Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 1

I recently read the editorial “White Progressive Parents and Conundrum of Privilege” and a lot of it rings true based on my experience.

One of the clearest bits of evidence that San Francisco is not actually a progressive city is to point out that a higher percentage of K-12 students are in private schools than any other metro area in USA (or at least it did when I was in high school, apparently San Francisco fell to third place, though it seems that it is still true that about one fourth of all K-12 students in San Francisco are in private school).

I remember, when I went to Museum of African American History and Culture in Natchez, Mississippi, and I told the man who worked there that I was from San Francisco, his reaction was not ‘wow, you come from such an progressive and enlightened city’ but ‘wow, San Francisco has the most racially segregated school system in the country.’ And I did not argue with him because I knew he was probably right. One of the main mechanisms for maintaining the high level of racial segregation is the private school system (though there are also mechanisms within the public school system itself which contribute to segregation).

I was a bit of an anomaly, because my parents are white and had the financial means to send me to private school, yet they sent me to public school for all of my K-12 education. Very few white parents with the financial means in San Francisco did this. That meant most of my classmates came from families with less socioeconomic privilege, including my white classmates. I know that some of my white classmates would have definitely been sent to private school if their parents had the money to cover tuition. My most affluent white classmates often had attended private school for some years, and then their parents decided to switch to a public school. I would not say that being different from my classmates in this way was a bad thing – in fact, I think most of them did not realize how much money my parents actually had – but it led to some odd experiences.

When I was in high school, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles about San Francisco’s education system. Many of the articles focused on the differences between public and private schools. I noticed that, even though the articles quoted many parents who said they chose private school for their children, none of those parents provided evidence that private schools offered a better education (and the articles also did not find any evidence that students learn better in private schools than in public schools). The only parent who actually had first hand knowledge of both private schools and public schools because he sent one child to private schools and another child to public schools said that the public schools offered a better education, and that he regretted sending his older child to private school.

After I discussed these articles with my mother, she said “private school parents don’t actually care about the quality of education, that’s why they don’t check whether private schools offer a better education, they just want to keep their kids away from black kids”.

I don’t think my mother’s assessment is entirely fair, since I have met quite a few people who attended private school in San Francisco for at least a few years, and I learned something about their parents (though since these were mostly the parents of students who eventually ended up in public school, they probably are not representative). But I do agree with her that these parents actually care more about social image/status than whether or not their children are learning a lot in school, though many of them do not seem to understand the difference between a prestigious education and an education which actually develops a student’s intellectual potential.

And I think the public schools might even be safer than the private schools. When talking to some former students of private schools in San Francisco, I found some of the things they described rather scary (though I might be biased by the fact that most of these students later ended up in a public school; students who find themselves in danger at a private school are probably much more likely to transfer out). I suspect that the illusion of safety at private schools might actually make them more dangerous. A lot of people are concerned about safety at public schools and there is a lot of scrutiny; a lot less people pay attention to safety issues at private schools.

That said, the private schools are definitely better for making social connections and offering opportunities which can entrench/increase a child’s privileges. I’ll give a specific example: one of my high school classmates was admitted to Harvard. It was a big deal because a) my high school was small, so everyone knew this guy and b) he was the first student at my high school to be admitted to Harvard. He later found out why he was the first, and told us about it; that was the first year that Harvard admissions actually bothered to read applications from students at my high school. If he had graduated just a year earlier, the Harvard people would have tossed out his application unread, and he would have had zero chance of getting into Harvard. That was because my high school was a public school in San Francisco that wasn’t Lowell. Previously, with regards to applicants from San Francisco, Harvard’s policy had been to only read applications from private school students and Lowell students (Lowell is the top-rated public high school in San Francisco). The year he applied, Harvard decided finally read applications from students from other San Francisco public high schools. I think that my high school previously had students who were just as qualified to get into Harvard as my classmate who was admitted; it was unfair that they did not have a chance. Hopefully Harvard reads all applications now, but I suspect that there are still other ways that private high school students get unfair advantages (especially social connections).

Speaking of Lowell and racial diversity, I recently read that Lowell only has eight African American students in its class of 2018. I was surprised. I looked through one of my old yearbooks, and counted thirteen African-American students in my graduating class (not including several students whose racial background was not clear based on the photos and I couldn’t remember whether or not they identified as African-American) – and my high school was much smaller than Lowell. (No, I am not in favor of changing Lowell’s admission standards, but based on the article, it seems that their outreach could be significantly improved).

My parents are white, and might even be described as center-left, but they definitely are not progressive. They did not particularly care about racial and class diversity in schools – they would have been totally fine sending me to an all-white-affluent school, but they also did not mind sending me to racially and class diverse schools. So why did they send me to public schools? Both of my parents thought that paying private school tuition would be a waste of money, but it was more than that. My father felt that it was his civic duty to send me to public school. My mother did not care about civic duty, she simply was not convinced that I would receive a better education in private school than in public school, therefore private school tuition was a horrible waste of money.

And my neighborhood? It’s racially mixed (mostly white people and Asian-Americans, but there are also some African-Americans around here and there). The class dynamics in my neighborhood are complicated, so I’ll oversimplify for brevity: there are poor, working class, middle class, and rich people all living within walking distance of my home, but that does not mean we’re socially integrated, we tend to keep our social selves separate from anyone who is more than a notch or two away from us on the class hierarchy. For example, there is an upper class enclave just a ten minute walk from my home, yet I rarely set foot there, and if I did go there and encountered one of the people who live there, it would be awkward because I don’t know how to engage with them.

Ironically, the fact that my parents care a lot less about ‘social justice’ might be why they were more willing to send me to public school than affluent parents who do care about ‘social justice’. The affluent parents who care about ‘social justice’ probably spend a lot of time about thinking about how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so the subconsciously think that they need to keep their kids away from the those unfortunate people in case the bad luck is infectious. In other words, as affluent white people who care about ‘social justice’ they may have be more susceptible to the classist and racist assumption that schools with lots of poor and/or brown students must be worse because that is where the poor and/or brown students are. (And if they discovered that some of those schools with lots of poor and/or brown students are actually good, and that poor and/or brown students are not always to be viewed with pity, it might blow their minds). My parents spend a lot less mental energy obsessing over how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so they did not develop the subconscious feeling that they needed to isolate me from all that.

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 1

  1. Me and my siblings had a mixed education, partially public and partially private. The private schools were all Catholic. My impression was that the main motivation for parents who sent their kids to the private schools, was to get a Catholic education. So, they weren’t any more white, weren’t any richer, and the schools didn’t seem any better. The exception was our high school, which was a high-end private school, but it was still fairly diverse.

    It had never really occurred to me to think of private school as mechanism for segregation, though it makes sense. I wonder if Los Angeles has less school segregation, or maybe it’s just the Catholic schools.

    • LA I think it still know for having a fair amount of school segregation, though a lot of it is through things like charter and magnet schools in additional to the traditional private school.

      On the other hand, I think more parents in LA who are worried about education may just leave LA proper entirely (which is basically what my family did, as well as several other families from that same neighborhood – we moved out of LA proper into one of the neighboring suburbs with more prestigious public school districts). I’d imagine it’s harder to do that in SF.

      That said, several kids I knew from elementary school did end up going to some of the fairly elite private high schools in various parts of the LA area, and most of those seem to be estimated at around ~40% nonwhite students – which is about the same level as my fairly elite public high school, but way less diverse than most of the high schools actually in LA. AFAIK non of those were for religious reasons.

      • Oh yes, charter and magnet schools also have something to do with segregation in San Francisco too (Lowell, which is mentioned in the OP, for example). That said, there are cases where the segregation can be justified, such as the public high school in San Francisco just for immigrant students who speak English as a second language (so they can get better ESL support).

        Actually, many families with young children (or which plan to have children) leave San Francisco all the time, though not just because of schools. That’s one reason why San Francisco has an unusually low number of children for a city of its size.

        Quite a few of the students at the elite private schools in San Francisco don’t live in San Francisco itself, they live in places like Marin County.

    • San Francisco has plenty of Catholic schools (a legacy of the era when San Francisco was the most Catholic city in the entire United States), and yes, I am sure there are families who choose Catholic school primarily for Catholic education. That said, some of the students at the Catholic schools (that I have met) are not from Catholic families. There are a few prestigious Catholic schools in San Francisco which attract academically competitive students, but most of them are not particularly prestigious. I know the Catholic schools are much cheaper than any of the other private schools. I don’t know about other Catholic schools in San Francisco, but the Catholic school in my neighborhood is not racially diverse at all, at least 95% of the students I see their are Asian-American (yes, this is an Asian-American neighborhood, but not 95% Asian-American). Maybe that particular parish just happens to be particularly appealing to Chinese-Americans since, IIRC, they have mass in Cantonese every Sunday.

  2. To my knowledge the private schools in my area are all Catholic (including the private universities). My high school wasn’t very diverse just because the area I lived in wasn’t racially diverse.

    I can’t quote the actual studies without trying to find them again, but the deciding factor of whether or not a student does well in school is the level of parental (or guardian) involvement, i.e. checking homework to make sure it’s completed, helping with research projects, buying supplies, encouraging creativity, and regular check-ins with teachers.

    • There are a lot of Catholic schools in San Francisco, but there are also a lot of private schools which are not Catholic.

      The studies I’ve seen agree with you, parental involvement is much more important than the choice of school. I’m sure that at the extreme end, a really bad school has a very negative effect on educational outcomes, but the studies I’ve seen indicate that the difference between an okay school and a good school are not nearly as important as other factors.

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