Why We Need a Renewed National Discussion on School Integration

Why We Need a Renewed National Discussion on School Integration

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.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our neighborhoods and schools are still deeply segregated; we rarely stop to talk about them, save for widely publicized crises, like the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray or the water scandal in Flint, Michigan. So bring on the debates, the reports, the panels, and the national discussion. These are all long, long overdue.