As a historian of education who specializes in race and inequality, my research focuses on the history of educational opportunity. By and large, my scholarship seeks to understand how and why individuals, institutions, and communities determined who they would and would not educate, and who should get priority. These choices, I contend, illuminate larger societal attitudes towards civic inclusion, formal equality, and socio-economic mobility. My interest in the history of educational opportunity also stems from a personal and pedagogical dedication to expanding access to education, particularly for those whose opportunities have been constricted by structural processes and individual decision-making.
My first book, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), which won the 2010 History of Education Society Outstanding Book Award, asked why white opposition to African American schooling coincided with the emergence of public education in the United States.
In this monograph, I explain how the emergence of common schooling in the 1830s provided white children of all classes and ethnicities with the opportunity to become full-fledged citizens. At the same time, I argue, the expansion of public education also redefined citizenship as synonymous with whiteness. This link between school and American identity increased white hostility to black education at the same time that it spurred African Americans to demand public schooling as a means of securing status as full and equal members of society. Shedding new light on the efforts of black Americans to learn independently in the face of white attempts to withhold opportunity, Schooling Citizens narrated a previously untold chapter in the thorny history of America’s educational inequality.
While Schooling Citizens traced the origins of segregation in American education, my current research explores the desegregation and re-segregation of public schools, particularly through the adoption of policies like school choice and zoning. After completing Schooling Citizens, I researched Cambridge, Massachusetts during the late 1970s and early 1980s as it attempted to equalized educational opportunity by abolishing attendance zones. I also became interested in understanding how state and local actors utilized school zoning and school choice policies to allocate educational opportunity outside the United States as well. My 2019 essay in History of Education Quarterly, “From Open Enrollment to Controlled Choice: How Choice-Based Assignment Replaced the Neighborhood School in Cambridge, Massachusetts” was one out-growth of this research, which will also be included in my next book.
At present, I am based in Wellington, New Zealand, as a Research Fellow at the Stout Centre for New Zealand Studies, where I am working on my current book manuscript, There Goes the Neighbourhood School: A Transnational and Comparative History of Zoning and Choice in Late 20th Century Aotearoa/New Zealand and the United States.
This book explores how and why ideas about the neighbourhood school, and its relationship to concepts of equality, citizenship, inclusion, and social justice, evolved during the late twentieth century in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the United States.
There Goes the Neighbourhood School asks a few key questions: First, how and why were debates over choice, zoning, and neighbourhood schools important sites for contesting citizenship, identity, language preservation, and belonging in late twentieth-century Aotearoa/New Zealand? How have New Zealanders across racial, linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic lines, understood and fought over the benefits and limitations of “freedom of choice” and “neighbourhood schools” in a post-colonial context? And how did struggles over choice and zoning play out in relationship to competing ideas and traditions of land and property for settler and indigenous communities?
Second, why did school choice gain traction in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the late twentieth century, relative to other western democracies, especially the United States? How did New Zealanders contribute to and resist international dialogues about market-based education reforms? And how did New Zealanders engage with, contest, and shape global conversations about formal equality and neo-liberalism in the late twentieth century?
And finally, how did school choice and other neo-liberal education reforms contribute to deepening socio-economic, ethnic, linguistic, and racial inequality in late twentieth-century Aotearoa/New Zealand and the United States, despite professed support for egalitarianism, equity, cultural and linguistic preservation, and civic inclusion?
Aotearoa/New Zealand’s experience with eliminating the “neighbourhood school,” I argue, shows Americans what could unfold should they persist with efforts to eliminate geographic student assignment plans. The lessons of New Zealand’s educational history are particularly important for equity-minded scholars of desegregation and choice, most notably Gary Orfield and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who maintain that geographic assignment policies facilitate segregation and speculate that separating housing values from student assignment policies decisions will promote educational equality. As other scholars have found, when New Zealand eliminated its enrolment zones, many schools became more segregated, as schools became empowered to pass over linguistic and ethnic minorities and students with disabilities, and prioritize students with greater social capital and higher class status. Viewing American choice policies through a lens shaped by New Zealand’s history makes clear that removing attendance zones is not a silver bullet for desegregation, equity, and civic inclusion.