Produced by Serial and The New York Times, the five-episode podcast series “Nice White Parents” concluded with its final episode in mid-August. The series examines racial inequality in public education and the abject failures to desegregate America’s public schools in the 65 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against explicit school segregation policies in Brown v. Board of Education. Host Chana Joffe-Walt blames racial inequalities in the New York City education system primarily on well-intentioned, socially progressive white parents who believe in and advocate for school desegregation—but often manage to sully and sideline the process when it starts to demand too much of them.
While the podcast makes plenty of observations that education reformers can agree with and have highlighted ourselves, it fails to hold accountable the major culprits behind our unfair education system—that is, state and local public officials.
Joffe-Walt spends much of the series examining the story of one Brooklyn public school—the School for International Studies (SIS)—which serves mostly minority children and has seen temporary influxes of white students at various points in its history. The story is meant to illustrate broader systemic inequalities in America’s K-12 education system. The host chronicles how from SIS’ opening in the late ’60s and repeatedly thereafter, groups of progressive white families have periodically mobilized around sending their own children to the school, only to renege on their commitments and send their children elsewhere. The show’s audience undoubtedly winced at the reasons offered by these parents for giving up on SIS—we heard potentially racially-charged descriptors like “angry” kids, and “chaotic” environments.
While it may seem curious to some that the series takes aim at socially progressive communities in New York rather than more conservative communities in the south with a darker history of racial tension, the final episode offers some clarity around this choice. The concluding episode highlights how, while segregation is a problem everywhere, schools in progressive northeastern states today are the most segregated in the country, and the more conservative southern states are some of the most integrated. It turns out that good intentions in the nation’s most socially liberal communities are not enough to overcome a rigid education system that is still largely driven by zip code and neighborhood real estate.
As Joffe-Walt illustrates, these problems are most pronounced in large, socioeconomically diverse cities where most white families believe in integration but, in the brutally honest words of one mother she interviewed, “didn’t want to sacrifice my own kids to it.” The ugly reality exposed in “Nice White Parents” is that cosmopolitan white families often do have the political power to get their children into better schools, lobby for greater public resources, and dictate the programs at whatever school building they show up at. It is this dynamic that leads Joffe-Walt to her main, self-admittedly naïve recommendation for solving racial inequality in education: that white parents need to voluntarily relinquish their power in schools to disadvantaged families of color.
This unrealistic and vague recommendation should lead listeners to ask more fundamental questions about the public education system—questions that might lead to more actionable reforms. While it’s true that privileged and often politically progressive white families have played a role in perpetuating a racially unfair education system in cities across the country, the buck should stop with the political leaders who have continually tailored the system to protect school board positions and neighborhood wealth. As Joffe-Walt herself points out, the advantages enjoyed by privileged white families in the public education system in recent decades has rarely been a product of coordinated efforts toward racial oppression on the part of parents and more often a consequence of individual-level actions to give their children the best education they can within a perverse system perpetuated by the government.
While this framing clearly does not absolve nice white parents of all wrongdoing, it should redirect the attention of listeners to political leaders and the entrenched education system as a whole. After all, while neighborhood groups and parents surely lobby, it isn’t individual white parents who decide to fund schools within a district unfairly or to create public magnet schools for “gifted” students that favor the privileged families that can afford tutoring or private dance instruction. Nor is it individual nice white parents who ultimately enforce and re-draw district lines to protect geographic monopolies over public education so they can avoid serving the “difficult” kids, attract more experienced teachers, and hoard tax dollars. For these problems, blame the perverse political incentives of district school boards and state legislatures.
On a hopeful note, Episode 4 of the series showcases one school that may be bucking the trend by providing a high-quality education to black and white students in the same building. It’s a school whose students—many of which are poor minority children—far outperform their peers at other schools in New York, even those that are more advantaged. What’s more, Joffe-Walt points out, is that the school doesn’t let powerful parents lobby for special favors, it enjoys more independence from local politics, it holds all students to the same rigorous academic standards, and is in very high demand among New York City families. It’s a charter school called Success Academy.
One might expect Joffe-Walt to be excited about what she sees at the school and to credit the school choice movement, but she sounds more conflicted than enthusiastic. Unfortunately, she dismisses the idea that Success Academy could be a good model for advancing racial equality in education because it has a white CEO and wealthy financial managers on its school board. “This is not exactly a disruption to the social order,” she dismissively remarks before moving on. It is a puzzling conclusion because if the long waitlists for entry into schools like Success and many other high-performing charters across the country are any indication, this is exactly the kind of social disruption parents want.
“Nice White Parents” was a meaningful and challenging listen. But by focusing too heavily on getting big-city progressives to do some soul-searching, the series fails to adequately contextualize many of the problems it highlights. For instance, Joffe-Walt spends considerable time in the first two episodes on how private fundraising and PTAs are a prime example of how white parents wield their power at schools—but doesn’t acknowledge that private donations account for less than 2 percent of all public education dollars. Also, while the series frequently alludes to the problem of unequal funding along racial lines, it doesn’t delve into the policy mechanisms driving this unequal funding or the many state-level policy reforms since Brown that have improved funding fairness between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
It’s a stretch to name white progressives and their well-intentioned, albeit self-interested, individual-level decisions as the biggest obstacle to achieving education equality, especially considering the scope of bad education policies and the many other racially charged government decisions of the last century. In the height of the Jim Crowe era, government loans and grants that jump-started the growth of the middle class were refused to an entire generation of black families, creating inequalities that persist today. Decades thereafter came further waves of racist policy decisions like segregated public housing programs, red-lining, and overcriminalization. Clearly the problem goes beyond liberal white parents who are just trying to get their own kids a good education.
In some respect, Joffe-Walt is right that powerful families should relinquish their power over the education system—just in a more far-reaching sense than she recommends. To empower disadvantaged families, progressive white parents and others should push policymakers to end the entrenched residential assignment education system that allows for opportunity hoarding in the first place. Public schools shouldn’t be allowed to shut anyone out, and all students should be funded fairly based on their individual needs. Moreover, ample evidence suggests that expanding school choice programs can advance racial integration. Although it’s not a silver bullet, having a more open and choice-friendly education system can curtail the pernicious effects of white flight and school district politics. As provocative as it is to point the finger at “Nice White Parents,” the policy problems undergirding racial inequality in education don’t expose such a singular culprit—just as they won’t be solved by any singular solution.