Universal Pre-K, Open Enrollment, Millennial Parents, and City Living

Blog Post
Sept. 29, 2016

I live, work, and parent in Washington, D.C. Both of my children attend public schools, just like I did. But unlike me, they attend an “open enrollment” school, one that assigns seats through a random lottery. When I was a kid, this was rare. In my town, more or less everyone attended schools that they were assigned through their neighborhood addresses. This didn’t mean that everyone attended schools near their houses — the city was using busing in an attempt to desegregate the district’s schools—but families’ addresses were the primary variable in deciding who got to go to which schools.

As my wife and I have built our life together, we’ve been navigating a series of long-standing wagers about what a sane, successful, stable middle-class life looks like. More or less simultaneously, we finished our educations, started building our careers, got married, and started a family together. And, of course, we moved to a place with a dynamic labor market that helps raise salaries to levels that should allow us to pay down our student loans and eventually save enough to pay for our kids’ college educations and our own retirement.

It’s been great. No regrets. None.

And yet, the finances of this so-called “success sequence” are much, much more difficult than they used to be. As I put it in a just-published column at The 74 Million,

The economics of being a 20-something (or even a 30-something) today are tougher than they used to be. So working families who are trying to advance professionally, pay down their student loan debts, save for retirement and generally build a stable middle-class life migrate to U.S. cities where incomes are higher and labor markets are dynamic. Trouble is, they’re not alone — they’re in a race with their peers to move to these cities before demand for those economic opportunities drives housing costs sky-high. In other words, these new young urbanites have some of the cultural and educational markers of privilege, but they don’t usually have the income or savings to match. This combination puts them in a position where their familial interests don’t align with those of wealthy, older families who have already secured their places in broadly privileged neighborhoods.

In the column, I argue that these macroeconomic trends have “implications for the future of cities’ zoning, transit, public safety, and open space policies. Why not schools?”

That’s certainly been my family’s experience. Despite playing by all of the rules, working hard, and keeping our heads down, we haven’t been able to afford to purchase a house in a neighborhood with strong schools. So we’ve learned to appreciate D.C.’s large number of open enrollment public schools. We’ve struggled to afford the city’s astronomical child care costs, so we’ve become enthusiastic backers of the city’s universal pre-K program.

We’re not the only young parents struggling with this — though ours isn’t the only story. Last year, at an end-of-summer event, I found myself talking on the edge of a playground with a mother who was new to my kids’ racially-, economically-, ethnically-, and linguistically-integrated school. To my surprise, she was deeply critical of the school — even though her kids hadn’t yet started there. “We’re good liberals. We’re a union house,” she said. “I hate that the teachers here aren’t part of D.C.’s union.”

When I asked her why she’d nonetheless chosen it for her kids, she explained that she and her husband had purchased a home in a much wealthier part of town in order to send her kids to its largely-segregated neighborhood schools. Trouble was, this highly-privileged school didn’t offer public pre-K access for three-year-olds, so they’d decided to take advantage of our school’s program for one year before pulling them out. She then explained that she sees open enrollment schools like ours as a threat to how education should function: “they don’t build community like neighborhood schools.”

I’ve mulled that conversation over a bunch of times since then. I think it illustrates something critical for urban policymakers who want to use their cities’ shifting demographics to support educational equity for all students. This mother’s privilege — especially her economic security — allows her to take advantage of an open enrollment school when it benefits her, but to ultimately re-segregate her children whenever she wants. 

That is, she’s not about to change her edu-political views to match the actual strains in her personal life. Nor is she going to inconvenience herself by walking her political/ideological talk. As I put it in the 74 Million column:

In this sense, millennials are no different from any other generation of parents: They might like the idea of justice in theory, but when it comes to their own children, they quickly revert to thinly veiled justifications for protecting their own privileges.

Her response to her situation nicely captures urban ed reformers’ future challenge. Shifting city demographics lay the groundwork for expanding the coalition of parents (and other community members) who care about educational equity. But these shifting patterns are no guarantee of success. The future of education politics belongs to those who can update their thinking to serve these new metropolitans — while also harnessing their energy to support opportunities for all children.