The New Reformers: City-Loving Millennials Who Want Quality Schools Not Tied to Their ZIP Code
The lottery in Washington, D.C. is a significant source of anxiety for parents in the city. It is not the usual lottery games like the DC-5 or Mega Millions, but rather the one that determines school placement. This school lottery is considered the most important one, as it affects every family in the city.
Washington, D.C. has an advanced open enrollment system for schools. All students in the district’s 38,905 charter schools are selected through lotteries that are blind to their family’s real estate status. Additionally, thousands of other students also participate in the lottery to enroll in district-run schools outside of their neighborhood.
The open enrollment system in D.C. is an intriguing experiment in the realm of education politics. Like many cities, the demographics of the district are changing, with a larger and more diverse population of school-age children. These changes are influencing the political landscape of education policymaking in the city.
However, this isn’t exclusive to Washington, D.C. This phenomenon is relevant to other cities and the entire country. Cities are known for being at the forefront of social and cultural progress, with urban areas often serving as the birthplace of education reform and other policy advancements.
The shifting demographics in cities have an impact on the political environment surrounding education policies. As urban areas continue to evolve, it will shape the future of education reform across the nation.
The future of education reform will undoubtedly be influenced by urban demographics. The question is, who currently resides in cities, and who will live in them in the future?
While cities attract individuals from various backgrounds, it appears that young, educated millennial parents will play a significant role in the future of U.S. cities. There are several reasons for this. Some stem from personal preferences, as these young families aspire to live in walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. They are less interested in cars, highways, and parking.
Financial considerations also play a role in attracting millennials to cities. The economic challenges faced by individuals in their twenties and thirties today are greater than in previous generations. Working families who are striving for professional advancement, paying off student loans, saving for retirement, and building a stable middle-class life are drawn to cities with higher incomes and dynamic labor markets. The only problem is that they are not alone in this quest. They find themselves in competition with their peers to move to these cities before housing costs become unaffordable due to the high demand for economic opportunities.
In other words, these young urbanites possess certain cultural and educational privileges but often lack the income or savings to match. This puts them in a unique position where their familial interests do not align with those of wealthy, older families who have already secured privileged positions in well-off neighborhoods. This predicament has implications for various aspects of city life, such as zoning, transit, public safety, open spaces, and even schools.
Ryan Gravel, an urban designer, explains in his recently published book "Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities" how transportation infrastructure plays a crucial role in shaping cities. It not only moves people but also builds communities and constructs our way of life. Therefore, it is essential to carefully consider the type of infrastructure we invest in, ensuring that it aligns with our desired lifestyle.
Cities are shaped by the beliefs and preferences of their residents, but they, in turn, also shape those beliefs. Gravel emphasizes that changes in infrastructure, whether it’s related to transit, zoning, safety, or schools, arise in response to people’s preferences. However, these changes also influence and shape those preferences, ultimately molding our way of life.
With urban millennials transitioning into parenthood, the question arises: what do they desire from their city’s schools? Are they concerned about teacher evaluations, federal accountability policies, or alternative teacher certification paths? Most likely not. Like other parents, their primary concern is access to quality schools. Advocates may argue that certain policies or evaluations will lead to improved school quality, but they will face an uphill battle capturing the interest of parents.
Consider this: These individuals are comfortable utilizing public transportation to navigate through densely populated cities in search of various private and public goods. Millennial parents would be interested in open enrollment policies that provide them with more freedom to find a school that suits their children. Additionally, the rising costs of urban housing make it challenging for these families to purchase homes in areas with guaranteed access to high-quality neighborhood schools. As a result, these families are likely to be interested in policies that break this correlation.
Here’s another point to consider: Young families highly value quality public pre-K programs. This is partially because households with two incomes are better equipped to handle the current economic challenges. Quality, full-day pre-K programs allow parents to return to work sooner after the birth of a child, while also saving them from paying exorbitant childcare costs for a year or two. However, many of these families cannot afford to have a parent stay at home for several years or decades to raise children. It’s worth noting that universal pre-K is on the horizon.
It’s possible that these ideas may not resonate with you. Perhaps millennial families come across as negative based on what you’ve read. No need to worry though – you have the ability to keep them out of your city. Simply implement education, transit, zoning, and other policies similar to those found in cities with few millennials like Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana.
This should be encouraging news for education reformers who support school choice, open enrollment policies, and improved access to high-quality pre-K programs. However, they should not get complacent. While it may be tempting to believe that macroeconomic trends will shape new city demographics and restore reform to political popularity, that is unlikely to happen. The future of education reform will require careful consideration of whether the reform-oriented policies favored by these new urban residents are still promoting equity. In other words, although these new urban parents are open to reforms, they are also interested in finding ways to ensure these systems protect their own privileges. This is not just a theoretical concept. With each lottery season, frustrated white parents express their dissatisfaction on the playground, claiming that open enrollment is unfair and suggesting that there should be a law to compel high-performing charter schools to prioritize enrollment for neighborhood children who are increasingly affluent and privileged.
In this regard, millennials are similar to parents from any other generation. They may endorse the idea of justice in theory, but when it comes to their own children, they tend to justify actions that protect their own privileges while thinly veiling their intentions.
At times, education politics can lose sight of the true purpose and beneficiaries of education policies. The major debates often appear as battles between secondary parties. Each new reform is framed in terms of its impact on "data," "accountability," "teachers unions," "the reform movement," or the U.S. Department of Education.
However, at the end of the day, families play a significant role in shaping the context for new education policies. Reformers in cities like Chicago, New York, Newark, and Washington, D.C. have learned the hard way that successful ideas are those that genuinely address the needs and preferences of families. Education policies may not be the decisive factor in most major elections, but they are still subject to the fundamental rule of democratic politics: beneficial and popular ideas outperform unpopular ones.