In late July, the New York Times’s Serial podcast company released a new series about K-12 education provocatively entitled Nice White Parents.
Throughout its five episodes, host Chana Joffe-Walt explores the New York City public school system, concluding that the underlying problem of the racial achievement gap is, broadly speaking, that white people refuse to give up power.
With such a controversial thesis, I expected to be quickly outraged listening to the podcast, but the series is actually more humorous than anything else. The “nice white parents” of New York City, after all, are not Republicans. They’re well-to-do Democrats whose espoused progressive beliefs often contradict the actions they take to get the best education for their children.
Joffe-Walt does a masterful job exposing this liberal hypocrisy, ironically as a liberal. However, Nice White Parents seems jumbled at times and concludes without a clear solution to closing the racial achievement gap, even though it showcased a charter school that had seemed to accomplish just that.
The first two episodes of the series largely revolve around the School for International Studies, or SIS, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Joffe-Walt explores the history of the school and how it was founded by a group of progressive parents who wished to send their children to an integrated school in the 1960s.
Here’s the kicker: None of the parents who initially lobbied for its establishment actually followed through in sending their children to SIS. Incredibly, Joffe-Walt successfully hunted down several of these parents, and the interviews she conducts with them lay bare the cognitive dissonance of white liberals in a way that is brilliant and unnerving at the same time.
We also learn about the school’s more recent history in the first two episodes. SIS has become more attractive to white parents in the past few years, largely because a band of parents opted to send their children there to have a more active role in developing the school’s curriculum and student activities.
One parent, a professional fundraiser by occupation, quickly secured tens of thousands of dollars of donations for the school’s French program, and the French Embassy even threw a gala for the school.
One would think SIS parents would be singing the praises of the fundraising father for rejuvenating the school’s international curriculum, which had been largely in name only. But the donations elicited outrage from the PTA because it did not preapprove how the funds would be used, an act of zero-sum, bureaucratic thinking.
In my humble opinion, the PTA should not have looked a gift horse in the mouth. While the white father undoubtedly could have done a better job navigating the power dynamics of his child’s new school, it is ridiculous that the PTA responded in anger instead of immediately using him to raise more funds for more projects in the school.
The takeaway Joffe-Walt wanted the listener to leave with from that storyline is that white parents do not listen to the concerns of parents of color and cannot help but immediately assume power. However, the fundraising father was, if anything, obsequious in taking what seemed to be constant backlash for his entrepreneurial thinking. The lesson I drew, instead, was how the public school system is irrationally resistant to any sort of positive change, even when presented with free money.
The focus then shifts in the fourth episode to a school that Joffe-Walt excitedly reports closed the racial achievement gap. Surprise, surprise: It’s a charter school named Success Academy.
The episode explores the rigorous curriculum and impressive pedagogical techniques the school uses to keep the children focused on learning. However, near the end of the episode, Joffe-Walt’s political bias comes on clear display as she oddly dismisses Success Academy with the basic tropes that liberals love to lob at school choice. A for-profit business runs the school, and not every student can get into a charter school because of capacity constraints.
Both points are true but hardly disqualifying. Just about everyone agrees good teachers should be paid well, so why shouldn’t shrewd investors in schools successfully closing the achievement gap also make a dime? As for charter schools not being currently available to everyone, that fact only underlines the case for expanding school choice.
Nice White Parents is masterful in its presentation and grips the listener’s attention, but Joffe-Walt oddly ends the series in a pessimistic mood, highlighting how one school enacted a bold integration plan and then suggesting that it likely won’t be replicated anytime soon.
By the end, I wanted to scream: “Chana, the answer was right in front of you: Give poor parents a choice!”
Casey Given (@CaseyJGiven) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the executive director of Young Voices.

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