The candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary have generally offered voters only platitudes on education reform. What’s needed is a plan to increase socioeconomic diversity by ensuring a critical mass of middle-class students in as many schools as possible.

Photo from DCPS website.

For the most part, the candidates’ positions on education have been limited to saying that the quality of teachers and administrators should be high on our agenda. They have argued that all children in our public school system, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserve an excellent education. But these goals, while appealing to voters, are devoid of content.

What would a detailed reform proposal include? Whether we support charter or traditional schools, mayoral control or boards of education, teachers’ unions or test-based systems of accountability, we should be united in support of policies that increase socioeconomic diversity.

Benefits of diversity

While the scientific evidence for education reform is not nearly as scientific as many data-driven reformers claim, a strong consensus exists on two things. Low-income kids score significantly higher on standardized tests when they attend non-majority-poor schools than they do when they attend majority-poor schools. And middle-income kids do not suffer academically when they share schools and classrooms with a minority of low-income students.

Ideally, we would be able to reduce the number of majority-poor schools in our system. But we have a limited ability to do that, because the vast majority of kids who attend public schools in DC are low-income.

Further complicating the matter, many middle-class parents have over the years been reluctant to send their kids to majority-poor schools. (I’m using “middle-class” to include low-income parents with a middle-class commitment to education.)

But do schools actually need to have a majority of middle-class students in order to achieve the benefits researchers have identified? That’s far from clear.

Not all majority-poor schools are the same, and so far researchers haven’t been able to distinguish between low-income schools that have, for example, good principals and teachers and those that do not. Nor have they distinguished between schools serving different low-income ethnic groups or focused specifically on schools in diverse neighborhoods.

Many people seem to question the sanity of middle-class parents who send their kids to majority-poor schools. But they are in fact enrolling their kids in these schools with a confidence that bucks conventional wisdom.

And what their actions suggest is that more and more middle-class parents would send their kids to majority-poor schools if our diverse public schools are able to maintain a critical mass of middle-class families.

What’s a “critical mass”?

What would qualify as a critical mass? I have not found any research on this subject, but personal experience and the statistical data suggest that for many middle-class families living in diverse neighborhoods, 20 to 30% middle-class would win their loyalty and commitment.

As a middle-class parent of children enrolled in an early childhood development program at a majority-poor neighborhood elementary school, I am not convinced that socioeconomic segregation is inevitable. I’m also not convinced that low-income and higher-income students have such different academic needs that both groups can’t be educated successfully in the same classroom.

Even at majority-poor schools, low-income kids surely derive some benefits from their middle-class peers. Middle-class parents may invest their time and energy in the school, and rising test scores and a growing reputation for academic excellence can boost school morale. These benefits are especially likely to arise if there is a critical mass of middle-class families and the school is located in a diverse neighborhood.

And what about the effects of a majority-poor elementary school on middle-class kids? In my experience, many poor kids do need remedial help, but the vast majority are not disruptive and are as eager to learn as middle-class kids. As long as early childhood and elementary school classes spend a lot of time working in small groups, students will be able to learn at their own pace.

That’s one reason attracting and maintaining a critical mass of middle-class families is so important. Middle-class parents need to know that their children will have a group of peers working at the same level in their classrooms.

“Controlled choice” focuses on the wrong problem

Advocates of a “controlled choice” assignment system have also focused on creating more diverse schools, but they have misidentified the problem. The primary challenge is not to protect low-income students from being displaced by a wave of middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods, as they argue.

Rather, the problem is the inability of many elementary schools and nearly all middle and high schools in diverse neighborhoods to attract and maintain a critical mass of middle-class families.

To solve that problem, we need to engineer greater coordination between our two public school systems, DCPS and charter. Middle-class parents who enroll their kids in majority-poor schools are under constant pressure to defect before other middle-class families do. And an abundance of charter schools that appeal to middle-class families makes it easier for them to do that.

This situation cannot be rectified easily. But if our solution to under-performing schools is to open another charter school, schools that would otherwise be able to attract a critical mass of middle-class parents will suffer defections.

Middle schools

By middle school, middle-class parents want something more than a critical mass of peers. Majority-poor middle schools will also need a full complement of school courses and extra-curricular activities if they’re going to attract higher-income parents. This latter requirement will present our next mayor with his or her greatest challenge.

Schools that are presently underenrolled, whether they remain DCPS or are converted to charters, will have to be fully funded. We can’t assume that the same middle-class families who have contributed to our elementary school revival will, one brave family at a time, spark a comparable middle- and high-school revival without that.

An alternative (perhaps complementary) solution would be to open schools in middle-class neighborhoods that already have great schools and reserve a percentage of seats at both new and old schools for the out-of-boundary lottery. That may seem unfair, but it would ensure that schools in those areas would be both diverse and majority middle-class.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that, given the socioeconomic imbalance in our school system and the economic segregation in the District, most DC parents will be sending their kids to schools serving only low-income families for the foreseeable future.

If those parents don’t win a lottery seat at a diverse school, they should be given a choice between their neighborhood school or a nearby charter school with a proven track-record of serving low-income kids.

But these kinds of decisions need to be made in the spirit of cooperation, not pure competition, because a school system cannot plan rationally for the future if its two parts are making decisions independently of each other.

Our next mayor will have a chance to set our public school system on a path of sustainable long-term improvement. But if we merely “double down” on present strategies, as the incumbent mayor says he would do, or take refuge in platitudes, as his competitors have largely done, we won’t solve the problem of middle-class dispersal. And a set of enrollment patterns will get entrenched that will be very difficult to reverse.

Aaron Hanna is a political scientist who lives in Washington DC.  He teaches courses in political theory and international relations and is presently trying to finish a novel he began while living with his family in Nairobi, Kenya.