Examining race and place in U.S. educational policy

Jenny LaFleur, PhD student

PhD student Jenny LaFleur leverages course assignments to publish two peer-reviewed papers

“It’s this thing I just can’t get my head around: How do we end up where we are, physically and geographically, and what resources does that give us access to?” asks PhD student Jenny LaFleur. She’s honed in on this question of location, identity and resources throughout her coursework and tackled the topic in various class assignments—two of which resulted in peer-reviewed publications this year.

LaFleur is a fifth-year PhD student in the joint program between the Heller School and the Brandeis Sociology department. “But I started out at Heller, so I’m a Heller person,” she jokes. Prior to joining Heller, she spent 10 years in Washington, D.C. doing youth development and education policy analysis. “I was looking at neighborhoods and schools, the interaction between place and social position. Initially I was specifically interested in the distribution of educational resources in certain schools, in certain geographic locations. That’s been core to everything I’m doing.”

Both of her recent publications are spin-offs from her Brandeis coursework. The first started as a term paper in Professor Robert Kuttner’s class on the political economy of the welfare state. The article, now published in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education, examines states’ use of public funds to create scholarships for students to attend private schools.

“A number of states now have these massive scholarship programs that in effect put money into the private sector, and in some ways discourage people from enrolling their children in public schools,” says LaFleur.

“I ended up learning this really curious history. Policies like this have been around ever since Brown v. Board of Education as part of a white resistance to school integration. Today we hear it referred to as ‘school choice,’ but this comes from the 1950s, 60s and 70s in the South.”

The second article, published in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, started as a paper she wrote for her oral exams in the sociology department. “There’s a lot of talk about racialized spaces and how people’s neighborhoods impact how they are viewed,” she says. “I was curious about the reverse: If race is a social construct, then what role does place have in our understanding of race? It’s a little bit out there, but it was fun to write. 

“If we think about how the ways in which land has been used and regulated in the United States, you can’t separate race from land. From redlining, to the idea of American Indian reservations, to the concept of the ghetto or the ‘white suburb,’—the control over territory is everything,” she adds.

LaFleur prioritized publishing papers because she is hoping to pursue an academic job once she graduates. The process was interesting, she says, “The reviewers were really, really tough. At first, I thought I couldn’t respond to their feedback. But then I realized that I could, and it was critical to do so. It helped me to not be afraid of it. Every time I submit something to a journal, I get thicker and thicker skin.”

In 2020 LaFleur also received a University Prize Instructorship from Brandeis’ Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to teach a course in the Department of Sociology about spatial inequality called “Geographies of Inequality: Exploring Power and Space in the United States.”  

For her dissertation, LaFleur decided to pivot once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. During the summer of 2020 she did some consulting for Boston Public Schools about how families are coping with remote learning with GSAS Professor, Derron Wallace. The work inspired her to scrap her dissertation plans in favor of a new project examining privilege among students and families during the pandemic. 

“I’m terminally interested in power, especially as it relates to schooling,” says LaFleur. “We have to understand the strains of power that are driving politics, and race is unavoidable when you think about power in the United States.”