the political economy of “nice white parents” – part 1, schools are complex organizations

The New York Times has a new podcast series called “Nice White Parents.” The story is reported by Chana Joffe-Walt and it’s about the her child’s school in Brooklyn. The focus of the series is the fact that the school, and many others in New York, has remained segregated throughout most of its history.

The main characters in the story are “nice white parents,” non-white parents, and various school officials in New York City. Her main thesis is that “nice white parents” (NWPs) constantly make demands on the school, ask for special privileges and often bail on schools when it comes time to actual enroll in the school. The result is a school that remains segregated. The podcast I think will be very interesting to sociologists of education, organizational sociologists, and political sociologists. There’s even a cameo by sociologist Eve Ewing, who has written a book on the Chicago public schools, and was a consultant for the series.

I’ll write a few posts about the series. This first one will be how the podcast illustrates something that organizational sociologists have always appreciated about schools, but that non-specialists overlook. Schools have murky goals and multiple sites of decision. The average person thinks of schools in Weberian terms – their is a goal (teaching), a hierarchy, and an trained experts (teachers) whose job it is to carry out instruction. While this is true on paper, the reality is much more complex.

For example, Joffe-Walt describes two groups of parents who participate in the school in extremely different ways. A group of NWPs push for dual language instruction in French and even go to the effort to create a private foundation that will raise earmarked money for the project. The PTA, in contrast, collects funds through “mom and pop” activities like bake sales and raffles. I’ll call these people the “Local Parents,” who are mainly Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern, as reported by Joffe-Walt.

The reporting focuses mainly on cultural differences, There is clearly discomfort by the local parents when they are asked to participated in a fundraising activity associated with the French embassy in Washington. The local parents often feel that the school is being co-opted.

But at other points, Joffe-Walt hits on a deeper point that I want to elaborate on: NWPs and Local Parents simply want different things out of schools. As the narrator points out, earning a high school degree and obtaining basic skills is an extremely valuable thing that a school can offer. It’s a stepping stone to college and better jobs. In contrast, the children of NWPs seem to want a luxury good. Their kids will get the basics not matter what. If their kids want college, they’ll get it regardless of what their local school does For them. The issue is that the school doesn’t offer luxury goods, like dual language instruction. And yes, in comparison with basic literacy and math skills, having a class in French is a luxury.

In my reading of the story, a big issue is that the school has two constituencies who simply need different things and they are allowed to assert influence, which results in the somewhat chaotic series of changes at the school. Some want luxury education and while others want the basics. When she looks at the historical record, she finds NWPs who demanded desegregated schools and bailed on them. They framed things in terms of the benefits of a diverse, to use a modern term, school. In contrast, Local Parents wanted safe and clean schools that were nearby and that offered basic education. Desegregation was not a luxury item for them, it was just about obtaining basic public services.

Getting back to organizational sociology, Joffe-Walt has stumbled upon is the “garbage can” model of organization. According to that theory, there are some organizations that characterized by vague goals (“making citizens”), vague technologies and decentralized decision making. Public schools, like the one in Nice White Parents, fits that description perfectly. You have a situation where multiple groups (the school board, the principal, NWPs, Local Parents) use the school to all pursue their own goals. What makes things worse is that some actors have very little investment in schools, so it is easy for them to make demands and then not follow through. NWPs have the money for private schools, Locals don’t.

I’ll conclude with a comment about institutional design. If a key issue is that NWPs make these demands on schools, why not simply prohibit them from doing so? Or have a rule that if you make a demand on a school, you must have enrolled kids or commit to enroll them? Why not work harder to de-emphasize the chaotic “garbage can” aspect of public schools? In the podcast series, Joffe-Walt does talk about the Success Academies, a network of charter schools that does exactly that. These school basically use a one size fits all model and they really don’t want input from outsiders. But this is probably a non-starter for most parents who don’t want a rigid approach to school, they *want* a messy system with PTAs, school boards, and private foundations involved. The deepest lesson is that public schools deliver what their structure allows: a system where a concern with teaching basic skills is bundled with external interventions.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 20, 2020 at 5:40 pm

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. the right of parents to opt out of public school education by moving to better neighborhoods or sending children to private schools predestines these garbage can models. but the “right” to opt out and exploit moral hazard (take the “alpha” path) is a deep part of US culture (cf. the ostensible value of lobbyists in government).



    August 20, 2020 at 10:26 pm

  2. I’m not sure because I just listened to one episode, but I thought the white parents in this podcast were local too, in which case maybe it’s not correct to label the nonwhite parents as “local” in your description as if that is distinguishing them from the white parents. I’m also wondering about non-nice white parents. Also, the host of the show said that it was _not_ her kid’s school that she was discussing. And I assumed it was the French consulate in NY, not Washington.


    Andrew Gelman

    August 21, 2020 at 12:08 am

  3. […] This is the second post on the podcast called “Nice White Parents” by Chana Joffe-Waltz. It is produced by the New York Times and it is about the history of a school in Brooklyn where “Nice White Parents” (NWPs) demanded and then bailed on school integration. In the last post, I focused on the fact that public schools often have multiple, conflicting constituents. […]


  4. Nice writeup, but I think rather than luxury goods, NWPs want positional goods, as David Labaree has long argued. It’s not just about getting a good education for their children but also about getting a better education than other people’s children.

    Labaree, D.F., 1997. Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American educational research journal, 34(1), pp.39-81.

    Labaree also argues that the notion of winning, one of the themes of the final episode, is baked into the system.

    Labaree, D.F., 2012. Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Harvard University Press.



    August 26, 2020 at 4:34 pm

  5. Eric, excellent point.



    August 26, 2020 at 4:39 pm

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