Thursday, May 17, 2018

Achieving Brown v. Board's Promise and the Roadblocks Ahead: It's Ultimately a Matter of Public Will

Michelle_Obama_tours_the_Brown_v_Board_of_Education_National_Historic_SiteOn this 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board, we should reflect on how far we have to go to realize its promise and the roadblocks that stand in our way.

How far do we have to reach its promise?

The number of intensely racially segregated schools has more than tripled over the last twenty-five years.  In 2013, low-income students became a majority in public school for the first time in history.  The average African American student now attends a school where nearly 70% of his peers are poor—almost double the percentage from 1993.  These segregated schools are also often grossly unequal. The Education Trust reports that “[n]ationally, districts serving the most students of color receive about $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student than districts serving the fewest students of color.”

What are the roadblocks?

Neighborhood Schools.  A substantial portion of school segregation correlates with housing segregation.  So long as housing segregation persists and the neighborhood in which a child lives strictly dictates the school the child will attend, our schools will be segregated.

Discretionary School Assignment Policies.  Our schools are more segregated than our neighborhoods.  So while housing segregation accounts for most of our school segregation, school assignment choices make matters worse in many locations, intentionally zoning in and zoning out certain neighborhoods.  Two recent studies — one by Meredith Richards and another by Tomas Monarrez — find that most districts draw school assignment zones in ways that perpetuate the underlying residential segregation.  As the Brookings Institute explained, for instance, "When we compare Long Island schools to neighborhoods within districts, they look racially balance. The schools in Floral Park-Bellrose Union Free School District, NY, for example, have an overall racial imbalance score of around -1 percent for whites and just under 1 percent for blacks. But if we ignore the district boundaries and define our neighborhoods purely on the basis of the two-mile radius, the results are dramatically different: a racial imbalance score of +42 percent for whites and -23 percent for blacks."

Sanctifying School Districts.  Most segregation occurs between school districts, not within them.  Our willingness to treat each school districts as independent islands does three things.  First, it has given courts a neutral justification to exemption metropolitan areas from desegregation orders.  Second, it has incentivized white flight.  Those who resist integrated spaces know they need only cross the school district boundary to be safe.  Third, it normalizes isolationism.

Inequitable School Funding.  Most states grossly underfund education.  Most states also distribute what funding they do have grossly unequally.  In the past decade, states have drastically cut education funding—by more than 20% in several states.  Even states that modestly increased funding in recent years have done very little to help the neediest districts. In Pennsylvania, the poorest districts receive 33 percent less funding than wealthier districts.  As noted above, states spend $1800 less per pupil in predominantly minority school districts.  They spend about $1000 less per pupil in predominantly low income school districts.

These inadequate and inequitable funding practices also incentivize segregation.  Parents recognize that they may not be able to count on the state to support education, so they look to take care of their own families first.  Through in a little racial bias and a toxic brew emerges.  This toxic brew, in no small part, has helped fuel a new trend in secession districts—predominantly white communities that want to succeed from their school district and form their own new one. 

Courts. The Supreme Court has not issued a decision to enforce school desegregation in over three decades, but it has issued important ones to bring desegregation to an end.  Its last school desegregation decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle, actually struck down efforts by school districts to voluntarily desegregate, making it extremely difficult for districts to take race conscious steps to do the right thing.

School Choice.  Charters and vouchers claim to be a remedy to some of the foregoing problems.  Let parents make decision and the market will provide solutions, they say. This simply hasn't happened.  Charter school and voucher expansion has had the effect of further draining resources from cash strapped school districts.  Examining North Carolina, Helen Ladd writes: Focusing on “the excess cost per student enrolled in a charter school, we calculate a burden of about $3,500 per charter school enrollee in Durham, and burdens of comparable or larger magnitudes in two of the non-urban districts.”  Examining California, a report by In the Public Interest finds that "Oakland Unified loses $5,643 a year per charter school student while San Diego Unified loses $4,913 a year and East Side Unified loses $6,000 a year."

Charter schools also had the effect of exacerbating segregation on any number of levels. The clearest proof that charters don’t is in the data. In North Carolina, charter schools are increasingly enrolling white students, while public schools increasingly enroll students of color. In Minneapolis, 80 percent of charters are racially isolated by race, socioeconomic status or both. In Newark, charter schools enroll less than half the percentage of special education students and English language learners as the Newark public schools. Newark charters also enroll significantly fewer low-income students.  In Oakland, charter schools enroll 28 percent of all Oakland-area students, but only enroll 19 percent of its special education students.

Public Will.  The buck really stops with public will.  Conventional narratives tell us that school segregation is inevitable and simply beyond our control.  That is a lie. 

All of the forgoing challenges involve public policy choices. Cities decide where to authorize and not authorize new housing growth.  States decide the boundaries of school districts.  States decide how to fund public schools.  Courts decide the outcomes of litigation in close cases.  States decide to create school choice programs and the extent to which they will exercise oversight.  It is these choices that have led to the resegregation of schools.

And to be crystal clear, some states and local communities have made decisions to integrate their schools and they are working—we just haven’t had enough making these decisions.  And courts once decided to demand integration—and it worked.  It was not until the late 1960s that courts and congress actually decided that they would demand active integration.  When they did, integration shot off like a rocket.  In the span of less than a decade, the percentage of African Americans who attended integrated schools in the south went from less than 10 percent to almost 40 percent.  

We stopped making those gains and then later lost them not because we lack the power to integrate our schools, but because we chose not to.  That was the failure, not integration itself.

 --on Twitter @DerekWBlack

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