School segregation is bad.
It is shocking to me that in 2017 making this argument remains necessary.
But everywhere you look in the education debate you’ll find people clinging to their segregated charter schools, pushing for more segregated school vouchers, and lobbying to increase segregation at our traditional public schools.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the issue was resolved way back in 1954 when the US Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case.
Justices decided that it was unconstitutional to have substandard schools for black and minority students while also maintaining pristine schools for white children, as was the practice in most parts of the country at the time.
They struck down the previous justification of “separate but equal” because when you have separate schools, they are rarely equal.
You might think that’s just common sense. When you have schools just for blacks and schools just for whites, the resources aren’t going to be divided fairly or evenly. One group will always get the upper hand. Better to mix the two groups so it’s harder to select against one or the other.
And this is true of almost every cultural division you can think of: race, gender, class, religion, etc. The only way to protect everyone is to make it harder to hurt one group without hurting them all.
Everyone should already know that. But it still strikes some as news.
What may be less well known is the long, racist history of resistance to this ruling. In fact, what we now call “school choice” was invented during this time as an explicit attempt to avoid desegregation. “Charter Schools” and “School Vouchers” are modern terms that could almost as easily be used to describe the multifarious discriminatory attempts to stop racial mixing by reference to “choice.”
Take vouchers – allocating tax dollars to parents so they could “choose” to send their kids to private schools that won’t accept minorities – they tried it.
Or charters – setting up schools that are privately run but publicly funded so parents can “choose” to send their kids to schools allowed to discriminate against minorities during enrollment – they tried it.
And they’re still trying it and getting away with it.
It took decades for Brown v. Board to truly be enforced nationwide, and even after it became unavoidable, the fight to undermine it never truly died.
Betsy DeVos probably doesn’t consider herself a segregationist. Barack Obama probably doesn’t consider himself an advocate of “apartheid education”. But that’s what the policies each of them support actually accomplish. Both major political parties have been complicit – and are still complicit – in keeping our public schools separated by race and class.
There’s big bucks in it. Privatization means reducing accountability and transparency for how tax dollars are spent, which means unscrupulous corporations can pocket public money with no questions asked.
But it’s not just the charter and voucher industry that increase segregation. Our traditional public schools have also become separate and unequal.
After initial progress, our traditional public schools have been allowed to slip back into segregation. In many parts of the country, they are actually more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation has more than doubled nationwide. That’s twice the number of schools comprised almost entirely of students living in high poverty and/or students of color.
The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastructure.
It wasn’t always like this.
Classrooms were the most diverse from the 1970s through the early 1990s. At peak integration, four out of 10 black southern students attended a white school, while less than a third of all black students attended majority black schools.
What went wrong? The Supreme Court.
The highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively put the breaks on school integration. In fact, that first case is often criticized as “one of the worst Supreme Court decisions” ever.
It dealt with Detroit’s plan to integrate students by busing them from the inner city to the suburbs. The court ruled that such a plan was unconstitutional, because black students only had the right to attend integrated schools WITHIN THEIR OWN SCHOOL DISTRICT. If few white people lived there, well oh well.
And thus, de facto segregation was born.
If black and white people didn’t live together in the same neighborhoods – and they rarely do – then they wouldn’t be forced to go to school together. Forget that banks and insurance companies often refuse or limit loans, mortgages, and insurance to people of color for properties within specific geographical areas – a practice known as red lining. There was nothing municipal or school officials from minority jurisdictions could do to force integration across these artificial borders.
Between 1991 and 1995, the Court made matters even worse in three additional rulings. Justices decided that integration was merely a temporary federal policy and once the imbalance was righted, school districts should be released from any desegregation orders.
The results can be seen in almost every traditional public school in the country. There are rich schools and poor schools. There are black schools and white schools. And our federal and state education policies take advantage of the separation making sure that privileged schools get the lions share of resources while the others have to make do with less.
It is the key issue holding back our system of public education. Almost every school where students have low test scores has a disproportionately high level of poverty and students of color. If our schools were truly integrated, there would be none labeled “failing.” There would only be students who need extra help though they would be equally distributed throughout and thus not stigmatized. Unfortunately, re-segregation has allowed an easy scapegoat, and this, in turn, has been an excuse to build more charter schools and pass more school vouchers that drastically increase that same segregation.
Some people look at this situation and claim that it means we should abandon traditional public schools. If they’re already segregated, they argue, we should just invest in the choice schools.
However, doing so would not solve any of our problems. It would only exacerbate them. The solution to smoking is not more cigarettes. It’s quitting.
School segregation is terrible. That’s true at charter, voucher and traditional public schools.
The presence of segregation is no reason to abandon public education. It just means we need to fix it.
We need to overturn these destructive and short-sighted Supreme Court decisions. We need federal and state policies that recommit us to integration. At very least, we need a moratorium on new charter and voucher programs.
We need to value all children, not just those who resemble us racially, socially and/or economically.
That’s why school segregation is so bad.
It divides our children into discrete groups. It sets up the social structure and ensures the privileged will continue to be prized and the underprivileged will continue to be devalued. It teaches children to trust those like themselves and to distrust those who are different.
School segregation is the mother of racism and prejudice. And until we, adults, have the courage to tackle it, the next generation will grow up just like us – selfish, racist and blind.
John Oliver recently reported on the same issue (Warning: vulgarity):