So this one’s personal for me.
The day they bused the poor kids to my school was the first time I’d ever come face to face with children my age who were so poor they weren’t properly clothed. It was the first time – in a society where I saw separate water fountains for blacks and whites, and the black maid who helped my mom around the house explained to us she wasn’t allowed to use the dressing rooms at the local department store – that I was taught to – yes, taught to – sit across the aisle from a kid whose skin color was different from mine and treat him as my peer.
It was the first time the real public was allowed to show up at my “public” school. And although I was only seven years old, I’ve never forgotten it.
Perhaps that’s why – as I join the rest of the nation in commemorating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that led to desegregating America’s public schools – I found this news item especially ironic:
The headline was not so surprising: “New Chicago High School To Be Named For Obama.” The president, after all, is a monumentally historic figure for breaking the nation’s color barrier in its highest elected office. And he is an adopted son of Chicago.
But then you get into the fine print, and you learn the Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett are building the Barack Obama College Preparatory High School on the North Side, and it’s going to be “a selective-enrollment high school,” with $60 million in tax funds financing it.
Then recall, if you will, Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett are the officials who oversaw last year’s mass closure of 50 schools – the worst such event in American history – in the neighborhoods of black and brown Chicago school children. Then go a little deeper.
As Chicago school teacher Fred Klonsky explained on his personal blog, the sparking new Barack Obama high will be constructed “on the land where public housing once stood. The public housing was torn down to make way for high-end town houses and towering condo buildings.”
Further, “Obama High would be just a few blocks from an existing selective admission high school … Contrast that with parts of the west side which now have neighborhood school deserts, entire neighborhoods where no neighborhood public school exists.”
And the announcement of the new Obama academy virtually coincided with a decision by Emanuel’s “hand-picked school board” to “fire every administrator, teacher, paraprofessional and lunch lady from three neighborhood schools … on the south and west side,” – i.e., where poor children of color live.
So 60 years after Brown v. Board, here’s what passes for advancements in civil rights: grand gestures of “progress” – honoring a mixed race president – that amount to empty symbolism, while more direct harm is done to minority school children every day.
It’s indeed a “tale of two cities,” to use Klonsky’s words. And it’s a tale of two nations.
The Shame Of The Nation
The dynamics of racial inequality in public education practiced in Chicago is at work in schools in the Deep South too. In an outstanding report “Segregation Now,” ProPublica journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones took us to a high school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that “was one of the South’s signature integration success stories” but is now “a struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town.” The school, now 99 percent black, stands in sharp contrast to schools in adjacent white neighborhoods that have been gerrymandered into attendance zones that keep the races separate.
It’s as if, Hannah-Jones wrote, schools in Tuscaloosa had gone “backwards in time,” to erase much, but not quite all, of the racial equity that was forced on public schools by the Brown v. Board ruling. And the situation in Tuscaloosa is by no means isolated. Hannah-Jones explained, “Since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s – back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.”
The failed legacy of Brown is not confined to Chicago and the South. Reflecting on the ProPublica piece, teacher Jose Vilson wrote on his personal blog, “It’s not just there. New York, Illinois, and Michigan that round out the top 3 states with the highest rate of school segregation (defined in this study as ‘the number of black students in schools where 90 percent or more of the student population are minorities’), all three blue states as per the 2012 election. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that this isn’t just a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ problem, but an ‘all public schools’ problem.”
When economist Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute recently reflected on the Brown’s effects 60 years on, he concluded, “ Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission – to undo the school segregation that persists as a central feature of American public education today.”
The initial gains in integration that followed Brown, Rothstein stated, have mostly been undone, and now “black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been available (1970).”
Most importantly, as the legacy of Brown was being undone, we learned so much more about the need to accomplish the goals the ruling was meant to achieve. As Rothstein explained, “Today, we know much more about how school segregation itself produces lower achievement for children from lower-social-class backgrounds.” Among the roadblocks to achievement that segregation erects are “feelings of inferiority … homes with less literacy and high-quality early childhood care,” the stress that comes from “having endured life in a violent neighborhood,” and less exposure to college-educated adults and parents who do not have the educational backgrounds themselves.” Integrating schools helps alleviate these.
As Vilson noted in his blog post, “Integration decreases the achievement gap AND the opportunity gap. Even if you’re not inclined to do so, please note: Integration makes it so that all schools would have to be funded appropriately because all types of kids are in that building.”
For sure, one reason why Brown was undone is because, as Rothstein observed, “Segregated neighborhoods lead to segregated schools.
“The schools black children attend today, in North and South, East and West, are segregated mostly because their schools are located in segregated neighborhoods. In some small cities and towns, schools can be integrated by adjusting attendance zones, establishing magnet schools, or implementing controlled choice programs. But in major metropolitan areas, places like Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, St. Louis, and so on, distances between ghetto and suburb are too great, and school district jurisdictional lines too established, for these methods to accomplish significant integration. Schools cannot be integrated unless the neighborhoods where they are located are integrated.”
So it seems, as Rothstein concluded in his essay, “we are stuck.” But there’s this…
Don’t Forget Who’s At Fault
Part of being “stuck,” of course, is the deliberate action you take to get there.
In the case of America’s resegregation, we have public policy leaders who’ve taken deliberate actions to make racial inequities worse.
As Jose Vilson counseled us in his blog post, “Progress never just dies on its own, and in this case, it’s not completely unintentional.”
And ProPublica’s Hannah-Jones wrote, “Certainly what happened in Tuscaloosa was no accident.”
So we’ve had political leaders – yes, even our current president who has been hailed as a civil rights achievement – who have taken deliberate actions to increase racial inequity.
A recent report from the Center for American Progress found, “Nearly 60 years after the 1954 landmark ruling in Brown … racial inequities in school spending persist. Let’s look at some of the national numbers:
- Across the country schools spent $334 more on every white student than on every nonwhite student.
- Mostly white schools (90 percent or more white) spent $733 more per student than mostly nonwhite schools (90 percent or more nonwhite).
- The United States spends $293 less per year on students in mostly nonwhite schools than on students in all other schools. That’s 7 percent of the median per-pupil spending.”
Another report, this one from the Education Law Center, concluded, “School funding in most states remains remarkably unfair.
“The majority of states have flat or regressive funding distribution patterns that ignore the need for additional funding in high poverty settings. Even among “progressive” states, only eight provide more than a 10% boost to high poverty districts. In the five most regressive states (North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada), the poorest districts receive at least 20% less funding than higher wealth districts.”
And the federal government’s role in this awful trend has been to incentivize the inequity. From the Secretary of Education who has publicly proclaimed that racial integration of schools is merely “voluntary” to an established policy that gave the most money – via Race to the Top grants – to the states and districts with the least fair and equitable state school finance systems, we have a presidential administration that has turned its back on the legacy of Brown.
This administration’s supposed solution to racial inequity – enforcing higher standards – has historically actually increased inequities. As a new paper written by Jennifer Jennings and Heeju Sohn explained, in the last round of standards raising that followed No Child Left Behind legislation, “higher-achieving students made gains while lower-achieving students lost ground.”
Nevertheless, this administration has trotted out Higher Standards 2.0 – namely, the Common Core State Standards – so here we go ahead.
It should also be noted that not only has current education policy been deliberately harmful to poor minority children, it hasn’t accomplished much for other children either. Results from the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress for 12th grade high school students show that, according to Washington, DC-based blogger G.F Brandenberg, “Scores have essentially not changed since they began giving the tests! Not for the kids at the top of the testing heap, not for those at the bottom, not for blacks, not for whites, not for Hispanics. No change, nada, zip.”
How To Get Unstuck
To get unstuck from the racists policies governing school access and resources, some have suggested we change the focus to income instead. Richard Kahlenberg of The New Century Foundation has written extensively about a strategy to use income disparity rather than race to unstick the lack of equity in America’s system of public education.
Writing recently the blog of The Furman Center, Kahlenberg stated, “The number of districts pursuing socioeconomic integration policies has increased from one in the early 1990s (La Crosse, Wisconsin) to more than 80 today – from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Wake County, North Carolina.”
The strategy makes infinite sense given that integrating poor kids with middle income students is more apt to expose them to more experienced teachers who have greater skills, students who impart positive “peer effects,” and parents who are more actively involved.
Kahlenberg pointed to two large school districts in North Carolina – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Wake County (Raleigh) – that took two separate paths on the road to higher student achievement. Charlotte allowed schools to resegregate by economic status and race but installed a “nationally-recognized pre-K program.” Wake County, on the other hand, “sought to preserve economic school integration.” The results have been that the two districts have “achieved comparable results.” He asked, “What might be possible if we combined Charlotte’s commitment to pre-K with Wake’s commitment to socioeconomic integration?”
This Is Personal
So we know that, based on the data, racial integration of the nation’s public school promulgated by Brown v. Board was a positive contribution to a whole generation of children – certainly more positive than what current education policies are bringing about. And we know there are alternatives to the current policy directive.
But of course there is a perhaps more important progress that doesn’t show up in “the data.” As a child brought up in a blatantly racist community, in a household where the parents would casually use the “n word,” I underwent a long education process beginning in the second grade that was as at least as important, if not more so, than the formal curriculum I was taught.
Another lesson also learned, and this is where I have to give my parents credit, is that this education took place mainly because I stayed in public schools. Unlike a lot of my white friends who fled to private schools or moved out of the district, my parents stuck with their public school because it was their public school – the place where they sent their tax dollars, went to PTA meetings on Wednesday night, and volunteered for the annual school carnival and other fund raisers – even though that school would give me a different education experience from the one they had.
In contrast to that, today’s political leaders are quick to follow a policy that not only retreats on racial equity and accomplishes very little to nothing to advance achievement for the majority of students, they eagerly impugn schools that Americans have built and contributed to as “a failed status quo.”
So yes, I take this personally, and I’m pretty angry about it. Aren’t you?