School Segregation, An Ever-Present Problem Across America

In the public mind, misconceptions about residential and school segregation abound. Despite what many believe, the Civil Rights Movement did not end school segregation. And neither is segregation today primarily a problem of the South. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the case set in metropolitan Detroit, undid much of the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by banning busing across school district jurisdictional lines. Whites simply moved to the suburbs, which maintained racial segregation through all sorts of economic measures like zoning out public housing and mandating lot sizes so large that poor people could not afford to build there.

Here is historian Thomas Sugrue from his giant 2008 history, Sweet Land of Liberty: “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest. A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city….” (p. xix)  “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. Residential segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in urban areas…. (p. 540)

But what about the South, where school districts are more likely to be county-wide and where the courts and the federal Department of Justice enforced the eradication of what was known as de jure segregation—segregation that was explicitly defined by Jim Crow laws?  Two fine articles published this week explore the ongoing resegregation of schools in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, where a white enclave is seceding from the Jefferson County school district. Emmanuel Felton’s The Department of Justice is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools, published jointly by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ NY Times Magazine report, The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What One Alabama Town’s Attempt to Secede from Its School District Tells Us About the Fragile Progress of Racial Integration in America, examine an effort by white parents to remake Gardendale, Alabama’s public schools into a small, largely white school district.

Hannah Jones explains that Gardendale’s parents were very savvy in the way the proceeded. They formed an advocacy group for secession—Focus—Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools.  Then they waited until the Jefferson County Schools passed a bond issue and rebuilt Gardendale High School into a state of the art facility before they made their move to break away: “In Alabama, any town of more than 5,000 residents can vote to form its own school system, and over they years, members of Focus watched covetously as the neighboring white communities did just that. Gardendale, too, had considered secession for two decades but was deterred when feasibility studies showed that the town of nearly 14,000 could not support an independent school system, partly because the tax base could not generate enough revenue to replace its old and sagging high school. Gardendale lobbied Jefferson County to build a new multimillion-dollar high school, which opened in 2010, within the town’s limits.”

Felton describes the protests of white parents, who claimed in court that their proposed secession from Jefferson County Schools had nothing to do with race: “‘The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race,’ said Chris Orazine, a white Gardendale dad. ‘The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth.’… Speaker after speaker complained about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for ‘our’ children.”

Considering that Jefferson County is still under a federal court order to eliminate segregation, how can Gardendale be openly attempting to resegregate?  Hannah-Jones explains: “It was, to a large degree, the geographic organization of Southern states that made court-ordered school desegregation there successful. Unlike the North, where metropolitan areas often include several independent school systems, the South tended toward single, countywide school systems that served cities, suburbs and rural areas.  That meant that judges could order school desegregation across municipal borders and between black and white towns, and thus most white families seeking to avoid desegregation in the South could not simply pick up and move across an invisible line to a white community with a white public-school system… Or, in Alabama, they could leave.  In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school secession law, and in 1959, Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district.”  Other school districts stayed in the county system until 1969, when a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced the rezoning of the county schools under court order.

“(W)hat makes the Jefferson County case unique,” writes Felton, “is the federal government’s power to stop it…. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.  Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision.  And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse.”  Felton describes the Department of Justice as lax in enforcement—“While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades.”

In April, federal judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, an Obama appointee, allowed Gardendale to secede despite that her decision named race as among the reasons white parents had sought a separate district. Felton writes: “In April, she ruled that Gardendale could break away.”  But her decision was slightly nuanced: “Gardendale would start with two elementary schools and would have to work in ‘good faith’ to earn the middle and high schools.”

Hannah-Jones describes Haikala’s requirements for Gardendale to act in “good faith”: “Haikala had, despite her finding of intentional discrimination, decided to give Gardendale ownership over the county’s two elementary schools located in Gardendale for the coming school year. In order to do so, she required the appointment of a black school-board member and for Gardendale to work with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department to come up with a desegregation plan to govern the new district. Gardendale would also either have to relinquish the high school that Jefferson County residents had paid for and that served students from several other communities or repay the county $33 million for the school. After doing that and then operating the two schools ‘in good faith’ for three years, Haikala said she would reconsider their motion for a full separation.”

Hannah-Jones concludes: “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”  These articles—Felton’s  and Hannah-Jones’—are worth reading together. They are a sobering update on America’s long struggle with racism and the unresolved and very current issue of school segregation which is always accompanied by educational inequity. Quality education is supposed to be a right for all of our children, but we are a long way from having achieved justice.

Advertisements

Why Do Public School Supporters Struggle to Create and Sustain a Strong Unified Message?

Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, NJ, has articulated a big worry.  Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes:

“A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education—Betsy DeVos—to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope… What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates—good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one—why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?”

Braun continues: “Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state…. (P)ublic education in New Jersey—and throughout the nation—is in serious trouble. It is underfunded. It is racially segregated. It is in danger of being swept away by charters. Its employees are demoralized. It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic. In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.”

Taking a more positive approach in a recent NY Times commentary, Nikole Hannah-Jones expresses the very same concern. “Even when they (public schools) fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable—or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’ ”

Hannah-Jones continues: “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: white residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need… If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public—and on ourselves.”

Both writers hope supporters of public education will be able to sustain the surprising and fascinating outcry that emerged around the DeVos confirmation process in the Senate.  For the first time in years we heard Senators and their constituents alike speaking about the value of the public schools for their children and their communities.  What will it take to keep that message alive?

I believe there are several reasons public school supporters struggle to sustain a strong voice in support of public education. First there is all the money being spent to undermine public education. As long as the law permits unlimited political contributions from individuals, PACs, Super PACs, Dark Money Groups, and corporate-driven lobbying organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it will be difficult for the folks who use the public schools—the parents of 90 percent of our children and their allies—to be heard above the din. Public education policy for decades now has been driven by the One Percent, even though public schools serve the children of the 99 Percent. That is why Bob Braun begs public school advocates to discipline themselves to one well-framed narrative that can be relentlessly driven home.

Second there is the problem created by the privatizers’ clever messaging. The ideologues who have framed the privatizers’ message know how to touch the heart by evoking the beloved story of the  American Dream—the story that success is individual, accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience in a tough and competitive world. This narrative teaches that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. Of course we may acknowledge that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others.  So… we adjust our thinking—celebrating the outliers who have surmounted the obstacles and succeeded anyway. We create a voucher or a charter school for the childhood strivers who seem to have earned it. Some of us are even willing to articulate this strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.” But when Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration suggest we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape into the lifeboat of vouchers or  charter schools, they are presenting a plan that would further isolate the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them.

The problem here is ethical; it is not really a matter of public policy. Do we believe in individualism and competition above all, or are we committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

A third problem is in the realm of public policy, but it is an issue nobody is willing to name. Extreme poverty and inequality are undermining children’s opportunities. Public school supporters will sometimes acknowledge the issue of poverty, but the varied strategies by which they dance around this huge problem undermine their capacity to frame a strong central narrative of support for public education. Opponents of public schools, of course, determinedly prescribe privatization as the cure, without a shred of evidence that privatizing schools helps poor children.

Years’ of research confirm conclusively that, in the aggregate, test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more than they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty—in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income—has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty. Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.

On top of our failure to name and address family poverty, our school accountability system demands quick school turnarounds. The federal testing and accountability agenda—created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002 and still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act—makes it even harder for our society to acknowledge the role of poverty in school achievement.  The federal government judges our schools by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and federal law punishes (and insists that states punish) the schools and the school teachers and children in the very poorest schools where test scores don’t quickly rise. Instead of investing in and supporting the schools in our poorest communities, we close the the schools or replace their principals or their teachers. Or we privatize the schools when charter and voucher supporters like Trump or Pence or DeVos tell us that will solve the problem.

For public education supporters, one big challenge is political: to create the will for society to address honestly the well documented educational implications of extreme poverty. A second challenge is a matter of public ethics: to replace the far-right’s American Dream narrative (based on competition and escapes for the most able children) with a compelling narrative of social responsibility for lifting up every child.

A system of public schools, while never perfect, is the best way to meet the needs of all of our children and, through democratic governance, to protect their rights.

Nikole Hannah-Jones Explores Dilemma of Segregation, Inequality, Gentrification

I continue to think about Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.  Hannah-Jones is the reporter these days who has covered school integration with more expertise than almost anyone else.  Here she describes her and her husband’s journey as they chose where to educate their own daughter in New York City. Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where she believes she benefited from the opportunity to be bused for school integration. Her husband was educated in the naturally integrated schools that serve the children of the American military in the U.S. and around the world.

Today the family lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “a low-income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of brownstones in central Brooklyn.”  “In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes these schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many.  This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children. The New York City public-school system is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Three quarters of all students are low-income. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a report showing that New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country.  Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending ‘intensely’ segregated schools—schools that are less than 10 percent white.”

Hannah-Jones spends some time setting up the couple’s dilemma. Her husband initially wanted to look into a public school with high test scores or a parochial or private school, but Hannah-Jones, “explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means ‘liberated’ and ‘free’ in Swahili, from the experience of most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem.  Saying my child deserved access to ‘good’ public schools felt like implying that children in ‘bad’ schools deserved the schools they got, too…  One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change.  Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrated it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically.” “I understood that so much of school segregation is structural—a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia.  But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”

Parents trapped in one of today’s most troubling and difficult moral dilemmas.

The Hannah-Jones family had public school choices, because parents in New York City can apply to schools outside their immediate neighborhood even at the elementary school level. In 2014, the Hannah-Jones enrolled their daughter comfortably in the pre-Kindergarten at a neighborhood school that serves the Farragut Houses public housing project—a school 91 percent black and Latino—a school where 90 percent of the children meet federal poverty standards.  Hannah-Jones, the skilled reporter and researcher, spends many paragraphs tracing the history of segregation—integration mostly across the South—and resegregation.  And she explores the way housing discrimination has driven school segregation in New York City. What fascinates me in her reflection, however, are the lessons of her own family’s experience.

Realizing that a school’s test scores in aggregate correlate with family income, not the quality of the school, Hannah-Jones and her husband did not choose a school based on the test scores. The test-score metric by which we “grade” schools today sends many parents to the wealthy suburbs or in a city like New York, to the wealthiest schools or those quickly gentrifying.  Hannah-Jones convinced her husband instead to visit several local schools.  At P.S. 307 they found a school where the principal and all of her own siblings had grown up in the neighborhood and attended P.S. 307 as children. Five decades later, in 2003, she became the principal at her own childhood school and dedicated herself to developing a program that includes Mandarin, violin lessons, and an intensive science program.

In the spring of her daughter’s pre-K year, Hannah-Jones learned that the city threatened to move children from P.S. 8, a nearby, overcrowded, gentrifying school into her daughter’s less crowded school.  Hannah-Jones describes her own reaction at a public meeting as powerful parents from the nearby school publicly voiced their most visceral fear that their children would be exposed to too many poor black children and in this instance to her own daughter: “I was struck by the sheer power these parents had drawn into that auditorium.  The meeting about the overcrowding at P.S. 8, which involved 50 children in a system of more than one million, had summoned a state senator, a state assemblywoman, a City Council member, the city comptroller and the staff members of several other elected officials.  It has rarely been clearer to me how segregation and integration, at their core, are about power and who gets access to it… As the politicians looked on, two white fathers gave an impassioned PowerPoint presentation in which they asked the Department of Education to place more children into already-teeming classrooms rather than send kids zoned to P.S. 8 to P.S. 307 (her daughter’s school).”

As the months passed, the city proceeded with a rezoning plan that would have gentrified P.S. 307 but that also threatened to marginalize the poorer children already enrolled.  Some of the white parents whose children were to be rezoned into P.S. 307 told the principal “they’d be willing to enroll their children only if she agreed to put the new students all together in their own classroom.”  Hannah-Jones’ husband, who had by then become the PTA president, led an effort to engage and organize the parents in the Farragut housing project to demand protections for their own children. They demanded to know, for example, whether P.S. 307. as a gentrified school, would continue to qualify for federal funds for free after-school care and other programs.  The organized PS.307 parents delivered demands—with 400 signatures—to insist that, “half of all the seats at P.S. 307 would be guaranteed for low-income children.  That would ensure that the school remained truly integrated and that new higher-income parents would have to share power in deciding the direction of the school.”  In the end, a compromise rezoning plan moved forward—with a set-aside of 50 percent of seats for low income children and at the same time a guarantee that children living in P.S. 307’s attendance zone would receive priority admission.  In a gentrifying area, where young children are increasingly white and affluent, such a plan is not a guarantee of protection for the children of the poorest families: “Without seats guaranteed for low-income children, and with an increasing white population in the zone, the school may flip and become mostly white and overcrowded.”

Racially balancing the public schools in a city like New York with rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods posses a logistical and moral dilemma for parents and public officials.  As she wraps up her story, Hannah-Jones reflects, “The sense of helplessness in the face of such entrenched segregation is what makes so alluring the notion, embraced by liberals and conservatives, that we can address school inequality not with integration but by giving poor, segregated schools more resources and demanding of them more accountability.  True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our children, that can feel almost unnatural.  Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. ‘My children,’ he said, ‘only have one life.’ But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregate schools. They have only one life, too.”

Hannah-Jones describes only one person not much affected by the political and moral battles of the adults in Brooklyn.  Whenever she writes about her daughter, Najya is calmly enjoying her days at an educationally challenging school.

I encourage you to read Hannah-Jones’ important article.