I live in the 10th Congressional District of Virginia, in the southwestern corner of Fairfax County, which on its eastern side is just across the river from Washington, DC. The Republican, Frank Wolf, was my Congressman when we moved here in 1983, up until his retirement in 2014. After 1982, Wolf won re-election by large margins every two years. His former aide, Barbara Comstock, a “moderate” Republican, succeeded him and won re-election in 2016, although, uncharacteristically, the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, won the presidential vote in the district by 10 percentage points.
Noting the changing demographics of her district, Comstock had been one of the never-Trumpers in the GOP, and it had probably saved her in 2016, but the handwriting was on the wall. Indeed, this past November she lost badly to the Democratic state legislator, Jennifer Wexton, by a vote of 56.2% to 43.7%.
Shortly after that election I received an email from one of my sons who lives in the Atlanta area now. He had found a web site that shows the ethnic breakdown of Brookfield Elementary School in Chantilly, which he attended as a sixth grader in 1983 when we had just arrived. On a pie chart, which you can find by scrolling down on the Great Schools web site, you can see that the largest ethnic group now attending the school is Hispanic at 40%. Next are Asians at 23%, then Whites at 20% and Blacks at 12%. My son can recall there being only one Hispanic student at the school in the half year he was there. I coached basketball in the very large Chantilly Youth Association for nine years, and I can’t recall a single Hispanic player.
At this point, I thought I had the end of the Republican era in the district pretty well figured out. Call it the California factor. We had become just another Orange County. But then I thought of the normal walking or bike route I take through a big apartment complex to do grocery shopping. It is in the opposite direction from Brookfield Elementary School. When we first moved here it was just a big vacant field; I actually remember picking wild blackberries there. Then the apartments got built, and it was peopled mainly by the white folks who could afford it. These are not low-rent apartments. But just a day or so after I got my son’s email, I encountered a school bus at the apartment disgorging its load. The kids were all obviously from the local elementary school, which would be Greenbriar West, and except for a couple of whites, they all seemed to be Indian or Pakistani, something I had been noticing about the occupants of those apartments for quite a while.
That observation took me to the Great Schools site for Greenbriar West. Big surprise! 57% Asian, 24% White, and only 10% Hispanic and 4% Black. What a huge difference, and each within about equal walking distance of my residence!
At that point I went back to the Wikipedia page for the 10th District, and saw quickly that the Hispanic influx was not the primary demographic change that has caused the political change. There we see that the district is about 62% white and only 14% Hispanic, and there’s little doubt that the Hispanic voting rate is lower, so they’re still hardly a factor in the district. It would require a lot more detailed research than I have time for to completely document it, but I know what’s going on with respect to the voting change.. If you look at the map, you can see that the lion’s share of the district is to our northwest, and the most populated part of it is Loudoun County. That county is nothing like the native Virginian county it was when Republican Frank Wolf began his victory streak. It’s now just more of the urban sprawl of Washington, DC. That is to say, it is now classic U.S. coastal, urban blue-voter territory, or you might just call it, like the big enclave in Charlottesville to our south, Washington Post territory.
So at this point we can dispense with the political topic that drew me into this demographic subject. The really interesting thing is what one can discover at these Great Schools web sites that my son had found. What a crazy ethnic quilt I have around me these days! Let’s look a little further. The next nearest elementary school is Lees Corner, and it’s hardly any further than the other two, to my north. That school has been built since we moved here. The dominant ethnic group there is still White, at 44%, as it was when the school was built. Asians are next, at 33%, and then Hispanics and Blacks at 11% and 4%, respectively. It looks a lot like Greenbriar West at the tail of the distribution, but with the Whites and Asians reversed at the top end.
It resembles Greenbriar West in another way, too, and it’s quite different from Brookfield. Right below that ethnic pie chart on each site there’s another circular chart showing the percentage of students who come from low-income families. At Lees Corner it’s 12%, Greenbriar West, 11%; and Brookfield Elementary, 51%. Wow! How did that happen? Greenbriar is the oldest of the neighborhoods and Lees Corner is in the newest Chantilly Farms development. There is virtually no cheap housing to be had in either Greenbriar or Chantilly Farms. Those newer apartments in Greenbriar where the South Asians predominate, as we said, are rather pricey. Brookfield, by contrast, has quite a large number of somewhat older townhouses that must be more affordable and must be heavily populated by immigrants from our south.
Further examining our local ethnic crazy quilt, let’s look at a couple of schools just to the south of Brookfield Elementary. By driving distance, Poplar Tree Elementary is only 2.8 miles from Brookfield in Chantilly. The ethnicity of the school is miles apart, however. Students there are 51% White, 33% Asian, 8% Hispanic, and 4% Black. It looks a lot like Lees Corner, and it looks quite a bit like the nearby Greenbriar West, with the White and Asian percentages flipped. Only 7% of its students are in the low-income category, in sharp contrast to Brookfield’s 51%.
My guess is that that “Asian” category conceals a major difference with Greenbriar West and Lees Corner. As you travel south on Stringfellow Road you are heading into Centreville, which has earned the nickname of Korea Town II or Korea Town West. The main, original Korea Town in the area is in Annandale, inside the Beltway. Centreville and Chantilly are well outside it. To get an idea of what we’re talking about, let’s just travel another 2.1 miles down Stringfellow to Powell Elementary, which is technically in Centreville. One of the parents’ reviews on the site gives you a bit of the flavor of the place, although, I dare say that I believe that it must be a bit of an exaggeration:
This school is 80% Korean and caters to this demographic by offering a Korean immersion program for the non-speaking Korean students. The atmosphere is competitive and academic oriented with little emphasis on much else. Your children will need a good deal of after school support and tutors (most children go to kumon, etc) just to keep up. The teachers are very test and score-focused and put little emphasis on anything besides grades. There are no opportunities for sports or other non-math or non-science extra curricular activities for development. Although it is a quality education, they don’t create well rounded students. I would think twice before moving into this school zone.
This rather negative review contrasts with some of the positive parent reviews on the site, but the description dovetails almost exactly with what we know for a fact about the extremely competitive, very grade-oriented nature of schools in Korea. There’s a certain irony in that many Koreans immigrate to this country hoping that their children can escape Korea’s educational pressure cooker and then end up perpetuating it in their new home.
The Hispanic Factor
If you have been clicking on the Great Schools links, you would have noticed that right at the top the site grades the school on a 1-10 basis, with 10 being the best. Below that you will see how the schools’ students measure up to the rest of the state on standard test scores in English, math, and science. As you might expect, of the five local schools examined, Brookfield, with its large Hispanic and low-income contingent is the outlier. Great Schools gives it a 3. The next lowest, Greenbriar West, with its Indian-White majority is next with a 6. Poplar Tree, with a White-Korean majority is highest with a 9. It also happened to have the lowest percentage of students from low-income families at only 7%, as we noted.
A house on my regular walking route in Brookfield has one of those virtue-signaling yard signs out front that reads in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” As a longtime resident of this extraordinarily cold and impersonal area, my first thought upon seeing it was, “Yeah, we can ignore you in any language.” What difference does it make who the people next door are when you have no real community and you don’t know any of your neighbors, anyway, and you even avert your eyes when you meet someone on the sidewalk when you’re out walking your dog? Then I saw these latest numbers on Brookfield Elementary, and my next thought is that these people probably don’t have children in grade school. Normal parents want the best education for their children, and it’s hard for them to get that at a school that is tugged downward by the family background of a large percentage of the students. Teachers have to aim their instruction to the level of the class.
Brookfield Elementary, actually, might not be the best example of this phenomenon. As I examine its Great Schools page carefully, I feel that Brookfield is being shafted with that overall score of 3. Consider the fact that 51% of its students are from low-income families (based upon eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches) and yet its math achievement is barely below the state average and even English and science are not far off. In the state overall, 42% of students are low-income by that measure. Consider, as well, that these are not just low-income families but that the language at home is more than likely to be Spanish and their children entering Brookfield might have known little or no English at the time. Reading the heavily positive reviews of the school by the parents, it looks to me like Brookfield, so far, is doing a pretty remarkable job of coping with the growing challenge that it faces and perhaps it has not yet reached the point that one would feel compelled to move to a different neighborhood if he had elementary-school-age children.
There are better examples, and we can see them by looking at the experience of two of my sons. Consider first the one in the Atlanta area. When he got married he was living in Dekalb County just on the Atlanta side of I-285, the city’s perimeter expressway. He was in an old, heavily wooded neighborhood with nice houses by my standards. I found it quite pleasant to walk around, but it was in transition, as they say. After they had a child, my son and his wife moved farther out to Suwanee in Gwinnett County. The commute to work in Atlanta is much farther, but look at the difference in the schools. Had he stayed put and he were sending his son to the local public school, it would be Dresden Elementary. Great Schools gives it an overall grade of 2, and that appears to be very generous. I would hate to see the schools that get a 1. Ninety-five percent of the students are Hispanic and 97% of the students are low-income. The percent deemed to be proficient in English, math, and science at 15, 15, and 13 respectively are far below the average for the state of Georgia overall, and Georgia’s proficiency levels are much lower than Virginia’s. The school is clearly the pits, and the eight people who have taken the time to weigh in with evaluations say so. Anyone who could afford to live in one of the nicer old houses in my son’s old neighborhood with school age children would be forced to do what everyone so situated did when we lived in Puerto Rico. They would send their children to a private school and take the financial hit.
Now let’s look at the school that my grandson attends in Suwanee, Level Creek Elementary. Great Schools rates it a 10 overall, which to me seems a bit overly generous. They give it a 10 for its test scores, too, but the lowest of the local Virginia schools besides Brookfield, which is Greenbriar West, beat it in all three categories, math, English, and science, and they only gave Greenbriar West an 8 on test scores, and a grade of 6 overall. Maybe the Great Schools folks think Level Creek is just topnotch for the state of Georgia.
Level Creek’s ethnic composition stands in stark contrast to Dresden’s. Sixty-four percent of its students are White, 17% Asian, 9% Black, and only 4% Hispanic. Only 8% of the students are from low-income families.
With this admittedly limited sample, we see families sorting themselves out by ethnicity and income class in the big metropolitan area of Atlanta, just as they are doing in the big Washington, DC, metropolitan area, and a major reason for doing so is doubtless the public schools that they attend.
But it’s not just in the big cities, as we shall see from the example of another son, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Before his children reached school age, his living circumstance could hardly have been better. He lived in an old, refurbished 1850s row house in the heart of the city, just across the street from the historic cemetery where the Confederacy-hating politician, Thaddeus Stevens, is buried in an elaborate grave. Not many people know it, but Lancaster is something of a college town. Franklin and Marshall College is right in the city with a very nice campus and the much larger Millersville University of Pennsylvania is in a local suburb. Therefore, many of the forms of entertainment that cater to college-age students are available in Lancaster, and they are almost all within a short walk of my son’s old house. He could even walk to see the Barnstormers, the Lancaster minor league baseball team that plays in a very spacious and comfortable new stadium. Also within a short walk is a large, enclosed farmers’ market, unique to Lancaster, which is surrounded by many beautiful, mainly Amish and Mennonite, farms.
But if my son had stayed put and his now two elementary-school-age children were to have gone to the public school, it would have been to the one next to that old cemetery, Fulton Elementary. They would only have needed to cross the street to get there, but it looks to me like that convenience wouldn’t have been worth it.
Great Schools gives “Fulton El” an overall evaluation of 3, but that looks too generous to me. Only 20% are deemed to be proficient in math and 32% in English, though, curiously, 62% grade as proficient in science, which is still well below the state average of 76%. The ethnic breakdown is 56% Hispanic, 17% Black, 11% White, and 10% Asian. Most tellingly, 100% of the students are said to be from low-income families. There are quite a few very nice, expensive houses within that school district (as there are in my Brookfield neighborhood in Virginia. The “hotel-size houses” shown in this video are in the Brookfield district.). One must believe that anyone living there either has no grade-school children or is sending them to private schools.
The new neighborhood to which my son and his family have moved is still well within Lancaster, on the south side of U.S. Rt. 30, which crosses Lancaster on its north. None of the old attractions and conveniences is within walking distance, but their new elementary school is. It’s in Mannheim Township, but the family mailing address still has them in Lancaster. In terms of its demographics and especially in its academics, the new school, Schaeffer, looks a bit like Level Creek in Suwanee and the schools in my area except Brookfield. Great Schools gives it an overall rating of 8 and what looks to me like an overly generous 9 in academics. Ethnically, it’s 70% White, 15% Hispanic, 5% Asian, and 4% Black. Economically, it seems to fall about midway between those other schools and Brookfield with 26% of the children coming from low-income families.
Finally, on the subject of family and school in a country with changing demographics, there’s the case of my niece and her husband who live in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Petworth, in Northwest Washington, DC, not far from Howard University. As millennial DINKs (double income, no kids), they are prime examples of the gentrifiers. If they had children and they attended public schools, it would be at Barnard Elementary, I believe. It appears to me that Great Schools and the preponderance of parents reviewing the school rate it relatively highly because their expectations are relatively low. Only 42% of the students test as proficient in English and 34% in math, but both numbers are well above the average for Washington, DC, so Great Schools gives it a 7 in academics and a 7 overall. My niece’s husband attended the tawniest private school in Raleigh throughout his school career, and my niece attended the highly competitive North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham for high school. My guess is that if they ever have children and they stay put, they will not be sending those children to Barnard. It looks like these two are typical of the new gentry of Petworth, because Great Schools tells us that 100% of the students at Barnard come from low-income families. They can’t be the ones buying the houses in Petworth these days considering what they cost. Fifty-two percent of Barnard’s students are Black, 46% Hispanic, and only 1% are White. Asians are less than 1%.
Immigration and Education
The debate over the high level of particularly Hispanic immigration to the United States has centered mainly upon its effect on wages and working conditions, primarily for blue-collar workers and to a lesser degree on crime, and also the strain that it puts upon the welfare system. It’s also being discussed in terms of which I began this inquiry and this essay, how it will affect the political landscape for our two major parties. Less attention has been paid to the effect that it has had upon our already generally poor public schools.
The elementary school where I lived changed radically many years after my own children went there, so it has not affected me. The two sons, fortunately, had the economic wherewithal to move to more affluent suburban neighborhoods to escape the Hispanic tide that has swept over the schools in the neighborhoods that they left. There are others, though, who either can’t afford to move or choose not to for other reasons, but have to pay a price in terms of the quality of education their children are likely to get, on account of the lower level to which their teachers must teach.
My niece and her husband are Democratic Party liberals through and through. They attended the Women’s Rally against Donald Trump after his inauguration. In online debate, the nephew-in-law has strongly implied that anyone who would use the term “invasion” to describe the level of Hispanic immigration over about the last three decades is simply a bigot. In leveling such charges, he is all too representative of the remaining Democratic Party faithful and their media megaphones, who I see as comfortably out of touch with reality and not a little bit hypocritical.
January 13, 2019