively close off opportunities for kids in the rest of the city.
For city officials, middle-class parents are a seduction and also a policy riddle. They’re a boon to the schools their kids attend and a great source of tax revenue for the city in general. But keeping middle-class families in the BPS as their kids grow up might mean allowing more local control over high schools—which is good for the families who live in middle-class neighborhoods, but may effectively close off opportunities for kids in the rest of the city.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.