“Why can’t New Orleans have a charter school for middle class blacks?” A black physician and parent of a teenage daughter unashamedly asked me this question as we deboarded a first class cabin from our flight to the Crescent City. If I weren’t bourgie (African American slang for Bourgeoisie – pronounced boo-zhee), I would have cringed.
Our affectations won’t allow us to admit, but black middle class families really do need quality public schools. Many middle-income families simply can’t afford their pretentious tastes for private and parochial schools, and we also don’t want to send our children to overwhelmingly white environments for fear of cultural isolation.
So, who is fighting for the Bourgie Charter Academy?
A school may assuage the pressure that middle class blacks are feeling in New Orleans. Black families make up about 60 percent of the total population and approximately 90 percent of the public school population. Since 1999, the share of New Orleans’s black middle and upper income households dipped from 35 percent to 31 percent while their white counterparts increased from 60 percent to 68 percent. In addition, post-Katrina structural changes to New Orleans Public Schools altered the student bodies of the traditional middle-, working-class havens. Eleanor McMain and McDonogh 35 lost some of their luster after changes in their entrance requirements and demographics. Consequently, those schools have yet to prove it was the school and not its demographics that brought acclaim and pride.
Enrollment and social struggles among the black parochial schools also reflect declining numbers and the difficulty that comes with inclusion. Unfortunately, schools’ reputations seem to be negatively correlated with the number of poor folk they educate.
While I’m sympathetic to the burden of Bourgie black folk, class struggles within individual ethnic groups are yet another set of barriers that keep schools and communities from reaching their democratic and educational ideals. The middle and upper middle classes’ perceptions and prejudices of poor black children are a primary reason New Orleans’ schools ended up in this systemic spaghetti bowl.
Public schools should look like the public. But public schools are the manifestations of the projected fears of the middle class – poor, black children.
We typically talk about white flight when describing the period when white families abandoned the public school system. However in New Orleans, we can easily describe the phenomenon as middle class flight. Whites represent approximately 35 percent of the total population but approximately 60 percent of the private/parochial schools. Blacks comprise about 35 percent of the private/parochial market. Whites alone didn’t exit public schools.
Middle class parents of all stripes feel they’re risking their children’s educations by placing them in schools with high concentrations of students in poverty. I held my nose when I placed my three year-old child in a lottery for entry into a popular charter school. (Pardon the digression. The idea of placing your child in a lottery offends bourgie parents) After not getting in the school, I did the middle class rite of passage. I enrolled Robeson in a private school – more indication that I’m bourgie.
Nevertheless, our fears that poor children possess some sort of psychosocial virus areas ridiculous as the defense of affluenzia. Privileged parents don’t fully appreciate how their precious child’s academic progress may have as much to do with how much money their grandparents earned as with their tremendous academic potential.
Education reform can’t be about learning how to educate poor people. The current movement hasn’t helped itself much with its teary-eyed, pity rallies that literally place a black or brown child on a stage to serve as raison d’etre. After the tears and checks flow, middle and upper middle class families return to the schools for their kind of people.
The middle class should try to end poverty instead of shunning poor people. Maybe then our public schools would look like the public. Maybe our reforms would include more root causes.
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With over 60 years of collecting data on predictors of academic success, income/wealth consistently ranks high. Quality curriculum and instruction only gets us so far. Education reform would certainly see fewer tears and more jobs if we didn’t abdicate our responsibility for addressing poverty. Our drive for exclusivity isn’t finding the best education for our children. School reform minus efforts to be more inclusive only reinforces our biases of people in poverty. Further, saying that “poverty is out of our control” keeps us from going upstream.
There are some schools in New Orleans and across the country that are simultaneously trying to provide quality curriculum and instruction, strive for inclusion as well as involve the public. In particular, Morris Jeff Community Schools and the Bricolage Academy have explicit goals of including diversity when they talk about “high expectations.” They are not realizing the proverbial “tipping point” from their efforts. Consequently, they are pushing a system that is myopically focused on limited notions of academic growth. Meredith Broussard is right. Poor schools won’t win at standardized testing. We can meet the needs of the whole child if we are willing to pay for it. In addition, states should include diversity points in how they measure school performance.
Charter schools in New Orleans can also do more to promote programs for high achieving students (they do exist in public schools), which can raise the bar for the school even further while easing middle class parents’ concerns that public schools can’t push their children. Too much of reform has been about remediation. How do leaders know how far children can go if opportunities for acceleration don’t exist? Authentic Advanced Placement courses is part of the solution.
But our bourgie dreams for exclusivity keep us from seeing real solutions for building better schools and stronger communities. I certainly don’t have the answer, but I know that using public dollars to create private schools isn’t it. Alas, solving for poor thinking may be a bigger problem than poverty itself. The middle class seems overly willing to change poor folk and not ourselves.
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).