For decades, superintendents across the country have agreed about the perplexing logic of class and education: “An all-poor school system can’t be sustained and all-rich one can’t be justified,” explains Michael Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools. “Constantly trying to balance those two imperatives is very difficult.”
In the District, those numbers are also intertwined with the old taboo of race. The bulk of DCPS’ population, for years, has been mostly low-income blacks. Whites either didn’t enroll or ran for the nearest exit after elementary school. Activists from time to time demanded changes in academic programs. But no one dared discuss the system’s racial makeup.
Now, however, Rhee is simultaneously responding to and attempting to create a new demand among previously uninterested school populations. Shifting demographics is one clear reason for her actions. The District, once “Chocolate City,” is becoming, as the saying goes, “Vanilla Village.” Between 2000 and 2008, the white population grew by 5 percentage points—the largest growth than any city except Atlanta—according to a Brookings Institution report. By 2008, 44 percent of District residents were white.
“A new image of urban America is in the making,” William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer and co-author of the report, told The Associated Press.” What used to be white flight is turning into ‘bright flight’ to the cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction.”
Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, whose district includes Capitol Hill, says he has seen dramatic changes in his neighborhood’s young families: “They are choosing to stay and to attend neighborhood schools.” And the choice of public schools is no longer entirely voluntary, thanks to contemporary D.C.’s real estate prices. Wells’ constituents may look rich on paper, but big mortgages have made it nearly impossible for many of them to send their children to private schools—as a previous generation once did.
“Let’s be realistic,” says Derlega. “What does private school costs—$20,000?” In other words: He needs DCPS, whether or not its chancellor invites him for tea.
That means there is a larger, more racially and economically diverse, array of parents making demands on the same school system. On one side there are folks like the Derlegas and Sehgal. On another side is an older coterie of mainly African-American parents, many of whom never had sufficient resources to move or opt for private school. Longtime residents who knew how to navigate the system often circumvented low-performing or unsafe neighborhood schools by getting their children in out-of-boundary slots at facilities in other wards—often in the very schools Rhee now wants to make attractive to newcomers. The more of them she recruits, the fewer slots there are left for kids from neighborhoods that have never gentrified.
It’s no wonder that some black parents see the recruitment drive not as a way to grow the pie, but as a zero-sum battle over resources and options.
Race talk can be dangerous. Comments get twisted. Accusations are flung wildly. Add a heated political contest like the one between Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and such a conversation becomes downright deadly.
Rhee, who has figured prominently in this year’s election, assiduously avoids such discussions. She has ample evidence of their dangers. Consider the fracas last year over Rose L. Hardy Middle School, a predominantly black school in a mainly white neighborhood. Appearing before the Citizens Association of Georgetown, Rhee announced she would make changes that wouldn’t “turn” the school overnight but would boost options for Ward 2 residents.
“What was that supposed to mean?” Keenan Keller, a Ward 1 resident and Hardy parent asked after reading a report on the meeting. “African-American parents have a great sensitivity to that kind of coded language.”
Rhee had decided to reassign the school’s popular principal, Patrick Pope. Pope is white. But her decision came after several white families complained, during one of the chancellor’s private living-room chats with a group of parents from Key Elementary School in Ward 3’s Palisades neighborhood, about Hardy’s academic rigor. Key is supposed to feed into Hardy. But, much to Rhee’s frustration, many of its parents were bailing out.