Parental Challenges to Organizational Authority in an Elite School District: The Role of Cultural, Social, and Symbolic Capital
by Annette Lareau, Elliot B. Weininger & Amanda Cox - 2018
Background/Context: Most research on “elite” schools has focused on the private sector. However, as a result of economic residential segregation, a number of public school districts exist which may plausibly be construed as socioeconomically elite. Districts of this sort remain relatively understudied. In particular, few researchers have noted the fact that the same mechanism that concentrates substantial wealth in elite districts—the real estate market—also tends to concentrate substantial noneconomic resources.
Purpose/Objective: Our paper examines the consequences of the abundance of cultural, social, and symbolic capital held by parents in one elite district, which we call Kingsley. During the period in which we collected data, the district administration sought to re-draw attendance boundaries for the two high schools in Kingsley. We show how shifting coalitions of parents made use of the full range of available resources in opposing, or in some instances supporting, district officials’ plans.
Research Design, Data Collection, and Analysis: We carried out a qualitative case study of the year-long redistricting process. Our data include copies of letters and emails sent to the district during the redistricting process, transcriptions of all school board meetings that took place during the process, and over 1,800 postings to two online discussion boards devoted to the process. These data were systematically coded by the research team. We also draw on articles in the press, observational data, and interviews for background information.
Findings/Results: District administrators were subject to a torrent of “data” and “research findings” that parents used to criticize the district’s proposed plans. Parents frequently employed their professional expertise to directly challenge arguments put forth by officials in order to justify proposed policies. Furthermore, they drew on elaborate interpersonal networks in order to pool complementary forms of expertise and to mobilize large numbers of like-minded residents. Behind their challenges lay a sense of entitlement that rendered them unwilling to defer to the authority of the administration to make decisions concerning the needs of the system. While no single criticism was decisive, the ongoing challenges to proposed policies forced the district into a permanently defensive posture, resulting in a reduction of the board’s ability to use its own expert knowledge to decide which institutional policies would best serve students’ needs.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We suggest that elite districts may be prone to a distinctive type of conflict between residents and policymakers. As economic segregation increases, it is possible that more districts will experience these challenges.
The link between economic segregation and the characteristics of public schools is one that has been widely commented on. Analyses of this link frequently focus on the consequences of the United States system of school funding. Because school districtswhich are often geographically quite smalldepend heavily on the ability and willingness of their residents to pay taxes, the resources available to schools are significantly affected by residents wealth and income. Disparities in the resources devoted to public schools, in turn, may affect the quality of teachers and administrators, instructional materials and equipment, and school facilities (Clotfelter, Ladd, Vigdor, & Wheeler, 2007; Phillips & Chin, 2004), leading to disparate outcomes among children.
Research indicates that economic segregation has grown substantially in recent years, with public school district boundaries as a key geographic feature underlying this segregation (Owens, 2016; see also Mayer, 2002). This trend implies a possible increase in districts that could be described as elitethat is, districts in which the majority of residents are affluent, creating an ample tax base from which to fund high-quality public schools. Districts of this sort remain largely understudied in the literature. In particular, while some researchers (Brantlinger, 2003; Demerath, 2009) have analyzed various aspects of their internal dynamics, relatively little attention has been paid to the full range of features of elite districts.
Our paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by reporting on a qualitative study carried out in one such district. This district underwent a contentious process of redistricting, during which substantial numbers of parents mobilized to contest or support proposed policy changes. We document the exceptional noneconomic resources that the parents made use of, and we show how the result of their mobilization was a temporary, but nonetheless significant, limitation of the districts policy-making capacity.
On the basis of this case study, we suggest that elite schools and school districts contain an inherent potential for conflictin particular, between residents and officials, including educational administrators. The source of this potential lies in one of their structural features: the same mechanism that concentrates substantial wealth in small geographic areasthe real estate marketalso tends to concentrate substantial cultural, social, and symbolic capital. Consequently, we argue, residents of these districts possess an array of resources that may be sufficient to obstruct the intentions of school and district officials. The result, at least in extreme cases, can be institutional paralysis.1
PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT IN EDUCATION AND PARENTAL RESOURCES
The argument we develop here most closely intersects the established literature on parents involvement in education. Stretching over many decades, this research has highlighted an array of mechanisms through which parents can positively contribute to childrens educational success. This literature is vast, encompassing nearly all dimensions of the intersection between family and school. Thus, for example, researchers have examined ways in which parents may directly facilitate their childrens learning, such as through assisting with homework or enforcing pro-educational behavior norms outside of the school (Booth & Dunn, 1996; Patall, Harris, & Robinson, 2008). There has also been significant study of parental communication with teachers and other school officials, as well as parental involvement in school functions (Epstein, 2011; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997; Valdes, 1996). Much of this literature suggests that parental involvement is especially beneficial for low-income children and argues that increasing parental involvement should constitute at least one prong of any strategy aimed at reducing class gaps in educational achievement (e.g., Comer & Haynes, 1991; U.S. Department of Education, 2001; Warren & Mapp, 2011).
In response to this research, however, a thread has developed within the literature that focuses on what Lareau (2000) calls the dark side of parent involvement. Research in this tradition contends that parent involvement may have negative consequences as well as positive ones. Lareau documents, for example, how the high rate of parent involvement in a predominantly upper-middle-class school resulted in higher levels of stress among children, triggered intrafamilial conflict, and caused persistent friction between parents and teachers. More recently, a number of researchers have described ways that parents (generally upper-middle-class) carry out surveillance of teachers (Addi-Raccah & Arviv-Elyashiv, 2008; Hassrick & Schneider, 2009) and principals (Lareau & Munoz, 2012)practices which educators experience as a constraint on their professional autonomy. Researchers have also documented ways in which highly resourced parents are able to subvert organizational policies on behalf of their childrenas when, for example, a mother is able to gain admission to a schools gifted program for a child whose test results were insufficient (Lareau, 2011). In these studies, parents advocacy has the effect of exempting their children from rules whose legitimacy rests on their uniform application.
Most research on parent involvement has examined its impactwhether positive or negativeon childrens educational experiences at the individual level, rather than its effect on the functioning of the school district as a whole. However, some studies have focused on the ways in which groups of parents organize interventions around educational policies. For instance, researchers have analyzed parental engagement in political activities such as protesting tracking programs or school closures (Brantlinger, 2003; Lipman & Person, 2007; Martinez-Cosio, 2010; McGrath & Kuriloff, 1999; Oakes, Wells, & Jones, 1997). Similarly, researchers have examined the factors leading to parental mobilization around various types of school reform (Nettles, 1991; Williams, 1989) or in relation to busing and court orders (Lukas, 1986; Rubin, 1972).
While unquestionably important, most of these studies focus on school systems that primarily serve disadvantaged students; some are also fairly dated, referring to earlier historical periods. Yet press reports suggest that bitter battles sometimes occur between parents and educators in affluent districts today (Foster & Duffey, 2014; Johnson, 2009; Parents Voice Outrage, 2004). Few scholars have asked exactly how the forces of parent mobilization and intervention operate in elite public school districts, or what their consequences may be for educational organizations.
Our paper addresses this gap by analyzing data from an elite district, which we call Kingsley, that sought to re-draw high school attendance boundaries. During a contentious process that lasted for the better part of a school year, the various plans proposed by district administrators elicited fierce opposition from shifting coalitions of parents. The process consumed substantial district resources, resulting in multiple modifications of the proposed plans, and requiring the district to defend itself in a subsequent lawsuit (where it prevailed). Our paper documents the extensive resources that parents drew on in the course of their confrontations with the administration.
Of course, elite public school districts are unusual, by definition. Nevertheless, these districts play an important and highly symbolic role, for example, in providing a standard for the delivery of educational services against which other districts are found to be wanting (Kozol, 2012). Moreover, many of the largest cities in the U.S. have at least one district within their surrounding regions characterized by both high levels of affluence and high levels of school spending (see Table 1 for examples). Scholars have long noted the benefits that children enjoy when enrolled in such districts (e.g., Bidwell & Kasarda, 1975); however, they have neglected the organizational costs for educational administrators that sometimes arise from the associated concentration of cultural, social, and symbolic capital. Nor have they sufficiently developed an understanding of the collective consequences for school districts that can emerge as parents in elite communities activate their forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986).
The school district we focus on, Kingsley, is notable for the wealth of its residents and its educational expenditures. As we explain below, by conventional measures such as Advanced Placement (AP) enrollments, standardized test scores, and college placements, its educational outcomes are also exceptional. During the period in which we carried out observations, Kingsley attempted to re-draw the attendance boundaries for its two high schools. This action triggered significant backlash among large numbers of residents. Importantly, the evidence suggests that the backlash was not driven by concerns about academic quality at either of the high schools. Instead, it centered around a variety of concerns including community cohesion, travel time to school, walkability, race, and environmental issues. A significant number of parents entered into a confrontation that escalated over a protracted period. During this period, parents were able to draw on the professional expertise (an aspect of cultural capital) necessary to challenge the arguments of district professionals and the interpersonal networks (an aspect of social capital) that enabled them to pool specific forms of expertise and to mobilize a critical mass of district residents. In addition, there were indications that behind some parents challenges lay a sense of entitlement (an aspect of symbolic capital) that rendered them unwilling to defer to the authority of the administration and the school board to make decisions concerning the needs of the system.2
In what follows, after describing our research methods and data, we sketch a portrait of Kingsley and recount the events that culminated in plans to re-draw attendance boundaries, noting the key issues that motivated parents to mobilize and the ways in which the district sought to manage the process. In our main analysis, we then delineate the ways that parents drew on specific resources in order to contest these plans. In particular, we focus first on parents deployment of expertise intended to challenge the justifications put forward by the district and to support alternative policy preferences, and second on the formation of networks connecting parents opposed to particular iterations of the plan. We also attempt to characterize the general sense of prerogative that motivated these actionsthat is, the assumption that little or no deference was owed the administration and school board on this issue. We conclude by discussing the conceptual issues raised by the concentration of capitals in elite districts and their implications with regard to the organizational functioning of districts.
The hallmark of ethnographic research is that it is emergent, and the contours of this study reflect that truism. When the redistricting process began to take shape at Kingsley, the authors were involved in a study in the district on how parents decided where to live and where to send their children to school (Lareau, 2014; Weininger, 2014). We saw the redistricting process as an opportunity to collect naturalistic data related to parents interventions in educational processes, and so we obtained permission from the Institutional Review Board to study this process as it unfolded.
There are three primary sources of data from which our conclusions are drawn (Table 2). The first is emails and letters that the Kingsley School District Superintendent and Board received from parents and community members over a 6-month period during the redistricting process. The superintendent, who had been appointed in the early stages of the conflict, gave us permission to photocopy the hard copies of these emails and letters. Although the district reported that it had received 8,000 emails and letters, many of them were duplicates. In the end, there were 3,000 unique emails or letters in the data set.
The second data source is verbatim transcripts of the 18 Kingsley School District Board meetings that took place during the months in which the redistricting process unfolded. These meetings consisted of public comments from parents and other community members, presentations by educational experts hired by the school board, and comments and discussion among board members. The district posted video recordings of the board meetings for viewing by those who had missed a meeting. We had each of these recordings transcribed.
The third data source consists of postings on two online discussion boards created in response to the redistricting process. We downloaded more than 1,800 posts comprising more than 300 conversations, or discussion threads, across the two online groups. Approximately 300 people (based on unique email addresses) participated in these conversations. (These posts are not accessible any longer through a typical internet search.)
The emails and letters, board meeting transcripts, and discussion board posts are the primary data for the paper. In addition to these primary sources, we also collected background information, which included observations, interviews, and newspaper articles and television coverage related to the redistricting process. We observed eight board meetings and a community fundraiser related to the redistricting process. At these events we introduced ourselves as trying to learn more about the school community and how parents decided where to live. We wrote detailed field notes after each visit.
We also conducted in-depth interviews (90 minutes to 2 hours in length) with both the outgoing and the incoming superintendents of Kingsley, with the superintendents administrative assistant, and with a board member elected after the redistricting process was complete. Additionally, we interviewed an educational expert who had been consulted by parents and by the superintendent. We also interviewed five parents who were involved in the redistricting process. We recruited these parents at the redistricting board meetings, at a pizza dinner fundraiser, and by seeking referrals from other parents. In these parent interviews, we gained additional insight into parents motivations for being active in the redistricting process, how much time they devoted to the process, and the ways in which they drew on their professional expertise. Since the emails and letters, meeting transcripts, and discussion board posts offered a more comprehensive portrait of parents involvement in the redistricting process, in our analysis we relied on them more heavily than the interviews.
After reading the emails, letters, meeting transcripts, and discussion board posts, we developed a coding scheme to capture key themes within and across these data sources. (See Tables A1 and A2 for the coding scheme and sample coded excerpts). The data from each of these sources were coded systematically with a vigorous search for disconfirming evidence. For example, we looked closely for claims that the high schools at the center of the redistricting plans were different in quality, particularly academic quality. In order to develop consistency and agreement across the codes, we met weekly as a team to discuss codes or data excerpts about which we had disagreements or questions. The coding was primarily done by undergraduate and graduate research assistants who were closely supervised by the third author.3
Due to concerns about protecting the confidentiality of the school district, in some descriptions of the district we have omitted identifying information (including the time period of our research) or have made minor modifications that do not bear on the substance of the results. All names are pseudonyms.
KINGSLEY DISTRICT: THE CONTEXT OF PARENTS ACTIONS
The incoming superintendent described Kingsley as the premier school district in the state. He also referred to it as a destination districtthat is, one to which parents move in order to have their children attend the public schools. This characterization was echoed in our interviews with parents and in the speeches parents gave at the districts board meetings: We moved here for the schools was repeated over and over again.
Kingsley had an average per-pupil expenditure in 20082009 of more than $21,500, over twice the national average. The district offers extensive foreign language training, art and music instruction, and special education programs for students with learning disabilities. With average SAT scores in 2008 hovering around 1725 (out of a possible 2400 points), Kingsley students scores are high, nearly 250 points above the state average. Additionally, about one-third of the districts high school students take AP courses. The district has many National Merit Scholars each year, and the vast majority of Kingsley graduates attend college. Although almost 85% of Kingsley students are white, with nearly 8% African American and roughly 6% Asian students, the district is more racially diverse than its neighboring suburban districts. However, many of the African American families, who are of varying economic backgrounds, are concentrated in one neighborhood in the district. We call this neighborhood Oaksboro.
Kingsley households are highly advantaged in terms of income, housing prices, and parents educational attainment. Census data reveal that in 2010 over one-third of the households in Kingsley had an income of $150,000 or more, an income bracket that included only 9% of Americans nationally. The median value of a house in the Kingsley School District in 2010 was more than $450,000, which was more than three times the state average (citation suppressed to protect confidentiality). Nationally in 2008, 28% of adults in the United States held at least a bachelors degree, but in the same year in Kingsley, over 70% of adults did.
Kingsley is divided into a variety of neighborhoods, which roughly correspond to the areas around the districts six elementary schools. The neighborhoods have somewhat different characters. Oak Park, for example, is in the middle of the district. Immediately near the Oak Park Elementary School are large sprawling suburban homes with older leafy trees, expansive lawns, and large driveways. Many homes sit on half-acre lots, and there are no sidewalks on most residential streets or near the school. Oak Park Elementary School also draws from a neighborhood called Oaksboro, where red brick row houses with small yards predominate (along with sidewalks), and where there is an older downtown center with a small town feel. Morrisville, another neighborhood, is a slightly less affluent part of the district and has both large suburban homes and duplexes with small yards; it is on one edge of the district boundary. Near Southfield High School is Laurelhurst, where large houses sit on two- and three-acre lots.
Historically, Kingsley has had two high schools: Southfield and Kingsley High. With approximately 700 students, Southfield was the smaller of the two, while Kingsley High had roughly 1,400 students. The two high schools were very similar in terms of students scores on state-mandated tests, the SATs, and AP tests (Table 3). Ten years prior to this study, the Kingsley School Board convened a special commission to assess the need to modernize the aging school buildings. Drawing in part on social science research about school size, the board decided that rather than renovate the high schools or create one very large high school for the district, they would build two new ones that would be equal in size. The school board acknowledged that redistricting would ultimately be required to balance enrollments.
At the time of the study, the district was reaching the completion of the first new high school: the new Southfield building was scheduled to open in the fall. Redistricting was required to shift approximately 400 students from Kingsley to Southfield. Due to historical residential patterns, the majority of families lived on the north side of the district. Kingsley was the closest high school for approximately two-thirds of the children in the district; thus, many of the 400 students who would be moved from Kingsley High to Southfield would inevitably drive past Kingsley on their way to school. In a district 5 miles in length, this would increase students travel time. For most students, the increase would be roughly 5 to 10 minutes, for a total bus ride of approximately 25 minutes in length. For some students the ride would be considerably longer. However, none would be longer than 45 minutes. Many parents interventions appeared to be aimed at making sure that their children would not be among those required to shift to Southfield High.
A SUMMARY OF THE REDISTRICTING PROCESS
Realizing that there was significant unease in the community, district officials began taking steps to address families concerns about redistricting before releasing a plan. The process then unfolded in stages, with the district revising its plan numerous times in response to community concerns. For reasons of confidentiality, our manuscript does not delve into the specifics of the various plans that were presented by the district, the people in the district who were in favor of and opposed to each plan, or the nuances of the rationales held by the parents for their opposition to or support for particular plans. Nor do we provide a comprehensive description of how the conflict unfolded. Instead, we seek to present to provide the narrative detail necessary to contextualize our analysis of parents use of cultural, social, and symbolic capital when intervening in the process.
Prior to the release of a plan, the district sought to assure parents that the process would be carried out in a way that respected their values and had the best interests of their children at heart. For example, the district organized a series of forums 4 months before releasing its first plan. At the forums, an established educational researcher, acting as a consultant, led a process in which parents, working initially in small groups, were asked to discuss the key values that underlay their commitment to their communities. With the consultants guidance, the larger group then identified a set of core values shared among residents and discussed ways in which these values could and should inform the redistricting process.4 Months later, at the meeting in which the first redistricting plan was presented to the public, district officials suggested that these core values had guided the districts policy recommendations. As one of the slides declared: All decisions have been made on objective criteria and in the best interest of students and the school district and on no other basis.
In an effort to be responsive to community concerns, the district introduced four different plans. As the school districts designs shifted, the substance of parents concerns shifted as well. Parents concerns generally centered around a few issues: ability to walk to school, length of bus ride, peer continuity from middle school to high school, desire to remain with children in the same neighborhood, racial and ethnic diversity in enrollment, and feelings that the districts policy change was being unfairly borne by some families more than others. Each of the four plans grandfathered in current high school students, but they varied in terms of the size and scope of the walk zone for students living in the area of each high school. In some versions, high school students who lived slightly over a mile from one high school were bused to the other to equalize enrollment. Furthermore, as the high schools catchment boundaries shifted, the feeder patterns from the elementary schools and middle schools changed. In some plans students from the same middle school would have gone to different high schools.
At any given stage in the process, some parents would express support for the current version of the plan while others expressed opposition. Both supporters and opponents mobilized collectively in response to the various plans proposed by the district. In the end, the school district did pass a redistricting plan, it was enacted, and a lawsuit was filed by parents in response that did not prevail. Our goal in describing these events is analytic. Even when parents were mobilizing in support of one of the districts proposed plans, as we illustrate below, they brought immense stores of cultural, social, and symbolic capital to bear as they rallied behind their preferred plan and against the efforts of the equally well-resourced parents who opposed it.
The redistricting process was a dramatic community event that consumed countless hours of time and significant emotional energy on the part of parents, children, and educators. There were numerous articles in the local newspaper, letters to the editor, community meetings, protests, petitions, and conversations related to the redistricting. The process unfolded over most of a school year. Many of the school board meetings included between 80 and 100 public speakers, large protest signs, petitions, follow-up emails, and visibly angry parents. While board meetings prior to the redistricting process were usually perfunctory, the highly-charged redistricting meetings often lasted until after midnight. Children spoke first so they did not have to stay late into the night. Parents from different neighborhoods sat together, often in color-coded outfits to provide a visible representation of their strength.
Parents had high levels of emotional intensity around where the school attendance lines would be drawn.5 This is apparent, for example, in field notes written by the first author about a meeting in which a new plan was presented:
After the meeting ends a group goes up behind the table to crane their necks up to try to find the lines. They seem anxious. Four white moms talk about it with the board President. They are disagreeing. Slowly it dawns on them. They have been moved to Southfield. At first they are in disbelief and unsure if they have heard properly. The board President does not seem to be picking up [on their reaction] and says loudly and firmly, NO, ALL of Oaksboro is at Southfield. Oaksboro borough is at Southfield. &The moms look at each other with stunned looks. A youngish woman with a mop of blond curls and freckles looks outraged. She slowly shakes her head. She mutters angrily. As she comes around the table her friend gives her a shove on the shoulder of her grey sweatshirt and commands, Walk! Walk to get out of here before you kill somebody. The three of them stride off out of the auditorium.
Some parents got together in groups, right in the auditorium, to caucus:
Behind me a group of six moms are coming together. One mom is crying. Her eyes are red. A friend is saying, We will fight it! Crying mom is saying, It is not fair. She appears to be devastated. Another mom comes over and somewhat earnestly says to the other moms that they have to get together to fight it. Another mom (petite, in jeans and sweater) is pacing around (loudly) talking on her cell: No! We do not have a map! It will be posted tomorrow. It was very NEGLIGENT of the consultant not to bring a map. I just think it was NEGLIGENT of him not to bring a map. Now we have to wait all the way until tomorrow! She is agitated. She is saying a few minutes later, This is just not fair. How am I going to tell my 12-year-old?
In interviews, speeches to the school board, online-group posts, emails to the district, and informal conversations with other parents after board meetings, parents reported feeling distressed by the redistricting process. Some reported losing sleep over the matter.
The incoming superintendent, when asked in one of our interviews to draw a weather analogy describing the redistricting process, described it as a damaging event:
Q: If you had to use a weather analogy, what would it be, hurricane, tornado, storm, thunderstorm, drizzle?
A: It was way more than a drizzle. I would say it was a Noreaster. You know, it blew up, and then it was just intense changing winds over a long period of time, damaging winds&better than 60 or 70 miles an hour.
The superintendents assessment flags several elements of the controversy, all of which help explain why the consequences for district decision-making and operations were so profound: the conflict was intense and powerfully felt, factions and emotions shifted over time, the most intense stages of the conflict were quite prolonged, and the result, according to key leaders, was significant damage to the civic and educational landscape.
PARENTS OPPOSITION AND THE ROLE OF CULTURAL, SOCIAL, AND SYMBOLIC CAPITAL
When parents protested the various redistricting plans, they rarely voiced their concerns solely in terms of the impact these plans would have on their families. Rather, they presented arguments that had a more general scope. In the process of developing these arguments, the parents frequently drew on their own professional knowledge and skills. They coupled this expertise with a willingness and ability to activate existing social networks and to forge new ties in a manner geared toward developing a mobilized group that could act as an effective counterweight to both the district administration and the board. Taken together, these activities suggested a significant expectation of deference from administrators and officials on the part of parents.
To contest the various redistricting plans that were proposed, parents worked hard to develop compelling arguments that had an objective basis. A number, for example, cited studies in peer-reviewed journals. Others approached recognized experts on child development and then quoted statements they provided. Still others analyzed census data on the neighborhoods in the district or gathered information that was directly relevant to the issues being disputed (e.g., by using a stopwatch to measure the time needed to drive between two points). In doing so, they frequently drew on the cultural capital constituted by their professional and occupational knowledge.
For example, in her comments on an online message board, one mother used her professional skills to critically assess how the districts hired consultant had presented calculations related to race and ethnicity in the Kingsley District. Declaring her professional status, she presented her concerns to other parents:
The consultant reported the [race/ethnicity] counts only. As a professional planner, I am concerned [with] the way the data is presented. By not showing the percent distribution, readers cannot comprehend the magnitude. (Emily Zang, parent posting to online message board)
Ms. Zang wrote long memos about the issues involved in projecting school enrollments, and she carefully scrutinized all of the figures presented by the district. She also calculated her own figures to support her anti-busing stance:
Based on the assumptions stated, the Morrisville neighborhood collectively spent about 66,000 hours more for traveling to Southfield [High School]. Of which the students spent 54,000 hours while parents drive 12,700 hours extra. The financial burden is about $260 for each family who drives to school each year. It does not cover the expense in additional [electrical] lighting&.in the morning. The school bus fleet uses at least 32,000 miles more. Since some buses used compressed natural gas, I cannot estimate the gallons of gasoline and the actual financial burden. (Emily Zang, parent posting to online message board)
Other parents also used their specialized knowledge to perform statistical analyses or to double-check the figures the district had presented. Several parents collectively revised the districts enrollment projections, and others compiled data collected via stopwatches to determine travel times between neighborhoods and schools at various points during the school day. Bringing a different type of experience to bear on the situation, one mother advised her peers on how to generate media coverage:
If we want media coverage (do we?), this is the kind of thing that is likely to bring them out. Mention to the assignment desk coordinator that you expect a large community turnout as well. They like things they can get good pictures of. Just people standing around talking doesnt usually do it, but the chance of a HUGE group with a political candidate there could tip the scales. A tedious, long press release faxed to the desk wont even make it past the circular file. It has to be BRIEF (emphasize Morrisvilles isolation with possible racial diversity manipulation as hooks?). Meg Evans (no longer in TV News - thank goodness!) (Meg Evans, parent posting to online message board)
Parents living in the same neighborhoods (and, therefore, facing the same changes posed by the redistricting designs) frequently collaborated with each other as they challenged or supported the boards most recent redistricting design. Contributors to the online discussion groups shared with each other the tables, charts, and spreadsheets they had created in support of or opposition to the boards designs:
I just wanted to share some quick calculations (and I really hope they are correct). I put together a quick spreadsheet of the travel distance from each of the 3 Township Boulevard corridor elementary schools that might be considered for redistricting. (Carly Frisk, parent posting to online message board)
A few days later, another parent supplemented this spreadsheet with data of her own that provided support for a scenario 3B, which parents proposed to the board (but which was never seriously considered by the district):
I just posted an excel file with travel distances for grades 6-12, which is modified from the spreadsheet that Carly posted last week. This one includes all six elementary schools and considers the status quo, the current proposal, and scenario 3B (Dave Thompson, parent posting to online message board)
Acquired through specialized professional and occupational knowledge or through original research, this detailed information underpinned parents strategies and arguments as they sought to alter the institutional conditions affecting their children.
In addition to using their specialized knowledge behind the scenes as they strategized and planned among themselves, parents also drew on their professional and occupational knowledge in their verbal and written communications with the school board. For example, at one board meeting, a parent quoted from educational research in order to contest a plan that would have separated a number of children from their peers by assigning them to different schools:
I want to pick up on something that Cecilia said in her wonderful introductory comments, and that is that I want to talk about whats best for the children. Study after study have [sic] shown that the most important transition is from elementary school to middle school. Its one of the critical junctures in a childs development. [applause] Especially as it occurs right as puberty is happening or not happening, as the case may be. Quoting from the National Middle School Association, the NMSA, this complicated period of transition has often been associated with the decline in academic achievement, performance motivation and self-perceptions. It is a time when young adolescents are most likely to experiment with at-risk behaviors. It is also the point at which children begin to make pivotal decisions regarding their academic and career choice, precisely at a time when they may be distracted or turned off by academic endeavors. Researchers from the University of Michigan [who] studied the transition from elementary to middle school note that on average, childrens grades dropped dramatically during the first year of middle school compared to their grades in elementary school&. So now with this new redistricting policy, were asking children from elementary school, small groups of children, to be carved out and now get thrown into a large middle school where they will know very, very few children. Thank you. [applause cheers] (Sarah Thompson, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Another parent commented as she presented the board with two one-inch-thick binders filled with copies of research articles:
Scientific data shows, and these are peer-reviewed studies,&that bus rides less than one hour do not affect student performance, and I have copies of the studies for you here&. The articles demonstrate also that walking to school is part of education. Kids who walk to school are more physically fit, and a linear relationship has been demonstrated between academic scores and physical fitness, and again, I have the data here. (Mary Patterson, parent speaking at a board meeting)
In other instances, parents claimed command of the academic literature to bluntly contradict assertions made by district officials about the ideal configuration of grade cohorts:
I also must note that I was a little disappointed in [the superintendents] comments on Monday, and please correct me if I misheard or these are wrong, that K-12 is a better educational framework than K-8 or 6-12. The academic research on cohort movement does not bear out this claim. We would really like to know where you are getting this information. Thank you. [applause] (Tracey Ingram-Presser, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Some parents declared that their view of the current plan was directly rooted in their own specialized professional knowledge. For example, one parent, a university professor, shared his perspective with the board:
I am a professor of urban studies at [a local university]. Im here as an urban planner to say that it is unimaginable from an environmental perspective that you would eliminate a walk zone around a high school in an age when children can and should walk or ride bicycles to their school. (Joseph Williams, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Yet another parent highlighted her professional role and its relationship to how she saw the redistricting process:
As a mother and pediatrician, I understand the significance of the transition from middle to high school. I also recognize the importance of peers and continuity to make this sometimes difficult transition proceed as smoothly as possible. (Karen Essington, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Other parents attending the public-comment sessions of district board meetings read statements written and submitted by prominent researchers they had contacted about the educational significance of maintaining grade cohorts from kindergarten through 12th grade or of limiting students separation from peers. One parent addressed the board:
I went to the research&and I reached out to the people at universities, and I didnt just take the research, I talked to them&. I want to share with youand I have the research, Ive sent it to the [districts] website, but I want toIve shared their emails. I just want to share them with you here because I know you get thousands of emails. (Dan Crocker, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Indeed, invocations of authority were not uncommon. One parent began his allotted 2-minute speaking slot by saying, Im going to read a statement from Dr. Laura Isendorf, who is a noted psychologist. Another began, I will be using my two minutes tonight to read a letter addressed to the board by Dr. Elizabeth Fox, Associate Professor of Education at [a local university]. At the same meeting, two more parents read statements submitted by academic researchers attesting to the educational significance of school transitions and feeder patterns.6
In sum, the parents who involved themselves in the redistricting process brought to bear an array of resources connected to or deriving from their educational attainment and professional expertise, which they repeatedly shared with other parents in their community. These resources included their own professional and occupational knowledge, their access to published research, and their possession of the skills needed to conduct original research and statistical analyses. While this deployment of resources had numerous consequences, among the most important was the creation of a reserve of credible, expertly-sanctioned knowledge that provided a warrant for dissension from the administrations claim that its proposed plan was in the best interest of the students. Parents collective activation of this knowledge made it more difficult for the district to implement the policy change.
ORGANIZATION AND MOBILIZATION
In addition to drawing upon their professional expertise and the accompanying specialized knowledge, Kingsley parents also activated their social capital by making use of network ties and of their formidable organizational skills during the rapidly unfolding redistricting process. To this end, one of their central tools was online discussion boards. At least five message boards included threads, or conversations, related to the redistricting, and three of these were newly created in response to the districts proposals. These boards were active. For example, in the first 6 days after the creation of one online discussion board, over 450 messages were posted. In all, nearly 200 unique members posted close to 1,300 messages on this board over a period of 4 months. These messages comprised nearly 200 threads which attacked, and occasionally supported, the districts redistricting plans.
Parents contributing to these online discussions worked hard to get everyone involved quickly:
Ive emailed people from last years directory, class by class, inviting them to join the listserv. Ive done the kindergarten and most of first grade and am doing as much as I can tonight. (Heidi
Owens, parent posting to online message board)
Parents also held their own caucuses, in which they debated the designs proposed by the school board and strategized about how best to voice their concerns. Less than a week after the Kingsley School District Board released its first redistricting design, parents on one of the online message boards reported on one such meeting and the extensive array of committees they had organized. This caucus established more than 10 committees, with functions including public relations, resident communications, school board relations, and media relations. They also formed committees charged with researching redistricting alternatives, legal issues, social issues, and transportation and busing issues.
Similarly, the day before a school board meeting devoted to one of the redistricting plans, about 40 parents of students at Oak Park Elementary School gathered in a church. The atmosphere in the meeting was tense. Parents disagreed about strategy and how to communicate their opposition most effectively to the board. Some parents were highly distraught. One mother reported that she had not been sleeping due to her concerns about the redistricting plans. At the end of the meeting, another mother asked everyone present to call 10 other people they knew as soon as they got home to encourage them to attend the board meeting the following evening.
The mobilization of parents via the online discussion boards and the caucus meetings could be seen at each of the school board meetings devoted to public comment on the redistricting designs. At these meetings parents from various areas in the district tended to sit together and to wear the same color to show their solidarity in support of or opposition to the plan being discussed. For example, on one of the discussion boards, a parent encouraged others to wear navy blue to the board meeting to indicate support for their desired redistricting design. She wrote:
Id like to alert you that many from the Morrisville area will be wearing navy blue attire in honor of our school colors. Please feel free to wear navy as well&the Morrisville contingent will be sitting near the front, to the left of center (to the left as one faces the stage). Please feel free to sit there if you are so inclined. (Carly Frisk, parent posting to online message board)
Mobilization and rallying of the troops were common among the parents on the discussion boards. Another parent used an online discussion board to cajole her fellow parents to attend a board meeting. She wrote:
As a last minute plea, I am asking all of us to turn out tonight for the school board meeting for the final vote on redistricting.& I have heard from a very reliable source that there will be media coverage at tonights meeting. If the only people attending are people against the current plan, it will look like the school board is voting against the public will. We need to show that the general public is FOR this plan. Please come tonight. (Marta Norris, parent posting to online message board)
Online discussion boards served not only as a means of exchanging information, research findings, and strategies for approaching the board; they also functioned as venues for the discussion of strategies of how to best use the information gained from the activation of network ties. Parents contacted colleagues and acquaintances who might possess specialized knowledge of their own. For example, several parents who were university professors contacted colleagues in departments of education and psychology who might be able to supply relevant research findings. One such parent posted on a discussion board:
I have spoken with my [local university] colleagues in Social Work, Psychology, AND Education, and they all emphasize the difficulties of transitioning from ES [elementary school] to MS [middle school] and the need for support and familiarity. (Natalie Narconi Hotham, parent posting to online message board)
Other non-university-based parents hit up their friends for supportive research findings:
I have a girlfriend in the Psychology Department at [local university] I will hit up for data on the ms/hs [middle-school-to-high-school] transition. (Julie Reskin, parent posting to online message board)
Parents such as the one quoted below drew upon their social networks for legal or strategic advice:
I have spoken to an acquaintance who is an attorney who has served on the school board [of a nearby town] about our situation and our strongest arguments to the school board. She said that its not enough for the school board to declare no new transportation costs&. She suggested that we demand (respectfully, of course) that the [district] provide a parent ride-along to demonstrate the actual travel time. Ask them to prove the 20-minute bus ride to Southfield High School they discussed. We can guarantee them a bus-ful of parents with stop watches&. This would give us actual data, and we could tell them that this is a legitimate concern of ours, so its in their best interests to allay our fears. (Maria Nixon, parent posting to online message board)
Still other parents used their political connections as they attempted to influence the redistricting outcome:
It is great that Mitch Simmons [a local township politician] came to our meeting and he appears to be supportive. We need to make sure that he doesnt just support us morallyhe needs to make some calls and use what political capital he has to help our cause&. Many of you likely know him better than Iif you do, please contribute your thoughts on what specifically he can and ought to do for us. (Katherine Nield, parent posting to online message board)
In addition to their activation of social ties and their creation of online venues for around-the-clock updates and exchanges of information and strategies, some Kingsley parents used their organizational skills to game the system. For example, the district did not allow public comment at all of the board meetings. At three points during the redistricting process, the school board held a meeting in which it introduced and described a new version of the redistricting design, but took no questions or feedback from the audience. Instead, the district encouraged individuals to submit their feedback via email. Following this, the district would hold a meeting in which the entire school board would listen to speeches by community members. Due to the large number of people wishing to speak at these meetings, the board devised a policy that allowed each person to speak for only 2 minutes. Those who wished to comment were required to sign up at the beginning of the meeting.
During one of these meetings, which was scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm, parents arrived more than an hour early and began circulating their own sign-up sheet. When the superintendents administrative assistant, Gwen Lannon, arrived at 7:00, there was already a list with 41 names on it. Many of the names were in the same handwriting and bright green ink, as one person appeared to have signed up 20 people. Ms. Lannon felt that she didnt have a handle on it, and for the next meeting the district took organizational steps to assert control. District officials announced that parents could sign up beginning at 7:00, and if they arrived before 7:00, they should sit in the first row of the auditorium, and the district officials would take signatures in the order in which the parents sat. As Ms. Lannon indicated in an interview, even with these rules in place, parents tried to work the system to their advantage:
They werent allowed [to sign-up more than one person], but if I turned my backbecause at the point I had to sort of just do a little work setting up the tablethey would. If I was there, they didnt. I wouldnt let them, butits amazing how quickly we can revert to childhood. (Gwen Lannon, interview)
Of course some parents in the district did not activate network ties or make use of their organizational skills during the redistricting conflict. Some were not concerned with possible changes that would move their child from one elite high school to another equally elite high school. For example, one mother reported refusing to allow a large red-and-white sign opposing the districts plan to be placed on her corner lot. Her neighbor was angry, but the mother felt that the districts plans were fine.
In addition to using their professional expertise, highly specialized knowledge, and well-developed organizational skills and social networks, Kingsley parents also displayed a notable sense of prerogative in their objections to the school districts plans. This symbolic capital was manifest when parents challenged the fundamental right of the school district to move their children to another school. Some parents declared that the redistricting plans would break the contract they had agreed to when they bought a home in a neighborhood located within the catchment area of a particular elementary, middle, and high school. One parent emailed the Kingsley School District Board with the following ideas:
It may very well be the best solution for the overall Kingsley school districtbut it is NOT the best solution for us Morrisville families and therefore you really should be obligated to show us that our hardship is the best way for all of Kingsley. Furthermore, if our hardship is indeed the best way, then we should be compensated for this hardship in ways that directly impact our specific families, children, and school experience. Tangible enhancements to the Southfield school experience (both extracurricular and curricular), various methods of shortening the school bus travel time, and any other ways that our pain can be minimizedwould be minimal acceptable compensation for the hardship you are asking our families to endure. (Fred Gibbons, email to Kingsley School District)
In addition to demanding compensation for what they felt were unreasonable hardships resulting from the redistricting designs, parents were also harsh in their criticism of the board:
I just saw the proposed redistricting [design]. To say it is awful is an understatement. Your administration have [sic] concocted a scheme seriously lacking contiguity that rivals the last round of congressional district gerrymandering. (Ted Braxton, email to Kingsley School District)
Another parent insisted that the plan made no sense given the distance her children would have to travel:
Southfield HS is at the VERY OTHER END OF TOWN FROM MORRISVILLE! It is approximately 4 miles away when Kingsley HS is only approximately 1.5 miles! It makes no sense to have my children traveling all that distance when EVERY OTHER CHILD in the township lives closer to Southfield than my children do! (Calvin and Monica Hughes, email to Kingsley School District)
Some parents were insistent thatby virtue of the fact that they paid taxes and participated in municipal electionsthe school board must not ignore them:
I hope that the public comment meetings are not just for show and that you might possibly listen to our opinions and make a change to the proposed plan. I believe the impact on these teenagers has been brushed under the rug. We dont pay taxes and vote to be ignored. (Sara Ellerby, email to Kingsley School District)
Other parents complained that they had bought a home in order to send their children to a particular school, and they vehemently objected to the possibility that these plans would be disrupted. The tone of the criticisms often suggested that parents felt entitled to have the school district assign their children to the school that had been previously assigned. Some parents discussed the possibility of litigating the issue. Ms. Lannon, the administrative assistant to the Kingsley superintendent, spoke of such a possibility in an interview: And then of course there were threats of lawsuits. We probably will have one. Having fielded phone calls from parents who claimed that redistricting was tearing their lives apart, theyll never be the same, theyll never recover, Ms. Lannon also described the assumption of prerogative she has noticed among Kingsley parents:
Theres a sense of entitlement here that Im not really sure where that comes from. A lot, theres a lot of wealth here, and I dont know where that sense of entitlement comes from, I really dont. But it just seems to bethey call it Kingsleyitis. I mean theres a name; people have named it. [chuckles] Its like this sense of entitlement.7 (Gwen Lannon, interview)
Saying that Kingsley is not a community that rolls with the punches or adapts to change very well, Ms. Lannon reported receiving phone calls from Kingsley parents crying or making what she considered to be unfair accusations against the board. She said that parents often made harsh or angry statements in these phone calls: This is absurd, this is ludicrous, are they [the school board members] insane? Are they nuts? I want their jobs.
To be sure, a number of parents addressed the board to give members positive feedback or empathy. For example, one parent wrote, Thank you for taking the time to read, listen, and review our comments. We do not envy any of you. This is a difficult undertaking (Tom Robers, email to Kingsley School District). Another parent declared, Its wonderful to see the school board committed to careful analysis before proceeding with such a complex task (Julia Johnson, email to Kingsley School District). One mother closed her email by writing, Thanks to everyone for engaging in this process and for allowing community input (Sarah Riley, email to Kingsley School District).
However, other parents did not hesitate to critically assess any aspect of the process. Indeed, in addition to frequent condemnations of the substance of the plans, some parents criticized aspects of the boards procedure:
I wanted to write to say thank you to all board members for taking the time to be there and listen to all of us last night. It is a difficult thing to do&. I understand the need to limit time to two minutes per person but it was not enough to speak coherently and get my point across. In the future, I suggest we start the meeting at 7:00 pm so everyone can say what they need to say face-to-face. After all, it is an extremely important decision for the children affected. Personally, face-to-face discussions are more productive than sending emails and hoping they are read by ALL Board members. (Mark Smith, email to Kingsley School District)
Comments such as these implied that parents considered it appropriate to evaluate the performance of the administration and the board in terms of substance and procedure. Although there may have been some who felt powerless or intimidated, the emails, letters, and speeches were striking in the stance parents took. Parents did not automatically defer to the authority or expertise of the public school board as they demanded institutional changes that reflected their priorities. Indeed, some parents we interviewed described their peers as out of control, as these parents of a child in kindergarten complained when discussing parents in their sons school:
Mr. Thorne: What Im finding out in Kingsley, you can make a video called Parents Gone Wild.& Parents are out of control sometimes. Some parents are out of control.
Mrs. Thorne: They demand, they always expect to get, and when they dont get it, its a problem.
Mr. Thorne: Because the parents are people of privilege. So if they say, My child should have that teacher and it doesnt work that way. In the public school, you get assigned a teacher. Period. Could you imagine if every parent could come in and say [which teacher they want for their child]&. Number one, teachers would lose control of the school, and number two, it would be pandemonium up there, because if Drew now has a best friend and his [friends] parent told the school he wants to go into that class, and then we would want to go to that class, and his best friend is in that class, he wants to be in that class!
Thus, Mr. Thorne explicitly recognized the organizational challenges educators faced when working with parents possessing ample cultural and social resources. Parents expectations and requests required significant time and attention from school and district administrators.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Parents were not the only ones who mobilized against redistricting plans; children also played a role. Given the significance that redistricting carried for the parents who mobilizedand the time and effort they devoted to critiquing the various plansit is not surprising that their children were highly cognizant of the issues. Some children became involved directly in the process themselves.
At school board meetings, for instance, the district not only permitted students to participate, but it arranged for them to be the first speakers of the evening to avoid making them wait late into the night. Thus, at one meeting a total of 12 students spoke. Prior to the start of the meeting, parents could be observed consulting with their children on their statements and providing them with feedback. Like their parents, the children sought to make compelling and convincing arguments to the members of the board. One student, for example, emphasized environmental concerns:
Hi, my name is Ashley Press. I live on Greene Road in Kingsley. I am in fourth grade. Im in the gifted support program, and we are working on making the earth an environmentally friendly place. We are working on getting solar panels for our schools to help this global warming problem&. If you expand the walk zone for Kingsley High School you can be helping too. By busing all of these students to Southfield High School, it is just making the Earth dirtier unnecessarily&. The environment means a whole lot to me and my community, so if all of the students in our current walk zone get bused to Southfield, it wont only be affecting the community but the environment&. My parents are really into this, and when I found out what was happening with the redistricting it made me start to think about what I can do. (Ashley Press, child speaking at a board meeting)
Later in the evening, Ashleys father, Samuel, also spoke. While he invoked a number of grounds to deem the plan under consideration lacking, he echoed his daughter when he concluded his statement by asserting the communitys commitment to environmentalism:
We are an informed society as to what we are doing to this planet. We as residents walk to local shopping centers and to Kingsley High School. We do this for exercise, fresh air and to reduce the carbon footprint. We recycle and reuse. We turn our heating and cooling thermostats higher and lower as the season dictates so as to use less energy. We invest in this community with solar heat and electricity, geo-thermal heat, we insulate our homes better than the average building code. All of this is to save our planet. (Samuel Press, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Despite the fact that the auditorium seated 500 and the audience always numbered over 100, the students appeared poised and confident as they spoke. Hence, these students were not only observing their parents seeking to alter institutional policies; some of them were gaining first-hand experience in the process of intervening in institutions.
PARENTS APPROACHES TO REDISTRICTING PLANS
Not all parents were actively involved in the redistricting process, but in a district of 6,500 students, our analysis found that over 300 people (with unique email addresses) joined online discussion groups focused on the issue. Multiple petitions were circulated, gathering almost 1,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. We asked many people in the district if they knew of any parents who were completely uninvolved in the redistricting process, in that they did not know about it, did not follow the meetings, and were unaware of the various redistricting plans. We could not find any such parents.8 Even uninvolved parents followed the events, sometimes drove the route to Southfield, talked to their friends, and shared opinions. However, there was variation. For some parents, the redistricting process consumed significant amounts of time and energy. In interviews parents reported spending 1 to 2.5 hours per week as they sought to influence the redistricting design adopted by the school board, as this father notes:
It wasnt daily&one official meeting with the school board, once a month for all three hours, then there were several community meetings, theres online stuff. Youd probably average it out for me to maybe an hour and a half a week, maybe two hours a week, figuring in talking, thinking and this and that. So itd probably be two, two-and-a-half hours a week for four months. You know, its a sizeable, sizeable investment. (Kyle Kennison, interview)
Although a sizeable investment of time, this father (along with other parents) felt it was critical to help shape his childrens education.
Among people opposed to the redistricting plans, few indicated that they perceived differences in the quality of Southfield and Kingsley High School. On a variety of indicators, the two high schools were very similar (Table 3). In their speeches opposing the redistricting, parents sometimes went out of their way to praise the quality of both schools:
I think its important to remember all the kids are going to get an excellent education. (Alissa Ryder, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Were really fortunate that theyre all great schools, and Id be thrilled to have my kid go to any of our schools. (Tom Winden, parent speaking at a board meeting)
Indeed, in a variety of settings, parents often emphasized their belief that Kingsley High and Southfield were both outstanding schools. Some parents noted that the students attending Southfield come from wealthier families than those attending Kingsley High School. These parents worried that their children would experience ill effects from being in school with children from more affluent families. Others noted that historically Southfield High was more intimate than the larger Kingsley High School. But in thousands of emails, dozens of hours of public commentary, and countless private conversations, we did not hear claims that one school was academically better than the other.
Hence, the debate about the redistricting designs never seemed to be about school quality. Rather it was about accessibility to Kingsley via public transportation (which was not possible at Southfield), distance from home to school, length of bus rides, the potential for students to walk to school, continuity of peers across school transitions, the creation of a racially diverse and balanced study body, and a sense of community ownership and attachment to Kingsley High School in particular. A key concern was which neighborhoods would bear the brunt of a largely unpopular school policy. The communities in which children were, in the end, redistricted were bitter and angry at the result.
COSTS OF THE REDISTRICTING BATTLE
From the perspective of civic engagement and political mobilization, the redistricting battle could be viewed as a success. But from the perspective of educators attempting to meet the bureaucratic goal of having balanced enrollments in schools, the redistricting battle was, as the superintendent reported, equivalent to a Noreaster. For in addition to promoting childrens achievement, districts face intense pressures to deliver services efficiently. Districts cannot control how many children reside within their boundaries (much less within the catchment areas of particular schools), and union contracts mandate limits on class sizes. Other priorities, including the need to offer a wide variety of AP courses at each school, also drove the districts efforts to redistribute students across schools.
As district officials took steps to balance enrollments, however, they faced formidable opposition from parents. The redistricting battle absorbed significant amounts of time on the parts of the district administrations staff, the public relations officer, the superintendent, school board members, and, of course, parents and children.9 Some weeks the district reported that it received 1,000 emails on the issue.10 The superintendent also believed that there was lasting damage from the event, including harsh feelings among the members of the school board, damage to the districts reputation both externally and internally (particularly among African-American parents, who charged that the districts decisions were racially motivated), and the creation of false heroes who, according to the superintendent, have stepped up to lead people in some really negative ways. The superintendent and his administrative staff described the experience as very stressful.
One of the most fundamental characteristics of the majority of the public schools in the United States is the fact that they are matched with the children they serve (and their families) by means of an external mechanismthe housing market. As has been well established, public schools and property markets are closely attuned to one another: on the one hand, test scores of studentswidely taken to be a measure of school qualityhave a demonstrable effect on housing prices (Black, 1999); on the other hand, the capacity (and willingness) of local residents to pay property taxes has a large effect on school finances (Kozol, 2012). The result can be a feedback process that encourages residential segregation according to wealth or income levels (Reardon & Bischoff, 2011). Indeed, recent research (Owens, 2016) suggests that residential income segregation in the United States is intensifying, especially among households with children, and that public school districts are one of the key geographical units of this process.
While the various dimensions of this process have been documented, much less remarked upon is the fact that the same forces often tend to concentrate families that possess similar quantities of noneconomic resourcesthat is, similar quantities of cultural, social, and symbolic capital. Consequently, although the potential for conflict may be an integral aspect of school districts in general (McGuire, 1984), this potential would appear to be exacerbated in elite districts like Kingsley. More specifically, it seems to us that discord between parents and administrators is more likely to take on collective form in elite districts, since parents in these districts enjoy a significant capacity for mobilization, as well as the expertise of highly educated professionals and an expectation that officials will respond to their preferences.11 Thus, whereas educational researchers have usually viewed cultural, social, and symbolic capital as resources that are deployed by individuals (or by parents, on behalf of their own children) in the pursuit of individual advantages, we have raised the possibility of their collective use. Although we cannot be certain about the course that events in Kingsley would have taken in the absence of these efforts, it seems highly likely that the united front of expertise that large numbers of parents sought to create was able to substantially hamper officials efforts at redistricting.12 Even though district officials did, in the end, prevail, the process consumed extensive organizational resources and, as the superintendent suggested, created lasting damage.
Our findings are especially pertinent in relation to the large literature on cultural capital and education (DiMaggio, 1982; Jaeger, 2011). In this literature, cultural resources are typically viewed as attributes of individual students or (at most) their immediate families; moreover, their efficacy is assumed to manifest itself almost exclusively at the level of individuals. In the case we have analyzed, however, the geographic concentration of individuals with high levels of cultural capital, and their investment in the functioning of a particular institution, led to a pooling of cultural resources that is different in kind from the effects documented in previous studies. Thus, as they discussed how to get on TV news, scrutinized and criticized district statistics, and evaluated the implications of alternative bus routes, parents benefited from the cultural capital ensconced in their community.
One question that our findings clearly raise is exactly what the preconditions are for an aggregation of resources to occur along the lines of what took place in Kingsley. We suspect, for example, that occupational status and educational attainment are key: as the proportion of parents who are comparable to (or exceed) administrators and policymakers along these dimensions increases, we would anticipate that the likelihood that conflicts over schooling will take on a collective form also increases.
Be this as it may, the outcome of the process that we have described was that school administrators and board members in the Kingsley District were subject to a torrent of data and research findings that were used to criticize the districts proposed plans. The validity of the parents claims could not be easily dismissed, since the districts own policies were often justified in similar terms. While no single criticism was decisive, the ongoing challenges to proposed policies forced the district into a permanently defensive posture. Consequently, parent mobilization resulted in a reduction of the boards ability to use its own expert knowledge to decide which institutional policies would best serve students needs.
The parents in Kingsley agreed, almost universally, that there were no significant differences in educational quality between the districts two high schoolsand indeed, we did not observe a single instance in which school quality formed the basis of a challenge to the redistricting plans. One may therefore be tempted to dismiss these and similar conflicts as sociologically insignificant. We would point out, however, that the same resources parents made use of in the redistricting conflicts would remain available if they were faced with the prospect of a reform that genuinely encroached on the educational privileges their children enjoy. (One can speculate, for example, about the protests that would take shape if district boundaries were re-drawn so as to include a large number of poor children.) We note, as well, that a number of parents used the redistricting conflicts as an opportunity to develop their childrens skills in institutional intervention. By carrying out research in their spare time, networking with neighbors, and above all, criticizing administrators and board officials during public meetings, these parents provided their children with a lesson in how to influence the workings of a large, bureaucratic institution. In this sense, the redistricting conflicts have direct implications for the reproduction of stratification.
We hope that our research can serve as a springboard for further researchboth quantitative and qualitativeon elite public schools and districts. In a society in which economic segregation is intensifying and in which schooling plays such a critical role in mediating the relation between social origins and destinations, it is imperative that researchers delve into this institution in all its varied manifestations.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of The Spencer Foundation as well as resources provided by the University of Pennsylvania and SUNY College at Brockport. A much earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in 2009. The paper benefited from the feedback of Maia Cucchiara, Shelley Kimmelberg, Judith Levine, and Karolyn Tyson, as well as anonymous reviewers and the audiences at Emory University, Northwestern University, University of Kansas, and New York University. Julie Bachorski, Devin Barney, Samantha Chudyk, Rebecca Holtz, Alexis Kim, Alina Tulloch, and Aya Yagi provided valuable research assistance. All errors are, of course, the responsibility of the authors.
1. This may represent a significant change from the situation that prevailed in the past (resulting, presumably, from increased segregation). Consider, for example, these remarks from research published in the 1960s:
The wide array of interests represented by parents with children at different levels in the school system, located in different buildings, and representing different class and ethnic groups rarely permits a sizable portion of school patrons to organize around any particular grievance concerning their childrens education. Many of the grievances which do emerge, moreover, are carried to the teacher or to the building principal, and sometimes to the PTA [rather than to the district level]. (Kerr, 1964)
2. In addition to Bourdieu (1986), see Lareau and Weininger (2003) on the theory of cultural capital and Lin (2002) on the theory of social capital. We note in passing that there are sociological studies which address related phenomena. For example, Sampson (2012) argues that neighborhoods in which members have shared feelings of social cohesion or trust and willingness to engage collectively in social control exhibit positive outcomes in terms of health, altruistic behavior, crime, and other social goods. The case we analyze here, however, hinges on the pooling of resources that are highly class-specific.
3. We see qualitative studies to be about the meaning of socially-embedded interaction. Hence we seek to highlight conceptual issues which are worthy of additional attention (Burawoy, 1998). Since the focus is on the interactional processes and the patterns that emerge from these processes, our analysis relies primarily on quotes which appear to us to capture the key themes strongly represented in the primary data sources. Of course, it is also extremely difficult to know how many parents exemplified a particular pattern, especially since parents positions and actions shifted as the school district introduced (and withdrew) different plans by which families would be redistricted. Hence, we have often used terms such as some parents in our discussion. Following a wide variety of qualitative researchers, we have sought disconfirming evidence for our conclusions.
4. At the forums we attended, the core values that resulted from this process tended to be quite similar. At one meeting, for example, the list was as follows: walking distance, academic achievement and quality, parental engagement/involvement, community, neighborhoods, diversity, continuity/stability in schools, proximity to [central city] (arts, culture, sports).
5. There appeared to be a substantial gender imbalance in parents participation in interventions around redistricting, with mothers considerably more active than fathers. However, this topic is beyond the scope of our analysis. For a discussion of the gender division of labor and schooling, see Griffith and Smith (2004).
6. We analyzed complete transcripts of three board meetings at which comments were invited from the public in order to determine how frequently speakers invoked expertise in order to challenge a redistricting plan. Specifically, we searched for mentions of research, studies, experts, peer reviewed, and data. Between 75 and 105 people spoke at each of these meetings. The frequency of invocations of expertise ranged from 5% of speakers at one meeting to 22% at another.
7. Ms. Lannon introduced the term sense of entitlement into the interview. The researcher did not use the term in any of the interview questions.
8. Readers and reviewers raised important questions about of the role of race in these processes. Two issues surfaced. One concerns the core argument in the paper on the ways that parents made use of their cultural, social, and symbolic capital. The question is if there were racial differences in parents use of these resources. Unfortunately, however, our main sources of datathe letters, listserv posts, and board meetings transcriptionsdo not contain information on the background characteristics of writers/speakers (unless they chose to include these in their remarks). Although our observations did not reveal differences in the ways that African American and white parents utilized social networks and displayed a sense of entitlement, our lack of systematic information on the race of writers/speakers unfortunately precludes us from drawing a firm conclusion.
A second set of questions touch on issues which are more peripheral to the paper: the criteria the district used in shaping the redistricting plan and whether it was racially biased. Briefly, district officials asserted that they considered racial and ethnic diversity to be a core value, but also claimed to be balancing competing priorities. The district revised its plan numerous times in response to parental complaints. The fourth (and final) version of the plan required a large proportion of students in the Oaksboro community to be bused to Southfield. Many Oaksboro families felt that this plan disproportionately placed the burden of redistricting on African American families, since they tended to live in this community. As with other aspects of this case, we are not able to assess whether and how biases may have entered into the formulation of different plans by district officials. But, the final plan was introduced nine months into the redistricting battle, after there had already been numerous protests at board meetings, thousands of emails and letters sent to the district, petitions circulated, and many listservs created. Hence, parents actions to thwart the district were well underway before the (bitter) complaints of the Oaksboro community occurred.
Finally, we wish to note that the same data limitations which prevent us from analyzing racial differences in parents actions also apply with regard to social class. Kingsley is overwhelmingly inhabited by middle-class and upper-middle-class families, but does contain some working-class residents (i.e., around 8% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch). While we would very much like to be able to examine whether and how class relates to parents propensity to be involved in the redistricting battles, it is not feasible, given the nature of the data.
9. The superintendent, for example, reported that over a 4-month period, between 70% and 80% of his working time was devoted to redistricting. Other key administrators, such as the public relations officer and the districts chief counsel, were heavily involved as well.
10. We were initially told that the district received 8,000 emails. Many of these, however, were duplicates: parents copied other parents and spouses, resent emails, and submitted them through multiple channels. Thus, while there were only 3,000 unique emailed messages, the district nevertheless needed to sort, record, and file many more.
11. Of course, elite districts are not the only districts to experience parental protest. For example, urban districts proposing school closures also have triggered waves of protests. Although beyond the scope of this article, parent mobilization in these urban protests appears to have a different character. For example, while mobilization in these cases involves parents and other community members, it also often involves significant participation from nonprofits and community organizations.
12. Our findings thus suggest an extension of Lareaus (2011) concept of concerted cultivation. Like the parents described by Lareau, the residents of Kingsley exhibited a definite propensity to intervene in the operations of institutions that serve their children. However, in the case of Kingsley, these interventions were not carried out solely on an individual basis, and their goal was not simply to alter the institutional experiences of an individual child. Rather, parents were trying to change rules that impacted all of the children in an institution.
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