Amy Stuart Wells

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The Suburban Promise of Brown

Amy Stuart Wells

Amy stuart wellsAmy Stuart Wells is a Professor of Sociology and Education, and the Coordinator of Policy Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research and writing has focused broadly on issues of race and education andmore specifically on educational policies, such as school desegregation, school choice, charter schools, andtracking, and how they shape and constrain opportunities for students of color. She is the recipient of several honors and awards, including a 2001-02 Fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation's Scholars Program; the 2000 Julius & Rosa Sachs Lecturer, Teachers College-Columbia University; and the 2000 AERA Early Career Award for Programmatic Research.

Speaker Abstract

“The ‘Perfect Storm’ of Property Tax Caps, Hyper Accountability, and Anti-Public Education Politics: Are Divided and Increasingly Diverse School Districts Sustainable?”

Drawing from the voices of 800 people interviewed and surveyed in Nassau County, Long Island this talk will highlight the mounting anxiety about the future of American suburbs and their public schools. These communities face serious obstacles include racially and ethnically segregated housing patterns amid fragmented and divided municipalities and school districts and the “brain drain” of more affluent and educated residents who grew up in the suburbs but now prefer city life. Meanwhile, these suburbs are “tubs on their own bottoms,” heavily reliant on “local” sources of funding, namely property taxes, to pay for public schools and municipal services. This means that public school resources and reputations are spread unevenly across separate and unequal suburban districts.

Precisely because so many suburbs are small and autonomous, they and their public schools face mounting pressures to sustain themselves economically. Without “good” public schools that attract homebuyers and stabilize communities, things start to fall apart. People with the income to pay higher property taxes and with the education levels to demand more of public schools leave in search of schools and communities that are viewed as being “higher quality.” Communities and public schools then become overwhelmed by the needs of less advantaged students amid shrinking tax revenues and declining resources.

The two intertwined stories of suburban public education in the 21st Century are:

  1. The economic, political and social pressures suburban public school districts face today, or “the perfect storm” of factors, from tax caps and budget cuts to the burdensome accountability system and the anti-public school politics.
  2. The process by which creating separate and unequal schools and communities tends to repeat itself again and again.

This brief talk also offers some insight into how we could reverse this trend in a country that is changing rapidly in terms of our demographics, our public, and our sense of who we are.