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White Progressive Parents & School Choice: A Study from Madison

A Q&A with Professor Kelly Jensen

Kelly Jensen is an assistant professor of Communication at UW–Whitewater at Rock County and a white mother raising two white children. When Kelly was working as a public school teacher in Denver, Colorado, she saw firsthand the racial educational disparities that exist in our school systems. After five years of teaching and two years working as a research analyst, she decided to pursue a PhD in Rhetoric at UW–Madison. Her goal? To combine her passion for educational equity with a long held interest in how language persuades people and the power it has to shape our social realities.

Her dissertation, “Positioned to Choose: Reckoning with Racial Privilege in Progressive White Parents’ School Choice Discourse,” explores the tensions in the ways that well-intentioned, progressive white parents with professed commitments to educational equity reckon with their unearned racial privilege within the K12 education system. Read a summary here.

In fieldwork with white, politically progressive, socioeconomically advantaged parents of school-aged children in Madison, Kelly studied the rhetorical maneuvers white parents employ to rationalize their school choice decisions and grapple with their complicity in racialized systems of oppression.

As you can imagine, we were delighted to catch up with Kelly and to find out more about her research and findings.

Why did you choose to do this study? What about it felt important or interesting to you?

As progressive white people, we are really good at scapegoating racial extremists. A far easier project would have been to analyze more overt racist discourse employed by folks politically right of center, views that align with the rhetoric espoused by conservative elected officials. But what we’re not so good at is turning the critical gaze back on ourselves. I really wanted to interrogate the more mundane and benign ways that white progressives uphold racism and privilege in K12 education. Consider the following scenarios:

  • What does your co-worker imply when they say they bought their house because of the reputation of “good” schools in the neighborhood?

  • What does your neighbor value when he uses an online school rating website, like, to prioritize certain criteria in his school choice process?

  • When your friend praises the high levels of racial diversity at her children’s school, does she reflect on the ways that celebrations of multiculturalism often center white students’ enrichment at the expense of the presence of students of color?

White progressives, like our conservative counterparts, are positioned to benefit from systems of white supremacy. I was curious to uncover the subtle, yet also violent, ways our school choice discourse functions to reinforce, question, and/or disrupt logics of whiteness.

Finally, given how white progressives generally possess positive intentions when it comes to social justice values, I believe drawing attention to this topic has the potential to develop folks’ critical awareness and interrupt our well-worn behaviors of white privilege.

You found a range of ways that the parents in this study thought about and made choices about school. How would you describe that range?

For the purposes of this study, I constructed associations among parents according to their shared social identities as racially white, socioeconomically advantaged, political progressives, and parents of K12 children in the Madison area. Doing so allowed me to analyze their discourse according to broad themes. Yet, in spite of these shared associations, I discovered that school choice is a complex issue that parents possess a wide range of opinions on! I also learned that parents variously weigh numerous factors in their decision-making process, such as their political identity among others.

My research made apparent several assumptions associated with being a political progressive in the Madison area: that you support public institutions like the public-school system; that you will vote for school district referenda that would invest in MMSD schools through increased property taxes; that you will elect public officials that will advocate for public schools; that you oppose school choice policies, like private school vouchers, that would defund public schools; and that you value how public schools promote community, connections between neighbors, and serve all types of learners.

Despite these shared progressive beliefs, I found that parents demonstrated varying degrees of value alignment between their school choices and their political values. I accounted for this range in terms of the degrees of alignment and conflict they expressed when accounting for their choices. This is how I grouped parents’ choices:

  • Public schools - content: These parents expressed alignment with their progressive values through their choice to remain in the public schools. Some parents recognized the challenges public schools face and indicated how their choice to stay felt like an intentional way to support the school system.

  • Public schools - conflicted: These parents chose the public schools for their child(ren) but question their choice. They acknowledged the ways their school may not be as academically rigorous as they had hoped. They were curious about alternatives, but recognize those alternatives do not align with their progressive identity.

  • Public schools - alternatives: Several parents chose alternatives to the neighborhood public school, such as a district dual language charter school or a district Montessori school, and exhibited some conflict about those choices in relation to their progressive values.

  • Private schools - conflicted: I also spoke to parents whose families attend private schools, and they acknowledge how this choice felt in tension with their political views. They expressed feeling not proud about their choice but needing to prioritize other factors more heavily over their political identity.

  • Private schools - content: This final category accounts for parents whose child(ren) attend private schools and who did not express conflict about their choices.

I want to acknowledge a handful of exceptional cases (i.e. students with disabilities, highly gifted students) that did not fit easily into this typology. I balanced these groupings with the recognition that there are unique circumstances within each family influencing their school choice decisions.

Some of what you heard is that parents make decisions that conflict with their personal values and they feel this as uncomfortable, even “tortuous.” For parents who have or are experiencing this, what would you tell them?

I would encourage them to sit with their discomfort and get curious about where their white privilege might be showing up. How has your white privilege influenced your family’s school choice decisions? To what degree does your choice of where to live and the schools your children attend align with your progressive values and beliefs around educational equity? Is alignment with these beliefs important to you? Are you weighing other factors more heavily over your beliefs around social justice and educational equity in the school choice process? If so, what are they and why?

One big takeaway from my research and related scholarship I read on this topic is the need for social action that accompanies our professed social justice values. As white political progressives, we are really good at saying the right things, reading articles and books on anti-racism, engaging performative white allyship through our social media posts, and staking Black Lives Matter signs up in our front yards.

But we don’t always follow through when it comes time for meaningful action on behalf of our beliefs. We find ourselves particularly challenged when it comes to action as personal as choosing where our child(ren) will attend school. And yet, what better opportunity to act on our professed progressive values than through something as democratic as supporting our neighborhood schools?

The parents in your study often talked about valuing diversity in school environments and in curricula, and many also spoke about feelings of responsibility and engagement in advocacy for equitable schools. Based on this study, what do you think progressive, socioeconomically-advantaged, white parents should do on an individual and collective level?

I believe there are a range of possble actions depending on the stage you are at with critically reckoning with your white privilege. This is by no means a definitive list and I would absolutely encourage keeping this conversation going.

  • First, if you haven’t already previously considered the relationship between your white privilege and your family’s school choice process, stop and reflect on the ways your race and class-based privilege has afforded your family a certain comfort in choosing area schools. Better yet, talk this through with a white friend or neighbor.

  • Be conscious of the language you use to express your value for different schools. Be curious about how people in your white social networks talk about area schools in ways that may uphold racist logics.

  • As a white parent, be aware of how you show up in school spaces, whether it be advocating for the needs of your individual child or working on a parent organization. Do you advocate for your child(ren)’s school in a way that makes space for other students and families to have equitable access to resources?

  • Engage other white parents at your child(ren)’s schools in conversation about how you as white parents can collectively work in anti-racist ways to make the school a safe and welcoming space for all students and their families. Seek ways to engage the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and other parents of color as you do this work.

  • Join advocacy groups (like Families for Justice – Dane County!) where you can organize collectively with other white folks critically aware of their privilege to seek ways to work in coalition with organizations that support Black, Indigenous, and communities of color.

Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.

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