Affluent people love their walls. They’re willing to spend tons of money to create a barrier between them and people who “look different.” The current administration’s push to build a border wall didn’t come out of nowhere, this is what affluent people do.
We saw this with the creation of redlining and suburban sprawl. We see this when white school districts secede from their Black and Brown neighbors.
We saw this when the predominantly white Northeastern section of Philadelphia wanted to leave Philadelphia and create their own town. When they can’t build an actual wall, affluent districts will use other means to do whatever it takes to keep their districts separate, albeit never equitable.
Philadelphia is surrounded by wealthier school districts. Historically, many Black families have done whatever it took to find a school that could educate their child. While this often meant moving, starting schools, homeschooling, etc., it also has meant using other people’s addresses or making up an address altogether.
Philly families are no exceptions. While these address changes occur within the Philadelphia school district, it also occurs across district and county lines. And, suburban districts aren’t happy. They’ve countered with spending thousands of dollars on private eyes to investigate. Often, the investigation is launched after the white “see something- say something” crowd calls in a suspicious Black or Brown family.
WHYY’s Avi Wolfman-Arent wrote a three-part series about Pennsylvania’s “resident police” and some of the causes for families following the money that belongs to them anyway.
The disparities among school districts, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, have deep roots in the policies of the past: housing segregation, job discrimination, and even Jim Crow, said Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, who recently wrote a book on school segregation.
You just want your kids to be safe and have basic education,’ she said of parents who attempt to jump district lines. ‘I think [that] is more an indictment on the rest of us than it is those parents.’
A parent who enrolled her child in one of the suburbs described in Rooks’ book talks about being harassed about her lease. Most of the families targeted, investigated are, of course, people of color – even when they can prove their residency.
It was a constant feeling of, even though you can legally be here, we don’t want you to feel like you should be here. We want to be as tough for you as possible. We want it to be as uncomfortable for you as possible.
Needless to say, with white folks calling police on Black people for breathing and existing, there are plenty of Black families who are just as harassed for being Black in school – even when they do live within the catchment areas.
Black families are doing what anyone in their right mind would do: trying to put their child in the best position to win, even if it’s “illegal.”
With the US Constitution punting the education of its citizens to states, it’s interesting, to say the least, that states then punted education to local counties—essentially carving up the state into 500 districts, with the affluent districts hell-bent on ignoring kids of less means than their own.
Mind you that often wealthy suburbs are stealing a portion of the educational funding that would go to poorer districts like Philadelphia, if more than four percent of the state’s funding was equitably distributed. Pennsylvania can begin to address this through equitable funding for all schools within the Commonwealth. Research shows the wealth disparity among school districts in Pennsylvania is abnormally high.
Philadelphia must accelerate its work to improve schools and significantly decrease poverty. Until then, Black families will continue to try to improve the educational outcomes of their children and will remain hell-bent on accessing the educational resources that institutional and state-sanctioned racism has denied them for generations.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.