Posted on September 30, 2022

Public Schools Experiencing ‘White Flight’

Matt Welch, Reason, September 29, 2022

Six months before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted mass school closures nationwide, a K-12 district in Brooklyn became the vanguard of a citywide, nationally watched push to combat “desegregation” through scrapping selective admissions criteria and instituting the algorithmic lottery system of “controlled choice.” Meaning, families would rank their choices for middle school, and the Department of Education (DOE) would feed those preferences into a complicated sorting process through which government can better control the racial and socioeconomic distribution among the schools.


The pandemic, an asteroid-level event that permanently altered the landscape for public education in the U.S., is the Big Bang when it comes to plummeting enrollment numbers and catastrophic learning loss in government-run K-12. And the big-city systems that were most likely to be closed or to impose onerous COVID-19 restrictions from the fall of 2020 onward were the ones that suffered the most bleed along both measures.

But they are also, as in New York, the most likely districts to adopt such “equity“-driven policy changes as controlled choice for admissions, ending specialized schools and Gifted & Talented programs, and adopting “restorative justice” approaches to student discipline. Some of those policies were already correlating with unforeseen enrollment declines before the pandemic; others became political flashpoints during the COVID years as newly involved public school parents noticed with bewilderment that even shuttered systems were focusing to an obsessive degree on policies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

At the time Brad Lander et al. wrote their triumphant op-ed, the first-year enrollment results of Brooklyn’s District 15 indeed showed no significant difference in the districtwide proportions of the ethnic/racial categories the DOE tracks (white, Hispanic, black, Asian). But as I detailed back then, the overall enrollment of new middle schoolers declined for the first time in at least a half-decade, in part because the lottery/algorithm produced a disproportionately large number of choices that parents did not want for their kids. {snip}


{snip} District 15, which indeed has some of the most traditionally sought-after middle schools in the city (particularly Park Slope’s M.S. 51, where both Lander and former Mayor Bill de Blasio had already graduated their kids, and where they chose to announce the district’s trailblazing equity policies), has seen since changing the admissions policy the number of enrolled sixth graders plummet by 17.6 percent, compared to a 9.6 percent decline for the rest of the city. (Those data go through the 2021–22 school year; we’re still waiting on the figures from this fall.)

Who bolted? White students and others whose family incomes did not qualify them for Free and Reduced Price Lunches (FRPL). Using income as a proxy for race (K-12 schools have been barred since 2007 by the Supreme Court from taking race as a direct consideration in enrollment), the district reserved spots in desirable schools for poorer kids while removing screens that had disproportionately kept them out, thus doubly decreasing the odds of the nonpoor being assigned their preferred choices.

“[The plan] resulted in a large increase in the shares of White students and non-FRPL students enrolling outside the public school system,” concluded researcher Clémence Idoux in a June 2021 MIT paper. Why? “Because they were assigned on average to schools with lower achieving potential peers after the integration plans….Compared to previous years, White applicants and non-FRPL applicants were offered on average a choice ranked…1.4 position[s] lower in their list.”

The admissions changes by Districts 15 and 3 (the latter of which, on the west side of Manhattan, ushered in a similar system the same year) did succeed in reducing both economic and racial segregation, Idoux concluded. But: “As a result of these white student and high income students enrollment losses, the integration plans’ effects on racial and economic segregation were halved in both districts.”


What’s happening in New York is happening across the country. {snip}


Suburban schools that first COVID year lost 5 percent of their white population, compared to 2 percent each for black and Latino kids, and 1 percent of Asians. The overall share of white students in those schools declined by two percentage points in three years, and 14 percentage points since the 2006–2007 school year.