The Privileged Doth Protest Too Much: Opt-Out in Long Island

I get it, I really do. Parents want the very best for their children.

If they’re in a position to exploit any kind of competitive advantage they have at their disposal, they will gladly do so. Instinct dictates they seek the very best opportunities for their children.

But this winner-take-all desire runs afoul of social justice, of what it means to be a progressive. It’s more than just wanting a good school for your child, it’s about getting greedy.

We give too much airtime to the privileged, people who benefit the most from educational inequity, and not nearly enough to those harmed by it.

If that wasn’t already lamentable, it’s the condescension dripping from the words of the fortunate that causes my blood to boil.

Take, for example, the anointing of Jeanette Deutermann, a parent from tony Nassau County, one of the most expensive places to live in America, as The Long Island Herald’s 2015 Person of the Year for being a leading proponent of the opt-out movement.

Deutermann took to social media to organize a campaign to encourage families in other affluent Long Island counties to opt out of testing and garnered more than 23,000 likes of her Facebook page.

More than 200,000 third- through eighth-graders in New York state elected not to take standardized tests. Long Island led the charge with 87,000 students, with close to half of all eligible students in the locality opting out.

The Herald coined opt-out as a “full-scale parent revolution.” If affluent parents complaining about tests being administered at their lavishly funded and well-staffed schools is considered a revolution, John Lennon is rolling in his grave as I write this.

Imagine the kind of impact over 23,000 followers of a Facebook page and 200,000 kids voicing their disapproval could have if they directed their misplaced outrage into something more worthwhile, like, say, addressing the extreme segregation and inequality—the worst in the nation—that afflicts Long Island schools.

Reporting on these decades-old injustices, Long Island Press quoted Douglas Ready, a professor of education and public policy at Columbia University, when he spoke of a report he co-authored analyzing the schools located in Deutermann’s county:

If we came together to design a system that was going to segregate, it would be Nassau County.

Elaine Gross, president of Education Research Advocacy Support to Eliminate Racism (ERASE), says housing discrimination is a mechanism used to maintain segregation. Moving to another district—the advice blithely given to people who are unhappy with their local schools—is hardly the solution. Quoted in the same Long Island Press article, Gross says income isn’t the sole barrier to home buying for people of color:

They think that this is only about income when in fact, in one of our reports…In almost every single municipality on Long Island there was at least one housing discrimination complaint.

So that means, the wealthier areas, the poorer areas—across the board—housing discrimination is about race. That’s what it is.

If even fair housing laws are violated, prompting the filing of a federal lawsuit, what recourse exists for poor people of color to try to send their children to good school districts?

Yet the dominant educational news story of 2015 was opt-out. It seems hollow to proclaim this as a revolution given the disturbing state of schools in their backyard, a system neglecting its poorest students:

New York’s performance shows that, while well-to-do suburbs in Westchester County and Long Island have some of the highest funding levels in the nation, lower wealth cities such as Utica, Albany and Troy, and rural areas, receive dramatically lower school funding despite often having to address much higher levels of student need.

The disparity in school funding between high and low wealth districts across the state is so great that New York’s finance system is rated “regressive.”

If children’s anxiety over standardized testing is a parent’s biggest bone to pick in education, they should count their many, many lucky stars.

Imagine the impact 23,000 people could have directing all their Facebook likes, fury on social media and protests to paying note to the twin scourges of racial and economic segregation. That would be a real revolution, not the cooked-up grievance mounted by people for whom the system has worked quite well for decades.

How else does the condescension of the affluent manifest itself? How to explain why people who often label themselves as liberals can hold such appalling views on education?

What do you think?
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Caroline Bermudez

Caroline Bermudez

Caroline is a senior writer at Education Post after spending eight years as a journalist. She was a staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the non-profit world, with a particular focus on foundation. She is a proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools.
Caroline Bermudez

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