Mothers and the Unequal School-Search Burden

Bailey Brown, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Sociology Department of Sociology and Anthropology | Mar-24-2022

Bailey Brown, Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Sociology and Anthropology Department examines how parents of young children make school decisions as school options have rapidly increased in recent years.

Brown researches and teaches on education, urban sociology, race and ethnicity, and research methods. Brown is passionate about mentoring students and supporting student research. Brown’s research appears in the Sage Encyclopedia for Higher Education and in the second edition of Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader. Brown’s forthcoming work will appear in second volume of the Handbook of Education Policy Research, the International Encyclopedia of Education, and The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. Brown completed her PhD in sociology at Columbia University and a postdoctoral fellowship in the Sociology Department at Princeton University. Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology with minors in Urban Education and Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and is a proud Ronald E. McNair Scholar and Leadership Alliance Fellow.

Brown’s most recent article published in Sociology of Education draws on interviews with 90 mothers and 12 fathers of elementary-age children in New York City. Brown argues that while expanded school-choice policies have weakened the traditional link between residence and school assignment, these policies have created new labor for families to manage and divide. Brown finds that mothers across class, racial, and ethnic backgrounds absorb the labor of school decision-making. Working-class mothers emphasize self-sacrifice and search for schools that will keep their children safe. Middle-class mothers intensively research school information and seek niche school environments. Working-class and middle-class Black and Latinx mothers engage in ongoing labor to monitor the racial climate within schools and to protect their children from experiences of marginalization. Partnered fathers and single primary-caregiver fathers invest less time and energy in the search for schools.

Brown’s findings identify an important source of gender inequality stemming from modern educational policies. Because gendered expectations of caregiving fall on mothers, school-choice policies in New York City and other large urban districts mean mothers are expected to invest considerable effort in touring, researching, and rank-ordering school options. Improving our understanding of how policies may unintentionally create greater responsibilities for mothers, especially low-income mothers and mothers of color, is a critical topic for future research.

Brown is currently working on a book project that examines how parents of young children in New York City have responded to the transformations in risk and security brought on by new school choice policies. Brown argues that in order to make school choice more equitable and empowering, school choice systems must eliminate the differential burdens parents experience and offer more support for families. School districts must invest in all of their public schools so that families regardless of socioeconomic background or place of residence have equal access to quality schools.