School Choices Expedite White Exodus

July 17, 2015

A great white migration has taken a toll on many Arizona school districts.

One-third of the white enrollment of the Mesa Public Schools – 17,500 in all – went missing in the space of a decade.

Tucson Unified School District lost 12,900, more than half, of its remaining white enrollment. Paradise Valley Unified District lost 7,700, Washington Elementary District 6,600, Kyrene Elementary District 5,000.

Across the state, class rolls in two-thirds of the state’s school districts declined just shy of 100,000 whites.  The figure dropped in those districts from 320,000 to 220,000.

The reductions occurred within the period from 2000-2001 to 2011-2012 – the most recent year for which demographic data are available from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Included in the results reported here are 191 districts that filed reports for both those years.

When it comes to education in Arizona, ‘white flight’ no longer requires a moving van.

A portion of the shift follows a familiar pattern. Families continue to migrate from cities and inner suburbs to greener pastures, moving ever outward  “’til they qualify” for home financing.  But part of what is happening in Arizona is very new. When it comes to education, “white flight” no longer requires a moving van.

Thanks to the series of measures enacted in recent years – open enrollment, charter schools, education vouchers, and student tax credits – students can move about pretty much as they please. These provisions work just as intended, allowing those who are unhappy or wanting something different to seek out a situation that better suits them.

Advocates say they are promoting a flight to quality. With the growing number of available options, their argument goes, schools have to be at the top of their game to successfully compete for students. Students have migrated to other school districts, landed in charter or Christian schools, enrolled online or now take their schooling at home.

In full review, Arizona’s education policy should be known as ‘choice and consequences.’

But while backers of choice are quick to tout the benefits, they fail to mention the darker side. In full review, Arizona’s education policy should be known as “choice and consequences.”  The looming two-class education system.

The demographics of the state are changing rather rapidly. In 2011 for the first time, the number of Hispanic students surpassed the number of whites. But rather than allowing the shifting demographics to take their course in some sort of natural and gradual evolution, state policies and individual actions are accelerating the pace of change.

Those districts with declining white enrollments saw a dramatic flip from 2000 to 2011.  While whites were leaving these districts, Hispanics were arriving in near equal numbers.  The proportions of the two reversed themselves. In rounded numbers, Hispanics rose from 35 percent of all students in these districts to 50 percent. Whites dropped from 50 to 35.  This at a district-wide level.  It doesn’t include the shifts among schools as an uncalculated but likely large number of students were trucked about within their own districts.

“We have no problem with people of various colors,” the mother of a Mesa second-grader observed in an interview and then went on to draw a line in the sand.  “But . . . ” she paused slightly before saying, “We don’t want our kids to be the minority.”

This wasn’t some hypothetical observation on her part. She has watched her neighborhood elementary school go from white majority in 2000 to white minority today.  Mesa choices depend on where one lives.

To solve her problem, this mother didn’t have to move, didn’t even have to enroll her child in a charter school or send her off to a neighboring district. Each morning she simply puts her little girl on a bus to a magnet school offered by her own district. The school is only three miles away but 65 percent white. Mesa Public Schools even provides transportation.

Even so, neighborhood elementary schools are becoming all the browner all the faster.

Alternative schools . . . extra transportation . . . those are the kind of measures that affected school districts are taking in an attempt to hold on to students, particularly perhaps white students. Nonetheless, neighborhood elementary schools are becoming all the browner all the faster.

White flightWhere are all the white students going? Contrary to what many might assume, their destination was not entirely charter schools.  Charters did grow significantly during this time period.  Their growth, with 50,000 new white students, was disproportionately Caucasian.

But the biggest destination for whites was actually other traditional school districts, most of them located on the booming outskirts of Phoenix and Tucson. Together the destination districts gained 68,000 white students. The increases included 11,000 at Dysart, 10,000 at Chandler, 7,000 at Gilbert, and 4,500 at Vail southeast of Tucson.

These districts also gained equally large numbers of minorities but still have a very different complexion than the districts that whites are leaving. In vivid comparison with the departure districts, which as reported above were on average 35 percent white and 50 percent Hispanic in 2011, the destination districts were 55 percent white and 31 percent Hispanic. Gilbert, Deer Valley and Queen Creek were all 70 percent white, Higley 68 percent, Chandler 57 percent.

. . . destination districts and charters do not capture the full extent of the change.

Even with all of the above, the tallies for the destination districts and charters do not capture the full extent of the change. The destination districts gained 68,000 whites, charters another 50,000. Meanwhile, the departure districts lost 98,000 whites. That’s a net gain in white enrollment of only 20,000, even though over the course of a decade the state’s overall white population grew by 400,000+.

One missing element is the unknown number of other youngsters who went off the grid to types of schooling – Christian schools, online and home schooling – for which the state Dept. of Education doesn’t keep, or at least doesn’t publicize, headcounts.  Third-party estimates don’t agree on the number of students. Even within any one set of those estimates, the subtotals don’t always square with one another.

The most precise indicator comes not from the state Dept. of Education but from the state Dept. of Revenue, which tracks the growing number of student tax credits claimed by individuals and corporations. The number of scholarships they created for students who do not attend public schools reached 41,000 in 2013. This is valuable information. However, in that some students received one or more scholarships while others received none, it doesn’t tell us much about actual enrollment in Christian schools, parochial schools, or otherwise.

Forget about tracking how well students are being schooled, we’ve entered the day when we don’t even know how many kids are being educated in the state. That will make it harder and harder to determine the extent to which we are experiencing a flight to quality or, perhaps, a flight to white.

Related stories:

Mesa School Choices Vary Depending on Where One Lives

A Two-Class System: Those Who Leave, Those Who Don’t