Yesterday afternoon I spent five hours in Fort Wayne, Indiana at an interfaith gathering where nearly a hundred people discussed the challenges for public schools in a state that quite recently imposed a rash of corporatized, test-and-punish school reforms. Indiana has lots of new charter schools, a huge voucher program, and a very controversial, econometric, “A through F” rating system for its schools. The discussion heated up during a panel featuring the president of the local school board, the chair of the state senate committee on education, a member of the state board of education, the newspaper editor, a professor of urban education, a charter school principal, and the principal of a parochial school. Fortunately a skilled moderator kept the discussion moving.
The president of the Fort Wayne Board of Education bluntly explained how all these changes have affected particular neighborhood schools. He explained why the Fort Wayne Board of Education has refused to implement the “A through F” school rating system and wondered how the state could have imposed such a system that ruins the reputation of certain schools and neighborhoods by reinforcing racial and economic stereotyping and segregation.
It is in the context of the Fort Wayne school board president’s remarks that I have been reading Division Street, U.S.A., Robert J. Sampson’s fine article in this morning’s New York Times. Sampson explores the role of “the neighborhood as a consolidating feature of American inequality.” “We don’t talk much about ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ in public anymore, but the distinction between one place and another is implicitly understood and often explicitly specified. That location matters greatly for housing values, for example, is taken for granted. Less appreciated is the persistence of neighborhood inequality and its extensive reach into multiple aspects of everyday life.”
Sampson’s statistics are stunning, even though they describe situations we pass by every day. A third of African American children are being raised in high-poverty neighborhoods while only 1 percent of white children are being raised in extremely poor neighborhoods. “I was taken aback to learn,” writes Sampson, ” that the highest incarceration rate among African-American communities in Chicago was over 40 times higher than the highest ranked white community. This is a staggering difference of kind, not degree. And it does not go unnoticed, even by children.” Sampson presents data to show how being raised in an area where poverty is concentrated diminishes academic achievement. If you are born in a very poor neighborhood, it is hard to get out: “almost 70 percent of black adolescents raised in concentrated poverty areas remain there as adults.”
Sampson reports “that approximately 60 percent of blacks or whites in metropolitan areas across the United States would have to relocate to achieve racial integration. In New York City, an eye-popping 81 percent of whites or blacks would have to move.” Such statistics seem overwhelming. How can we change what has come to define just how things are in America? Sampson’s piece made me remember Jonathan Kozol’s description of what happens when people move to New York: “They might say that they have simply come to New York City, found a job, and found a home, and settled in to lead their lives within the city as it is. That is the great luxury of long-existing and accepted segregation in New York and almost every other major city of our nation nowadays. Nothing needs to be imposed on anyone. The evil is already set in stone. We just move in.” (Amazing Grace, 1995, p. 164)
What to do? It can get a little overwhelming, but one concrete step is to follow the lead of the president of the Fort Wayne Board of Education. Yesterday he examined the implications of test-based, corporatized accountability on the larger trends of inequality and segregation. He was insistent in the way he pointed out how Indiana’s “A through F” school rating system would further stigmatize the poorest children, schools and neighborhoods of Fort Wayne. It may be easy for policy makers who may themselves live high on the hill, on the right side of the tracks or the right side of Division Street not to notice how policy further marginalizes the vulnerable, but yesterday they must have heard, just as I did, the personal investment of the local school board president as he explained the implications of their policies for Fort Wayne’s neighborhoods.
Here is how Harvard professor Robert Sampson in the NY Times piece describes the way burgeoning inequality is affecting our society: “We live in a free society, of course, but the high-end spatial concentration of income and its associated resources, like well-endowed schools, security, abundant services and political connections, in effect pulls up the drawbridge from our neighbors.”
What seemed more important to me than anything else I learned at yesterday’s meeting is that for the president of the Fort Wayne Board of Education, these are not abstract political issues. He will not be silent as policy makers try to pull up the drawbridge. For him it is about particular neighborhoods and schools and people he respects who are principals and teachers. I am encouraged that he is speaking to the public about how our ideological, politicized school reform is further segregating his community and threatening to marginalize particular neighborhood schools. As Sampson tells us, our neighborhoods are the places where we live. They matter a lot.