Is Segregation The New School Choice

Jeff Bryant

I remember the day that the poor kids showed up at our school. It was in 1964.

Classes had already started, and I was in second grade, surrounded by my familiar friends from my mostly white, mostly well-to-do, suburban neighborhood in North Dallas.

Their bus showed up after the last bell had rung. That in itself was a little odd because most of us walked, biked, or were driven to school by parents.

Looking down from our classroom widows, we watched the kids file off the bus and trudge up the sidewalk — a mixed group of younger and older, mostly black, some brown, a few white.

Two girls seated next to me pointed and giggled about something. Then Mrs. Bowman called us back to attention.

Minutes later, three of the new students were escorted into our class by the school secretary. One girl, Brenda was her name, wasn’t wearing any shoes. And there was mud smeared on her leg. “Class,” Mrs. Bowman announced. “Please welcome your new classmates.”

It wasn’t like we hadn’t been told this was going to happen. At an assembly the previous week, Mr. Abbott, the principal, had introduced us to the term “Affirmative Action.” And we were told that students from another school — a place I knew mostly as being “in the sticks” — were going to be “integrated” with our school.

But the awkwardness of the day was unavoidable. Because that’s how it usually is when poverty is introduced into the world of the better-off. Isn’t it? A sort of public shaming. Especially for schoolchildren.

Back in 1964, there was little choice in the matter, although when a year passed and I enrolled in third grade, I found that many of my friends had transferred to the private Catholic school across town.

But just as the white people of North Dallas were being ordered to share bus seats, public bathrooms, and restaurant space with their fellow citizens of different skin color and lesser means, white families were being told to share their schools with black and brown children.

As far as I recall, this forced sharing of the common was never justified on the basis of pragmatism. Blacks weren’t being allowed to sit at the front of the bus because it helped them get to work faster, or dine in the same restaurants because it was known to improve their nutrition — or attend the same schools because there was evidence it would improve their test scores. The rationale was that separate schools based on race would always be unequal. And ending inequality was the right thing to do.

But in the America we’re seeing today, it appears we no longer believe that.

Welcome to a Re-Segregating World

In a recent article that appeared at Bloomberg, John Hechinger introduced us to our brave, new, re-segregating world:

Six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites, segregation is growing.

Hechinger credits the proliferation of charter schools as a primary engine driving the new segregation, and he cites two examples that are particularly vivid. In an all-black school students wear traditional Muslim garb and study Arabic and Somali. In a school that’s predominantly white, the children gather under a map of “Deutschland,” study with interns from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and learn to dance the waltz.

These school examples are from the Minneapolis and St. Paul region of Minnesota where charter schools are “highly segregated,” according to the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race & Poverty. Almost half of these charters are 80 percent or more non-white, and 32 percent, mostly white.

But the article also quotes from a nationwide analysis by The Civil Rights Study at the University of California, Los Angeles that show that in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and 39 metropolitan areas higher percentages of charter-school students attend what the report called “racially isolated” schools, where 90 percent or more students are from disadvantaged minority groups.

The report, found here, examined over seven years of data and concluded that the racial isolation of students enrolled in charter schools varies by region

Charter school trends vary substantially across different regions of the country. Latinos are under-enrolled in charter schools in some Western states where they comprise the largest share of students. At the same time, a dozen states (including those with high concentrations of Latino students like Arizona and Texas) report that a majority of Latino charter students attend intensely segregated minority schools. Patterns in the West and in a few areas in the South, the two most racially diverse regions of the country, also suggest that charters serve as havens for white flight from public schools. Finally, in the industrial Midwest, more students enroll in charter schools compared to other regions, and midwestern charter programs display high concentrations of black students.

Indeed, when you look at the way that charter schools are now stratifying American students by race, “it feels like the Deep South in the days of Jim Crow segregation,” said one of the Minnesota researchers in the Bloomberg article. “When you see an all-white school and an all-black school in the same neighborhood in this day and age, it’s shocking.”

But is it fair to blame charter schools alone for this trend?

How Charters + Choice = Re-Segregation

In the same way that it is unfair and inaccurate to make generalizations about “all public schools,” the same is untrue for judging charters and their effect on racial segregation.

When operatives at the conservative thinktank Education Next looked at the UCLA analysis of charter schools, they found that patterns of re-segregation were “not a charter phenomenon” because “the geographic placement of charter schools practically ensures that they will enroll higher percentages of minorities” and “because serving disadvantaged populations is the stated mission of many charter schools, they seek out locations near disadvantaged populations intentionally.”

So the conclusion by conservative, “free-market” advocates who generally back charter schools is that charters can’t be blamed if they happen to end up drawing particular populations of students. Instead, this is a reflection of “active parental choices” rather than “the forced segregation of our nation’s past.”

But this conclusion overlooks three invariable truths about the nature of “choice” in America and its relationship to race. First, the fact that there are geographic patterns of racial segregation in America is a condition inherited by our nation’s racist past and, in fact, a condition we’ve yet to successfully address through housing policy or other means.

Since Brown v. Board of Education, public schools have been compelled to address this disparity. That public schools have been inconsistent in this mission is a conclusion that is not in dispute.

Charter schools on the other hand, — especially those operated by national Charter Management Organizations like KIPP and National Heritage Academies – tend to reinforce geographic racial patterns in their marketing appeals. On their websites and in their printed materials, these charter chains invariably promote their abilities to educate “underserved” communities and “close achievement gaps,” even though there is no evidence that charters in general are any better at this than traditional public schools. In fact, many of them are worse.

Second, the way parents exercise “choice” is often reflective of not just what they want their kids to study and how they want them to be taught but also of what other kind of children they want their kids to be around. Anecdotal evidence of this abounds, as edu-blogger Jersey Jazzman recently recounted in a blogpost sampling from news article from Indiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Texas. In each instance, what parents and their children say is that school choice has as much or more to do with opinions about their “fellow students” as it does with curriculum and instruction.

We can’t continue to pretend that this type of prejudice doesn’t exist and that, much like my fellow Texans who opted for private schools rather than expose their children to racial integration, “choice” has a general tendency to enable the better-off to distance themselves from the problems of educating the poor.

Third, the playing field that “choice” operates on is often anything but even. Charters generally by their very nature are exempt from many of the requirements of traditional public schools, including providing transportation and food, having adequate facilities and specialists for children with developmental problems, and providing for students who don’t speak English as their first language.

As edu-blogger Jim Horn recently observed at School Matter, “If a charter school in the leafy suburbs of Georgia or North Carolina offers no federal breakfast or lunch program and no transportation for kids, can poor parents choose this school for their children who will, otherwise, not have breakfast, lunch, or a ride to and from school?”

Will Re-Segregation Become Endemic?

Of course, racial segregation isn’t the only problem that tends to crop up in this proliferation of charter schools. And even charter advocates themselves are increasingly calling for greater regulation of their creations.

However, in places where regulations are being strengthened, the end product is often a “dizzying system,” as edu-blogger Walt Gardner recently observed at Education Week, that results in a lot of “fine print” for a parent to sift through. And this invariably means that only those parents with the means — educationally, culturally, financially — will navigate their way through the detail.

Gardner concludes, “The devil is always in the details. If truth-in-advertising laws were applied to school choice, I think more parents would be reluctant to expend the time, energy and money in the hope of getting a quality education for their children. Instead, parents might be willing to push for improving existing traditional schools in their neighborhoods.”

But the greater danger that even the best regulation is unlikely to overcome is that the combination of choice and charters — with choice being enabled primarily through means and charters operating as a competitive school system — has introduced a particularly toxic chemical into the nation’s thinking about education.

Now, there’s evidence that even leaders of traditional public schools are converting to the notion that they must “sell their schools” to specific target markets in the population. As this recent article in The Washington Post explains, “As school choice becomes a mantra of 21st century education reform, especially for the growing charter school movement, traditional public schools also are embracing free-market competition.”

The Only Real Real Choice Is Equity

Keep in mind that no other advanced nation in the world is hurtling down this path. Finland, for instance, which has gotten a lot of recognition lately for being an “education superpower,” has followed a route that is diametrically opposed to what policy leaders in the US are blazing.

Finnish journalist Anu Partanen, writing in The Atlantic, explains that in her country there are no charters — in fact no private schools at all — to enable “choice,” and furthermore there are no standardized test, teacher merit pay systems, or any of the trappings of the American so-called reform movement.

Partanen concludes, “As a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.”

Thinking back on the kids who were bussed from a poor neighborhood to my well-to-do school in the fall of 1964, I have no way of knowing if in fact “equality” was the end result of their integration into our world. But I do know this: That at the end of the school day, all of us little white kids in North Dallas had gotten a lesson about our fellow human beings that we were not likely to forget. And when the kids from the wrong side of the tracks boarded the bus to go back to their ‘hood, Mrs. Bowman had made sure that Brenda was wearing a brand new pair of shoes. And that was probably a really good start.

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