Since the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of American schools in 1954, the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education has yielded both progress and disappointment. The unanimous ruling not only started the process of eliminating de jure racial segregation in education, but also set the precedent for removing the same barriers to housing access, employment, civic participation, and other facets of American society (Noguera, 2019). Yet, even as we acknowledge the historic significance of Brown, there have been many changes since. Intense levels of segregation—which had decreased markedly in the decades after 1954—are now on the rise. This is happening as American society is in the midst of profound demographic changes, with the country’s suburbs and gentrifying areas at the forefront (Mordechay, Gándara, & Orfield, 2019). This article seeks to describe the phenomenon of gentrification and its complex interplay with public schools. It then considers how policy might be deployed to minimize gentrification’s harms while harnessing some of the benefits it may present for a return toward the vision of Brown.
The question of equity in education remains as relevant now as it was at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, but the context of today could hardly be more different. Simply put, Americans are vastly more diverse. Whereas Whites accounted for approximately 90% of the population in the decade of the Brown ruling, their share has steadily dropped. Since 1980, the share of Whites has declined from close to 80% to 60% of the total population, with some projections suggesting the nation will become “minority white” around 2045 (Frey, 2018). K-12 schools have already hit that point (figure 1). And yet racial segregation in U.S. public schools is increasing in many parts of the country (Frankenberg, et al., 2019).
Racially isolated schools are associated with a plethora of unequal educational outcomes, including less experienced and less qualified teachers as well as high levels of teacher turnover (Clotfelter et al., 2010). Students attending segregated schools also have fewer and less advanced curricular options as well as inferior facilities and resources (Yun & Moreno, 2006). As a result of these compounded disadvantages, the outcomes for students who attend segregated schools include lower academic achievement (Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012), higher dropout rates, and lower graduation rates (Balfanz & Legters, 2004).
The segregated features of American neighborhoods, especially housing patterns are a major driver of racial school segregation. Although this link has loosened in recent years, the vast majority of children still attend their local neighborhood public school (Snyder et al., 2019). Because of the tightly linked relationship between housing and school attendance, scholars have begun to pay attention to the phenomenon of gentrification, through which affluent and educated, and mostly White households have swept back into the urban cores from which their parents once fled. As a result, a notable number of communities have become newly heterogeneous via this process of gentrification, particularly since 2000 (Ellen & Torrats-Espinosa, 2018). This carries potentially significant implications for many urban school districts across the country.
I. Gentrification: From Minor to Major Force
The term gentrification dates back to the early 1960s to describe the migration and subsequent transformation of working-class areas of East London (Glass, 1964). Since then, the definition of gentrification, as well as its causes and consequences, has been widely debated among scholars, activists, and the general public. Gentrification in its classic form entails an influx of higher socioeconomic status individuals and outside, often predatory, investment into relatively poor neighborhoods that have experienced disinvestment. Most scholarship has emphasized neighborhood changes in educational attainment, housing stock, and income as the defining features of gentrification. In recent decades, however, race has also become a central feature. Historically, gentrification has been a minor force of urban change in most cities, but there is general agreement that it has become much more substantial in a number of urban centers in the last two decades (Ellen & Torrats-Espinosa, 2018; Florida, 2003). The scope of this demographic shift has been large, with some estimates suggesting that 20% of neighborhoods in America’s fifty largest cities have experienced gentrification over the last two decades. In several cities with more extensive levels of gentrification, more than half of all neighborhoods have been gentrified (Maciag, 2015). Perhaps most surprising is that this trend is a reversal of decades of disinvestment and white flight in the mid-20th century.
Many theories have been offered to explain what is fueling gentrification. These accounts range from drastic decreases in violent crime (Ellen, et al. 2019), increased racial tolerance by Whites (Sander, 2018), deliberate urban revitalization efforts by municipal governments (Smith, 1996), millennials’ distaste for commuting (Okulicz-Kozaryn & Valente, 2019), and two decades of development plans tailored to the “creative class” of college-educated professionals. These forces along with increasing affordability pressures drive higher-income households to lower-income neighborhoods in search of less costly housing (Ellen, et al. 2013), further fueling gentrification.
II. Gentrification and Neighborhood Schools
In spite of these trends, gentrifying neighborhoods that achieve racial and economically diverse communities may not result in diverse schools. High SES and White families who move into transitioning neighborhoods often do not send their children to the neighborhood school, instead choosing private schools, charters outside the neighborhood, or other choice programs. However, recent data seems to suggest this may be changing, and some schools serving gentrifying neighborhoods may be experiencing a decrease in segregation (Mordechay & Ayscue, 2020; Deim et al., 2019). Several recent analyses of traditional public schools in New York City and the District of Columbia found that in the cities’ most rapidly gentrifying areas, White enrollment increased and school segregation declined, albeit modestly (Mordechay & Ayscue, 2020, 2019).
In addition, the rise of charter schools has presented an added layer of complexity for understanding schooling within gentrification contexts. Some research shows that charter school emergence may actually facilitate gentrification in many circumstances (Pearman & Swain 2017). Charter school growth may lead to a rise in school segregation and a decline in residential segregation as neighborhood and school choices decouple (Rich et al. 2021). Also, several recent studies have documented that in urban districts where charter school options proliferate alongside gentrification, neighborhood diversity does not necessarily trickle down to the nearby charter schools (Mann et al., 2020; Bischoff & Tach, 2020; Mordechay & Ayscue, 2017). As charter schools expand across urban centers, it remains unclear whether or not they are an obstacle to the desegregation of local schools.
Scholars have begun investigating the social and racial tensions that often accompany these demographic shifts. Gentrifier parents can bring needed resources and improvements to local schools that have been historically segregated. However, these same parents may also lead to the marginalization of the populations that preceded them at the school (Posey-Maddox, 2014; Siegel-Hawley et al., 2016; New York Times, 2020). Studies exploring modern parenting practices have suggested that this is in part driven by a set of common fears and anxieties that motivate privileged parents to engage in exclusionary behaviors that often “hoard opportunities” (Goyette & Lareau, 2014). This in turn creates a dynamic where school leaders find themselves rarely willing to challenge this behavior and frequently cater to higher-SES, White families, undermining the equity aims of the school (Mordechay, 2021; Calarco, 2020). These power and privilege dynamics can create highly racialized environments in which race and class shape student experiences in ways that might accentuate inequality. All of this points towards a complicated interplay between school diversity and urban gentrification.
While gentrification can be an inexorable destructive force in neighborhoods without significant protections in place, these communities also have an opportunity to harness the upsides of neighborhood change and alleviate the stark racial and economic isolation that has been so pervasive throughout urban America. In order for the outcome of gentrification to be a shared opportunity, efforts at meaningful integration across the lines of class and race are important. To achieve longer-term integration, however, policymakers will need to work in coordination with housing and education entities as well as community-based organizations, leveraging existing community assets and resources. The goal must be to seek a revitalization model that will work for both long-time residents and newcomers.
Keeping Neighborhoods Affordable
Limited housing supply and increased demand in central cities have combined to cause housing prices to skyrocket, which puts vulnerable households at risk of displacement. Housing market pressures are especially pronounced in gentrifying neighborhoods (Freeman & Schuetz, 2017). Cognizant of the potential pitfalls of gentrification, a number of cities and nonprofits are utilizing community preference policies allowing residents priority access to subsidized housing built in their neighborhoods. Such programs can target low-income residents who are at the highest risk of displacement (such as renters), or those that have long ties to the community. For example, the city of Portland recently adopted a program that gives affordable housing to residents who were displaced as a result of past redevelopment efforts. Similarly, other cities including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Austin have adopted similar policies (Goetz, 2018). For these policies to be effective, they must be carefully tailored to the particular community and regularly reviewed for compliance with the Fair Housing Act (for example, New York City’s policy was challenged in a Fair Housing Act lawsuit filed in 2015 that is still pending in 2021). Properly crafted community preference policies can be an effective strategy for minimizing displacement and ensuring that long-term residents of color benefit from neighborhood improvements occurring around them. In addition, preserving subsidized housing that already exists in gentrifying communities can help to lock in diversity over the long term. In strong market neighborhoods, local governments should also enact policies that protect existing tenants from harassment and evictions.
The social environments of newly gentrifying communities are often characterized by limited social interaction across races and class, and often with dynamics of exclusion. For the communities to be truly integrated, intentional efforts to break through the challenging social barriers are critical, including developing more inclusive forms of governance and welcoming public spaces for shared use (Chaskin & Joseph, 2015). Long-standing community organizations are likely best equipped to help break down the social barriers that are common within demographically shifting neighborhoods. This can help ensure that all residents feel part of the community and can take full advantage of any emerging opportunities.
Schools as Anchors of Integration
A key neighborhood feature in both attracting and retaining families with children are the local public schools. Efforts to integrate gentrifying families into local schools must include policies, practices, and effective leadership that are responsive to both new and long-time residents (Mordechay & Ayscue, 2018). Once schools in gentrifying areas attract a more diverse student body, additional policies and practices are needed to ensure schools are not just desegregated on the surface and segregated within. Simply assigning students to schools in a manner that creates diversity will not produce desired outcomes. Making sure that the teachers of diverse classrooms are prepared to handle the challenges that often accompany rapid demographic shifts is imperative. Providing these educators with professional development opportunities that focus on strategies for adapting to racial changes can help ensure equitable inclusion of students from all backgrounds. As has been well documented, tension in gentrifying urban schools is common. Therefore, preparing school leadership to work effectively with all parents is essential, especially ensuring that the schools do not become sites for opportunity hoarding by the more privileged parents.
In addition to leadership preparation that combines high-quality research and hands-on experience, it is important to consider the racial and ethnic diversity of school leadership. Administrators of color can have a number of distinct advantages, including more trust when communicating with community members that share their racial and ethnic background. Therefore, in diversifying schools located in racially transitioning neighborhoods, districts should prioritize hiring a diverse corps of principals.
American society is in the midst of profound demographic changes; and as the nation becomes more diverse, a return toward the undoing of segregation and the vision of Brown becomes more imperative. Currently, gentrification is a growing social and economic force in many cities, offering an opportunity to integrate what were once segregated neighborhoods and schools. While unchecked gentrification is unlikely to produce any lasting integration, it is possible that with explicit diversity efforts from schools and communities, gentrification could lead to shared opportunities for all stakeholders. ▀
Kfir Mordechay (kfir.mordechay@ pepperdine.edu) is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University.
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