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How America's Wealth Gap Is Destroying Neighborhoods and Public Schools -- and What Park Slope Is Doing Differently

public schoolsWhen my daughter and I arrived at her school this morning, there was a marching band playing in the courtyard. Not a big brass band that you’d see take the football field at halftime. No. This was a bite-size, boutique British brass band visiting Brooklyn as part of a festival celebrating street music. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to make fun, because they were terrific musicians and all children deserve to start their day with music at school. Scratch that — everyone deserves to start their day with the organic, free-range joy provided by a hipster marching band, but not everyone lives in Park Slope.

As I walked away from school and landed at my local locavore coffee shop, I realized that I may never be able to truly enjoy the quaint safety of Park Slope. I feel an itchy satisfaction knowing that I sacrifice my rough-and-tumble preferences so that my daughter has the opportunity to grow up in an urban cocoon, but I have too much love for the hard knocks of my blue-collar childhood to ever be comfortable surrounded by so much “nice.” I’m so used to scratching and clawing my way through life and being proud of the success I achieve against adversity that standing in the middle of a courtyard with a rainbow of families who represent the liberal ideal of prosperous, peaceful, benevolent social justice in action makes me feel like I’m in a freefall. There’s nothing to push against. “Oh, cool. What a great morning. We’re just jammin’ with the kids to an indie street band. On a Friday at 8 am. Like you do. WAIT WHAT IS HAPPENING???

And yet most of us — if we’re able — would rather provide our children with a picturesque, provincial childhood than force them to live a hard life. Even if you believe in getting your hands dirty on the street and sticking your neck out for the community, if you can find a way to supply your child with something better, something easier, you will. It’s hardwired in us to create security for our offspring. Parents who try to teach their children insecurity and struggle as a means of preparing for the “real world” are not an anomaly in terms of numbers, but they are an anomaly in nature. In an insecure world, though, people grow to be full of fear and shame and they inadvertently pass that on as a crippled coping mechanism — which is why as much as it makes me cagey, I absolutely love Park Slope. It’s the rare kind of place where boys can wear nail polish and little girls can dress in hoodies and Chucks and not only is no one bothered — THEY LOVE IT. It is so socially secure, it’s terrifying.

To give Park Slope some of the credit it deserves, it is a much more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood than people who mock it from afar realize. Families who have lived in the neighborhood since the ’70s (and prior) are still here and most are working class. Many of the public schools here participate in busing programs that bring kids in from nearby parts of Brooklyn in order to ensure not only that those kids get a good education in a safe environment, but that the kids who live in Park Slope are exposed to a wide swath of people, not just the fellow children of bankers and the entertainment, media and publishing personas who began moving into the neighborhood in the ’90s and early aughts. My daughter’s school is also barrier-free, and students with disabilities of all kinds are integrated into regular classes. As far as I can tell, all of the families at our school interact freely and without any reservation or judgment, regardless of where they live, how much money they have or what they look like.

Without the familiar comfort of lower-income families, the other single mothers I know, the families with two moms or dads, and the people who actually knew what freestyling was before they saw me do it at a school fundraiser, I don’t think I could handle it here. Not because your married, hetero Park Slope Parent prototype isn’t perfectly lovely, but precisely because they’re so perfectly lovely. They’re perfect. These people have made it to the land of milk and honey and shoved it full of wine and cheese. What’s not to like? But like Jesus said, man cannot live on wine and cheese alone. You also need good, cheap tacos. And diverse public schools.

Public schools in Park Slope are as diverse and successful as they are for several reasons, the most important being that the people here want them to be that way. Parents who are affluent enough to send their kids to private school (or who could make it work with some mild sacrifice) actively choose to do the ethical thing and send their children to public schools, in part because that then allows them to do things like own a home, go on vacation or have a small cottage in the Hudson Valley, and in part because they’re liberal yupsters (myself included) who still believe in the dream of diverse, neighborhoody New York. These parents then go on to be actively involved members of the PTA. They come in and read to the kids, they help with the salad bar. They have jobs that allow them to work from home and create their own schedules or they’re small business owners. Some of them are stay-at-home-moms who have made school life their work. Our community is extraordinarily civic-minded, and that is what makes all the difference in our schools. Yes, it helps that parents here can donate to and raise money for the PTA, which in turn funds things like music programs (with the Metropolitan Opera … I can’t even type it without feeling like I should say, “I know, I know”) that the City wouldn’t otherwise provide. But we would have none of the things we have at our public schools if the community didn’t rally around them, and in most of the country, interest in and concern about protecting public schools has declined.

Hamilton Nolan noted on Gawker yesterday that “In vast swaths of America, the conversion of the ‘public’ school system into a separate and unequal educational system catering to the poor and powerless is almost complete.” He shared a map showing that states in almost the entire bottom half of the country have public schools that “can now be properly classified as institutions that mostly serve the poor, rather than public institutions that serve a representative cross-section of society.” He writes, “No one who believes in the concept of universal free public education should have any illusions about this: if this trend continues (and it will, unless something powerful is done to stop it), public schools will become politically irrelevant and further neglected and less cared for in larger and larger portions of America, until the entire national public school system is threatened with destruction. This is why we need to outlaw private school.”

On Slate, Jessica Grose focused on the related issue of segregated neighborhoods, saying, “wealthy people with kids are now twice as likely to segregate themselves from the poor than they were in the 1970s. Conversely, poor families now cluster together as well.” Grose looked at census numbers run by Cornell and Stanford University faculty who concluded that “the proportion of families living in affluent areas doubled from 1970 to 2009—it went from 7 to 15 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families living in poor areas also more than doubled—it went from 8-18 percent.” Eh voila, your shrinking middle class leads to the disappearance of mixed-income, middle-class neighborhoods as well.

Grose writes, “If we continue in this pernicious self-segregating pattern, the Wall Street Journal notes, wealthy communities will just get richer from fat tax payments, while poor communities will continue to get the short straw on schools, parks, and other amenities.” She quotes a colleague who says that “income-based segregation has led to a less-mobile workforce, because lower income people can’t afford to live where the jobs are.” So depending on where your chips have fallen, things just keep getting better — or worse.

Ending on a “minor hopeful note,” Grose tells us “millennials—the generation just starting to have kids now—say they want to stay in cities, where communities tend to be more socioeconomically diverse. Maybe they’ll do their part and make their kids attend mediocre public schools for the good of society.” I certainly hope so. That way, before you know it, kids in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick will be singing opera with the Met, too. Or Grose says, “maybe they’ll just be pushing more low-income people out.”

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