Creating the Suburban School Advantage is an impressive contribution to the growing literature about how Americans with power and influence used the processes of suburbanization to develop remarkably inequitable school systems in the long postwar era. These systems, Rury makes clear, geospatially divided (mostly) middle-class and wealthy white suburbanites with college educations from (mostly) low-income and poor black urbanites with less education. In the suburbs, white families, elected officials, and developers leveraged taxpayer money, notably for roads and home construction, to engage collectively in what Rury labels educational “opportunity hoarding” or intense forms of “localism.” Within their communities, which were defined by school-district boundary lines above all, “sharing resources was not high on the agenda,” and “[w]hen considering a proposed policy or public expenditure, individuals…would focus resolutely on how it could affect their immediate neighbors and themselves” (12).
As Rury notes, Americans still more or less live within this educational arrangement and its attending racial injustices—“a fact widely recognized today.” Nonetheless, “just how this happened, and what—if anything—can be done about it, are still not well understood,” a reality that this book addresses with skill (2).
The book’s central strength is that it is ultimately a case study, allowing Rury to work with a specificity unique in the literature. That is, though the title does not say so, he is focused squarely on the perniciousness of localism in the Kansas City metropolitan area (its development in both Missouri and Kansas) between 1950 and 1980. Chapter 1 is an overview of national trends in urban and suburban school systems, but the remaining chapters are primarily attuned to the local: metropolitan development and demographic shifts in Kansas City (Chapter 2); the sharp decline in prestige and white families in the Kansas City Public Schools (Chapter 3); fine-grained analyses of opportunity hoarding and infighting in suburban development on the Missouri (Chapter 4) and Kansas (Chapter 5) sides of the border; and an account of how this urban–suburban divide has remained persistent throughout the last forty years (epilogue).
By elevating hyperlocal stories, Rury shows—often in compelling maps and tables—the segregation of Kansas City’s black population in the decades after 1950 (50–58); disparities, broken down by school district, in the population’s racial background, education level, home value, and family incomes in 1960 and 1980 (64–66); the percentage of people with “professional or management employment” by school district in Johnson County, Kansas, in 1960 (138); and maps of the concentration of people with bachelor’s degrees (with corresponding act averages by school district just pages later) from 2013 to 2017 (163–170). When woven together, such details bring to life the historical consolidation of now-common words like “privilege” and “advantage.”
Rury’s interdisciplinary approach is another of the book’s strengths. In the introduction alone, he builds an argument with ideas from law, sociology, human ecology, urban planning, and demography, among other fields. Yet none of this disciplinary hopping detracts from the book’s historical analysis, nor from its prose or narrative clarity. Wisely, Rury moved the technical explanations of his methodologies to the appendix or, in the case of the more sophisticated statistical analyses, to articles published elsewhere.
Although Creating the Suburban School Advantage succeeds by explaining the power of localism, Rury fittingly ends his book with a consideration of Labaree’s broad sociological argument that inequity exists, and will continue to exist, because most consumers of education (parents, in particular) view public schools as “private goods” for their own “social mobility.”1 In this view, which Rury illustrates in Kansas City with superb detail, Americans with power have little reason to hope that children from other parts of the city, likely with less power, receive an equitable education. In fact, they have an incentive to hoard opportunities for themselves at every turn. Rury concludes that “[s]hort of a more fundamental shift in localist attitudes,” where more Americans see true attempts at educational equity as a “public good” for the health of a democracy, “the basic structure of metropolitan inequality in education—and in many other spheres of life—is unlikely to change” (183).
David F. Labaree, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals,” American Educational Research Journal, XXXIV (1997), 39–81.