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The Trauma & Harm of School Choice and Gentrification on Marginalized Communities

School choice policies "made it safe for young families to buy a house wherever they could afford one, then shop for the right school when they were read" Neilson (2007) (as cited by Serbulo). By not compelling gentry families to attend their assigned schools, the district promoted gentrification by lowering the opportunity costs for white, middle-class families who were willing to live in a diverse neighborhood, but were wary about sending their children to a low-income, multicultural school. The district accommodated these families' concerns by supplying them a free alternative to having to pay for private school tuition (Serbulo, 2017).

Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 ensured that all children, regardless of race, are entitled to not only free, but equal quality education. Education is, therefore, a cornerstone of democracy in the United States (US). President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed, "democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." Choice and having the socioeconomic flexibility and resources to choose are ingrained in this country's fabric by freedom. US citizens have the freedom to decide where to live, how to live, and how to educate their children. As policy develops to address people's growing needs and concerns, it comes with unintended consequences that continue to marginalize and other the most vulnerable. School choice policies support the increasing wave of gentrification in urban centers harming local, traditionally marginalized populations while not supporting local public schools' needs. Gentrification is not beneficial to local public schools of marginalized communities. School choice serves as the mechanism to support the middle and upper class, leaving marginalized groups vulnerable to systemic harm.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002 is a federal law that allows parents to choose other public schools or take advantage of free tutoring if their child attends a school that needs improvement. Parents can also choose another public school if their child's school is unsafe ("Choices for Parents," 2013). NCLB ushered in the wave of school choice and parent advocacy for the right to choose where to send their children to school. NCLB also states that parents must have access to report cards of schools to make informed decisions. NCLB intends to assist parents as highlighted by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings; parents know what is best for their children. Expanding educational options for parents is one of the hallmarks of the No Child Left Behind Act, and it remains one of the President's highest priorities ("Archived: School Choice Fact Sheet," 2009). School choice provides parents the opportunity to craft the education desired for their children. It differs from the traditional approach to public school education that most parents in marginalized communities still follow. Within New York City's system, like other large cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, children are expected, for the most part, to attend the elementary and middle schools corresponding to their street address (DeSena, 2006). NCLB's unintended consequences highlight families' socioeconomic standing. Gentry families, as coined by DeSena, have the power and flexibility to choose where their children go to school. DeSena (2006) shares the sentiments of local, marginalized parents in Greenpoint, Brooklyn:

It is interesting that within this group, there was no consideration to go outside the neighborhood for a child's education. In some cases, residents may be unaware that there are options available to them within the public school system. For ordinary mothers who know that they can apply, on behalf of their children, to school outside Greenpoint, the sentiment expressed is, "It is hard to go to Manhattan." These women want to school their children locally (p.249).

Gentrification is the process in which a poor area experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses, which often results in increased property values and earlier displacement of poorer residents. Research has shown that gentrification has little effect on neighborhood public schools. Neighborhood public schools experience essentially no aggregate academic benefit from the socioeconomic changes occurring around them. Furthermore, they may even experience marginal harm, as the neighborhood skews toward higher-income residents (Keels, 2013). The local community, as highlighted above, is essential to local parents. Schools are of secondary importance to gentry families. The gentry who decide to take root and remain in their new homes begin to evaluate the schools within their local community as they start expanding their families. Compared to traditional local families, the gentry does not place the same value on local education and, thus, look for a school outside of the community to satisfy their children's educational needs. DeSena (2006) highlights several methods of how gentry parents utilize school choice; they enroll their children in talented and gifted (TAG) programs and alternative education programs in public schools primarily in Manhattan and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the city. They have learned to "work the system" to their advantage. The question remains:

Why do women on behalf of their gentry families choose other public schools outside of the community instead of using their many resources to gain control of local schools and change them to better represent their lifestyle? A simple explanation is that it is probably easier to commute children to and from school and work the system than it is to mobilize change within the New York City public school system. A more meaningful explanation, however, is that school selection reflects the gentry's social identity. (DeSena, 2016).

Gentry families' affluence and power have lasting effects on schools in the community and long-term community residents. With newcomers opting-out and the displacement of long-term residents, neighborhood schools experience enrollment declines and low capture rates (Serbulo, 2017). In districts where school funding relies on property tax rather than general income tax revenue, gentrification and school choice programs have policymakers and educational leaders making difficult decisions regarding school resources. Due to lack of funding, policymakers and educational leaders ultimately decide the viability of keeping a school open within a community. Joseph and Feldman 2009 (as cited by Keel, 2013) suggest that public school districts with high levels of concentrated disadvantaged need to ensure that efforts to bring higher status families into the system do not reinforce and even heighten the unequal distribution of public educational resources. Marginalized families rely on their local schools for the education of their students. School districts must ensure that financial resources support all students, not solely the supporting higher socioeconomic families moving into the district to secure funding. Marginalized families may engage in school choice practices, but they do not leave the district when they do. Schools are a part of the cultural and social identities of those local to the community.

Educational leaders and those who shape policy must evaluate the impacts of school choice, not only those impacts in the classroom but those that add trauma and harm to the surrounding community. The writing of educational policy is to create a fair and just system for all. School choice policies currently exacerbated the disparities between the haves and the have nots. An unintended consequence of NCLB and other large-scale accountability programs with significant school choice provisions is that they may create an incentive for households with strong preferences for school choice or school quality to move into the attendance zones of failing schools in order to improve their likelihood of being admitted into high-performing schools (Billings, 2018). Crenshaw (as cited by Dixon, 2005) states two visions of equality—restrictive and expansive. Crenshaw's work centers on antidiscrimination law; however, the framework applies to the impacts of school choice and gentrification on local marginalized communities. The expansive outlines the benefits and consequences of educational policy. Policymakers must use the expansive view to mitigate long term harm. The restrictive is the suggestion of equality as a process and legislation to prevent future wrongdoing; it works in tandem with the expansive view. Gentrification in marginalized communities may be a result of school choice policies. As a result, school choice policies continue to harm marginalized communities.


Billings, B. (2018). Gentrification and failing schools: The unintended consequences of school choice under NCLB. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 100(1), 65–77.

Choices for Parents. (2013). Ed.Gov.

Definition of GENTRIFICATION. (2020).

DeSena, J. (2006). What's a Mother To Do?: Gentrification, School Selection, and the Consequences for Community Cohesion. The American Behavioral Scientist (Beverly Hills), 50(2), 241–257.

Dixson, R. (2005). And we are still not saved: critical race theory in education ten years later. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 7–27.

Keels, B. (2013). The Effects of Gentrification on Neighborhood Public Schools. City & Community, 12(3), 238–259.

Serbulo, L. (2017). Closing schools is like "taking away part of my body": the impact of gentrification on neighborhood, public schools in inner Northeast Portland. BELGEO (Leuven), 2(2-3).

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