Well, we did it. Like millions of White, relatively affluent Americans before us, my wife and I moved with our two boys out of the city and into the suburbs. It’s a loaded moment, one that has forced me to face the vast distances between my core beliefs on education, equity and social justice and the decisions I feel are right for my family.
[pullquote position="left"]We left the city kicking and screaming, trying to find a way to stay that was both economically feasible and also provided the education and lifestyle that aligned to our values. We couldn’t. Or rather, we didn’t. Let me explain. As I’ve discussed earlier,
here, the neighborhood in which we lived in West Philadelphia, like so many areas in America, aligned family wealth and income with access to quality education. Simply put, if you could afford to live in an area with a “good” school, then you had the choice to send your kids to that school; if you didn’t, then you didn’t. This barrier to access came in the form of a catchment zone, a box outlined in the sidewalk that determined one’s access to one of the “best” elementary schools in the city, one with direct connections to a prestigious Ivy League university. The average cost of a home in Philadelphia is about $140,000, but within that box, it is closer to $500,000, thus transforming that imaginary line into an all too real barrier. So what kind of home could we get for nearly half a million dollars? A 2,000 square foot, three-bedroom row-home with zero outdoor space. But it’s what came with that space that mattered. What came with that space was a relatively integrated lifestyle that allowed our boys to grow up in a multi-complexioned, multiracial, multi-religious and multi-income environment. It allowed them to ride public transit and navigate the urban landscape. It provided an education that can be found nowhere else except within urban America. I desperately wanted that for my boys. But the other side of the coin, to me, made the choice painfully obvious. A suburb 20 minutes outside of the city, connected via mass transit just steps from our front door. A beautiful, spacious home with a wonderful yard. A quick walk into town with a main street of locally owned shops and restaurants. A strong school system. And all for less money. But it’s White. So White. Like so painfully White. We did what was right for our boys’ education, particularly our eldest who has special needs. But at what cost?
Can I raise two anti-racist young White males in a predominantly White middle/upper-middle class suburb? Can I teach the value of integration from my new mono-complexioned neighborhood? And let’s be real, that neighborhood in Philly wasn’t without issues. With its unequal access to quality schools, relentless gentrification and somewhat maddening wealthy White liberals, myself included, who were just tolerant enough to live in the city, but still held fast to all of the biases that made some schools “good enough” and other schools “not quite good enough.” This isn’t a conversation with an end or an answer. Nor is this a pity party. My family is blessed with the privilege to exercise choice, a privilege afforded through hard work, yes, but also because we benefit from the systems that give my White family a head start. It is also, it should be said, the very type of choice exercised by those people for their own children, while at the same time obstructing the same opportunity for other families, all in name of saving public education from so-called privatization. It’s just a snapshot into one family, a family who believes in justice, integration, anti-racism and the daily battle to dismantle America’s many systems of racial and economic oppression, while also being a family that is trying to ensure that their own children have access to the best education possible.
If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it. I will be the first to agree. Here’s what I know for sure. We have got to change the funding formulas that see rich schools for the wealthy and impoverished schools for the poor. If we don’t change that, then people of means will continue to follow the money trail to the catchment zones and suburbs of privilege, leaving those without to wallow in educational deserts. And nothing will change, because of families like mine.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...