Yesterday the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), hosted a panel discussion on school and housing segregation. Featuring Kimberly Goyette, a sociologist at Temple University, Amy Ellen Schwartz, an economist at NYU, Amy Stuart Wells, a sociologist at Columbia, and Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former New York Times education columnist—the four speakers explored how best to provide children and families with opportunity.
The panel came on the heels of a few recent school integration developments. First, the Obama administration just released its 2017 budget, calling for $120 million to fund voluntary socioeconomic integration of schools. (Though largely symbolic, national advocates were enthusiastic, as it would more than double current levels of federal funding.) Second, the Century Foundation just released two new reports showing that the number of school districts and charter schools embracing voluntary integration has more than doubled in the past decade. (It’s still a small percentage, though.) And lastly, historian Matthew Delmont has just written a provocative book, Why Busing Failed, which challenges mainstream assumptions about “forced busing” as a tool for desegregation.
Yet despite increased attention, it’s evident that the school integration conversation suffers from a few problems. In many respects, people are talking past one another, disagree on basic terms and definitions, and have strongly different ideas about what the problems even are, let alone what the optimal policy solutions should be.
Are integrated schools something everyone should have, or should we just design “diverse schools” for parents and families who actively seek that? Are we pushing for integration because there’s a particular moral imperative, or has research demonstrated it improves student academic achievement? Are schools with high concentrations of racial minorities considered segregated if families choose to send their children to them? How should we be thinking about the rise of largely white charter schools? Do we talk about racism? Socioeconomic status? The Constitution?
On the panel, Richard Rothstein argued that the country has a long way to go in terms of fulfilling its constitutional obligation to desegregate schools—and that the first step must involve launching a national education campaign so that the public, and progressives in particular, can better understand their history. He called de facto segregation “a national myth”—one that allows Americans to sleep easy in the face of illegal discrimination.
“We have to get serious about desegregating the country, and I don’t just mean desegregating low-income families,” he said. “I mean lower-middle class areas too. We need a fundamental rethinking about our priorities.” Rothstein walked through the history of government-sponsored housing segregation, specifically looking at Ferguson, Missouri, which he’s also written about at length for The American Prospect.
Others were less impressed with his vision. Amy Ellen Schwartz quickly dismissed Rothstein’s ideas, and went on to list various strategies that advocates can employ right now to meet kids where they are. She touted school choice and expanding summer youth employment programs, and in general “strengthening all neighborhoods.” She didn’t spend much time exploring how past efforts at revitalizing poor black communities have worked out, however.
Amy Stuart Wells, a co-author of one of the Century Foundation’s recent reports, noted that one reason to be optimistic is that millennials have more racially tolerant attitudes. Several audience members I spoke with following the event expressed similar hopes. But according to the data, this doesn’t really seem to be true.
And even if it were true, even if surveys did show that millennials have less racist attitudes than previous generations, it’s likely that school segregation would still persist. Parents rely on racial composition as a signaling tool—those schools with higher concentrations of racial minorities tend to have fewer resources and suffer from more difficult challenges, like concentrated poverty. If parents want to provide their kid with the most opportunity, as most parents do, then even a white family fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement would be unlikely to send their child to a school in the ghetto, if they can avoid it. This is why, as Kimberly Goyette suggested, it’s hard to have integrated schools without integrated neighborhoods.
It’s a great thing to see a renewed national discussion around school integration. In a recent interview, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan admitted he would “give himself a low grade” on school desegregation, and said the country “can and should do more” on that front. Duncan’s successor, John King, has also signaled that he plans to prioritize racial and economic integration more on the federal level. “Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools,” King said in a speech last month.
It’ll be interesting to see where this all leads. A few weeks ago I reported on a groundbreaking lawsuit in Minnesota—where lawyers are suing the state for allowing segregated schools to proliferate in the Twin Cities. It’s a controversial case, and one that specifically threatens the existence of publicly funded charter schools that cater to high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. It has divided the civil rights community, and sparked debates about segregated schooling in the 21st century, particularly within the era of school choice.
For the past several months, teachers in Detroit have been organizing to protest their unsafe and underfunded public schools. These working conditions, the teachers argue, negatively impact both their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. And students are indeed struggling: Detroit public school students consistently earn the lowest reading and math test scores compared to students in other urban districts across the country.
More recently, teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools throughout the city to shut down. At first it was just a few schools at a time, but earlier this month the teachers escalated to larger, coordinated mass actions. On January 15, for example, 64 schools closed—more than half in the city—as teachers gathered to rally for more resources. Thirty-one thousand students had to stay home that day.
The mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, toured Detroit schools following the protests and reported seeing freezing children wearing winter coats in class, a dead mouse on the floor, and severely damaged facilities. Yet Duggan has limited power over Detroit’s schools; the district has been under state control for nearly seven years.
These “sick-outs”—as they’re dubbed—have garnered great controversy. While plenty have expressed support for the teachers standing up for what they believe in, others say these educators are selfishly depriving students of their right to an education, and in some cases, free meals. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said, “there are other venues and ways if people have issues. ... They shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of having kids not in class.”
Perhaps the group that is tripping over themselves the most is the so-called “pro-teacher but anti-union” cohort. It’s maddening for them that they can’t pin these sick-outs on the greedy scheming of the all-powerful teachers union. You know, the ones that just care about their salaries and pensions.
But the union did not spearhead these protests. The interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Ivy Bailey, has repeatedly said she does not support the sick-out approach. (She refuses to condemn the teachers, however, given what she says are extremely legitimate complaints that have gone long ignored.)
Still, many, like the Detroit News editorial board, have framed their sick-out media coverage around individuals like Steve Conn, an “ousted union president.” By pinning these protests on a former union leader, rather than on the grassroots group of diverse teachers leading them the Detroit News aims to mislead its readers about the source and nature of, and motives behind, the sick-outs.
Now, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has even filed a lawsuit, singling out 28 defendants, including Steve Conn, Ivy Bailey, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers in its complaint. In the suit, according to Governing, DPS takes issue with Conn calling the teacher sick-outs a “huge victory.” The suit also notes that Bailey has not ruled out the possibility of a district-wide strike.
While the union is not leading the protests, it is certainly offering support. Here’s a video the American Federation of Teachers helped to produce on life inside Detroit’s deteriorating public schools:
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