Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part I

Derek Black’s stunning new book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, threads together a history that has rarely been collected in one volume. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, presents the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history but persistently revived and reanimated: that a system of public education is the one institution most essential for our democratic society. And, while the specific language defining a public education as each child’s fundamental right is absent from the U.S. Constitution, the guarantee of that right is embedded in the nation’s other founding documents, in the history of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, in the second Reconstruction during the Civil Rights Movement, and in every one of the state constitutions.

Today’s post will skim the history as Derek Black presents it; on Wednesday, this blog will explore how Black believes both public education and democracy are threatened today.

While the U.S. Constitution never formally names public education as the nation’s fundamental and necessary institution, the provision for public education is the centerpiece of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787: “The Ordinances, and education’s role in them, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the most significant legal documents in our nation’s history and the current United States Code treats it as such… In many important ways, the history and effect of the Constitution and the Ordinances are inseparable.  First, the documents were passed by many of the same people… Second, the Northwest Ordinance’s substance is a constitutional charter of sorts. Practically speaking, it established the foundational structure for the nation to grow and organize itself for the next two centuries. Precise rules for dividing up the land, developing the nation’s vast territories, and detailing the path that these territories would follow to become states are not the work of everyday legislation. They are the work of a national charter.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 64-65).  “The 1785 Ordinance specified how every square inch of the territories would be divided into counties and towns. Every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of education. And every town had to reserve one of its lots for the operation of a public school.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 62)  The Northwest Ordinances named the urgent purpose of public education and prescribed a means of funding the schools.

Jumping way ahead to the early 1970s, after President Richard Nixon replaced Chief Justice Earl Warren with Chief Justice Warren Burger and the U.S. Supreme Court moved away from the principles embodied in Brown v. Board of Education, Black describes the significance of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court case which declared that because the U.S. Constitution itself does not explicitly protect the right to public education, public schooling is not a fundamental right. Black believes the founding documents should be read to include the Northwest Ordinances and that the fundamental role of education is further affirmed through our nation’s troubled history: “(I)f you asked modern legal scholars whether education is a fundamental right protected by the federal Constitution, they would tell you no, and they would be correct in one sense. The United States Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) refused to recognize education as a fundamental right in 1972, reasoning that the Constitution neither explicitly nor implicitly protects education. The Court feared that nothing distinguished education from the various other things that are important in life, like food and shelter. The foregoing history, however, reveals that education is far different than anything else government might offer its citizens (other than the right to vote). The nation’s very concept of government is premised on an educated citizenry. From its infancy, the United States has sought to distinguish itself with education. More particularly, education has been the tool though which the nation has sought to perfect its democratic ideas.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 133)

In Black’s chapter on the state constitutional conventions during Reconstruction in the Southern states after the Civil War, we read about thousands of freed slaves desperate to learn in whatever setting where they could locate a teacher. We also learn that, by the era of the Civil War, even in the North few of the states had managed to set up the kind of schooling described in the ideals of the Northwest Ordinances. The Reconstruction Acts made the provision of universal education one of the conditions for Confederate states to gain readmission to the Union, and Southern states which had been dominated by aristocratic planters and which had never established systemic public schools even for poor whites were now forced to create widespread public schooling. The meaning of Reconstruction extended beyond the Southern states: “Once the South acted—as a whole by 1868—the education revolution had the clarity and strength to solidify expectations for the rest of the nation moving forward. The history of the right to education, quite simply, divides into the world before and after 1868. Uncertainty pervaded the preceding years and nothing would ever be the same again in the subsequent years… Several Northern states revised their constitutions following the war. Congress had no leverage over them, but the recommitment to a republican form of government swept over them too.  As they revised their constitutions, they included education clauses, and by 1875, every state except one had an education clause.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 126-129)

After Reconstruction ended, after Plessy V. Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” and after Jim Crow segregated schools across the South, states reneged on funding schools for black students and left poor, black communities to scrape together inadequate revenue on their own.  Derek Black reports, however, that the idea of public education as the centerpiece of democratic governance still survived: “Yet for all the terrible moments and trends, one very important silver lining runs through this dark period that almost no one has ever stopped to consider: whereas attacks on public education were a centerpiece of the assault on black citizenship, the right to education (first vested in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War) nonetheless lived on… The idea of public education had taken hold in a region where it was previously foreign…. That silver lining… became the foundation for a second reconstruction—the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century—and the rebirth of the constitutional right to education in the 1970s and 1980s.” (pp, 150-155)

Derek Black traces two decades of history from the mid 1930s until 1954 as the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys mounted a calculated series of lawsuits first to ensure that black students could be admitted to state institutions of higher education and, once admitted not be segregated in inferior programs provided only for blacks.  Finally, after inching toward justice for years, the NAACP launched lawsuits in several locations to challenge explicit de jure racial segregation of K-12 public schools. The NAACP’s long efforts culminated, after these cases had been combined together, in the principles declared in the unanimous 1954 opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, in Brown v. Board of Education—principles that embody the very idea Derek Black has traced from the days of the Northwest Ordinances:

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.  Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditure for education both dominate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.  It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities even service in the armed forces.  It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrumental in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, quoting the 1954 Decision in Brown v. Board of Education, p. 174)

What followed, of course, was another backlash, the Southern Manifesto, signed by 19 U.S. Senators and 82 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The Manifesto “charged that the court in Brown had abused its power.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 179)  Protests against the Brown decision happened in the streets and in the school boards and legislatures.  Prince Edward County, Virginia launched the first publicly funded private school tuition voucher program—for white students only—along with the shutdown, from 1959 to 1963, of the public schools which were the only local schools serving black students, who then went without education during those years.

Derek Black leads us through three crucial U.S. Supreme Court Decisions during the early 1970s which reestablished segregated schools and rejected the principles embodied in the Brown decision: Keyes v. School District No 1,  which declared that discriminatory acts must be proven to have been intentional; Milliken v. Bradley, which banned busing for school integration across school district jurisdictional lines; and San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which declared that “a right cannot be fundamental if it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 189) “Over the next twenty years, the Burger Court and then the Rehnquist Court further chipped away at desegregation, regularly issuing decisions that curtailed lower courts’ desegregation orders and powers, even it it did not entirely foreclose them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 197)

And yet, after San Antonio v. Rodriguez blocked federal school equity cases, Derek Black describes a wave of advocates pursuing the idea of each child’s right to an equal education under the provisions of the state constitutions.  While myriad cases have been filed from state to state over the decades since the early 1970s, and while most of them focused on adequate and equitable school funding. Black believes more was at stake: “State supreme courts once again were intervening to enforce the constitutional right to education…. Money is certainly relevant, but the real issues in these cases had always been students’ access to quality teachers, safe school facilities, small class sizes, modern curricula, and support services.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 211)

I hope you will read Derek Black’s new book, for these comments merely skim the surface of his fascinating history of the American idea of public education. As he concludes his history, Black summarizes the book’s thesis: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)  Black reminds us, however: “The founders articulated educational goals not with any certainty that they would spring into reality simply by writing them down, but in the hope that we might one day live into them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 71)

Derek Black’s new book also explores how the idea of public education is faring right now a decade after the collapse of public school funding during the Great Recession and after years of growing school privatization. Wednesday’s post will explore how recent events threaten not only our public schools but also our democracy.

Trump Brags About Racist Housing and Education Policies and Urges Americans to “Enjoy!”

In desperation, as polls predict he is likely to lose in the November election, President Donald Trump has not only threatened to defund the post office for the purpose of ensuring that a lot of votes won’t be counted, but he has also, shockingly, been appealing to racism.  He tweeted:

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood… Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down.  I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson explains the meaning of Trump’s tweet and refreshes our memories about the AFFH Rule: “Trump tweeted what may be the most nakedly racist appeal to White voters that I’ve seen since the days of segregationist state leaders such as Alabama’s George Wallace and Georgia’s Lester Maddox… Many people probably don’t know what the ‘Obama-Biden AFFH Rule’ is, but its roots are in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, specifically its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision. That section of the law required federal agencies that deal with housing and banking to pursue their missions in a way that would actively desegregate housing.  In 2015, the Obama administration spelled out how communities should measure their progress, or lack thereof, in eliminating housing bias, and tied federal funding for housing and urban development to those measurements. Trump’s tweet is a promise not to actively enforce that provision. And it’s a message to White people that they can go ahead and do whatever they feel is necessary to keep Black people and Latinos from moving into their neighborhoods.”

Of course, Trump does not explicitly name race in his abhorrent tweet and he doesn’t mention segregation in the public schools.  In this one tweet, however, the President is explicitly endorsing injustices many of us have worked to try to overcome throughout our adult lives—housing segregated by race and economics—public schools segregated by race and economics—economic inequality which has worsened alarmingly in recent decades.

In 1962, Michael Harrington tried to remove our blinders when he wrote: “There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known. In the 1950s this America worried about itself, yet even its anxieties were the products of abundance… While this discussion was carried on, there existed another America… To be sure, the other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country has escaped such extremes. That does not change the fact that tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency. If these people are not starving, they are hungry…. They are without adequate housing and education and medical care.” (The Other America, pp. 1-2)

In the midst of a long, hot, summer of violence in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a national commission to examine the causes of civic unrest erupting across America cities.  The Kerner Commission, which released its report on March 1, 1968, challenged the very power and white privilege that President Trump is celebrating in his recent racist tweet: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal… What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation… It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.”

In a 2005 preface to the Princeton Classic Edition of his Bancroft Award wining history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas Sugrue documents America’s failure, decades after the Kerner report and decades after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, to have made much progress on eradicating housing segregation (and by extension, school segregation): “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities. An influx of coffee shops, bistros, art galleries, and upscale boutiques have made parts of many cities increasingly appealing for the privileged, but they have not, in any significant way, altered the everyday misery and impoverishment that characterize many urban neighborhoods… And despite some conspicuous successes—often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets… As with all urban transformations, the question is:  Who benefited and who lost?… For now… racial and class inequalities have persisted—even hardened—in most Rustbelt metropolitan areas.  Most people of color have remained on the margins of downtown booms, still segregated by race, still facing the consequences of disinvestment and job flight, still suffering from decades of cuts in urban funding and public services… From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty.  Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched… What is clear is that urban America continues to be shaped by processes that have their origins deep in the mid-twentieth century.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Princeton Classic Edition, pp. xxv-xxvii)

In his 2017, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein draws the connection between segregated housing and segregated schooling.  Further, he explores the structural difficulties which have prevented undoing both housing and school segregation, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley banned busing children across jurisdictional lines from city to suburb to promote desegregation.

Rothstein explains: “As it has turned out, schools are more segregated today than they were forty years ago, but this is mostly because the neighborhoods in which schools are located are so segregated. In 1970, the typical African American student attended a school in which 32 percent of the students were white. By 2010, this exposure had fallen to 29 percent. It is because of neighborhood segregation that African American students are more segregated in schools in states like New York and Illinois than they are anywhere else.” (The Color of Law, p. 179)

Rothstein continues: “Yet… we shouldn’t have expected much to happen from a Fair Housing Act that allowed African Americans… to resettle in a white suburb.  Moving from an urban apartment to a suburban home is incomparably more difficult than registering to vote, applying for a job, changing seats on a bus, sitting down in a restaurant, or even attending a neighborhood school.  Residential segregation is hard to undo for several reasons: (1) Parents’ economic status is commonly replicated in the next generation, so… depressed incomes became, for many, a multigenerational trait. (2) The value of white working- and middle-class families’ suburban housing appreciated substantially over the years, resulting in vast wealth differences between whites and blacks that helped to define permanently our racial living arrangements… (3) We waited too long to try to undo it… (H)omes outside urban black neighborhoods had mostly become unaffordable for working-and lower-middle-class families. (4) Once segregation was established, seemingly race-neutral policies reinforced it to make remedies even more difficult.  Perhaps most pernicious has been the federal tax code’s mortgage interest deduction…. Because de jure policies of segregation ensured that whites would more likely be owners and African Americans more likely the renters, the tax code contributes to making African Americans and whites less equal. (5) Contemporary federal, state, and local programs have reinforced residential segregation rather than diminished it. Federal subsidies for low-income families’ housing have been used mainly to support those families’ ability to rent apartments in minority areas where economic opportunity is scarce, not in integrated areas. Likewise developers of low-income housing have used federal tax credits mostly to construct apartments in already-segregated neighborhoods.” (The Color of Law, pp. 179-180)

Rothstein examines housing policies, many of them enforced by federal, state and local laws, which for decades have diminished opportunity for African American families hoping to buy homes in what are now in many cases segregated white suburbs. These include FHA loan policies that excluded black Americans, discrimination in Veterans Administration loans after WWII, exclusionary local zoning with lot size requirements and prohibitions for multi-family housing; protective covenants, mortgage and insurance redlining, and other policies.  Rothstein reminds readers: “The FHA was particularly concerned with preventing school desegregation. Its manual warned that if children ‘are compelled to attend school where the majority or a considerable number of the pupils represent a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable than if this condition did not exist’ and mortgage lending in such neighborhoods would be risky.” (The Color of Law, pp. 65-66)

Racism has found other routes into federal and state education policy today. The  No Child Left Behind Act demanded that states evaluate their public schools by aggregate standardized test scores for so-called “accountability” purposes.  States then used these evaluations to create school district  report cards and awarded letter grades to the highest scoring schools and school districts. It is well known that aggregate standardized test scores measure primarily out-of-school factors—the economic level of families and neighborhoods—rather than the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, and a child’s experience at school.  But no matter:  Online real estate companies like Great Schools and Zillow now publish the school “grades” and in doing so, promote wealthy and privileged school districts and redline public schools serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Today rapidly accelerating economic segregation across America’s metropolitan areas is overlaid upon racial segregation. The results were measured by Stanford University’s educational sociologist Sean Reardon in ground-breaking research. In 2011, Reardon, used a massive data set to document  the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Housing segregation and school segregation by both race and family economics are among our society’s most serious injustices. That the President of the United States would appeal to blatant racism as a cheap political ploy in this election year and that he would deny the tragic history of racist policies, which have at the same time explosively driven economic inequality, is alarming and despicable.

School Segregation Persists Across the States: Public Schools and Charter Schools, North and South

It is hard for me to write about school integration. As white parents, my husband and I made the choice to educate our own children in a racially integrated, majority African American public school district, and we believe the setting where they went to school was a valuable and essential part of their education. But I know that for personal reasons, many white and African American parents make a different decision, and it’s been clear to me for a long time that our decision was, quite simply, our own decision.

It is a little easier to think about racial and economic integration of schools from a public policy point of view. Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist, has been showing for years now (here and here) that our society is resegregating economically, and that that segregation is hurting the educational opportunities of students who are increasingly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Much of the educational inequality that accompanies racial and economic segregation directly results from the unequal funding associated with wealth and power. Racial and economic segregation are wound together in most places, and when local, state, and federal funding are combined, our society spends far more on the education of our nation’s highest-income children. The money buys smaller classes, more counselors, more music programs, and an enriched curriculum.

In their new report on the privatization of public schools, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education present a profound endorsement of racially, ethnically and economically integrated public education: “The required inclusivity of the public school setting provides more opportunity for students to learn in culturally, racially, and socioeconomically integrated classrooms and schools, and that promotes a variety of social-emotional and civic benefits for students.  At a time when there seems to be more emphasis on community divisions in our social and political settings, attending a public school can provide students with more opportunities to encourage relationships and friendships across group lines, thus eliminating false barriers of separation. And yet our nation has embarked on a troubling course that steers us toward school privatization, exclusivity and division.”

The contribution of school privatization to the racial segregation of children at school is the subject of Emmanuel Felton’s profound report for the Hechinger Report and NBC News. Felton describes the mostly white Lake Oconee Academy charter school in Greene County, Georgia: “At Lake Oconee Academy, 73 percent of students are white. Down the road at Greene Country’s other public schools, 12 percent of students are white and 68 percent are black…. In all, there are at least 747 public charter schools around the country that enroll a higher percentage of white students than any of the traditional public schools in the school districts where they are located.  The differences between the charters and the whitest nearby public schools ranged from less than 1 percent to 78 percent.”

So, how did Lake Oconee Academy charter school make itself into a publicly funded segregation academy? “In its early years, Lake Oconee Academy created a priority attendance zone for the gated communities that surround it. This is legal in several states, allowing charters to pick the neighborhoods they want to serve. While these schools usually hold randomized admissions lotteries open to everyone in their school districts, families in preferred attendance zones get first dibs… The case of Lake Oconee Academy doesn’t just illustrate how charter schools can segregate a community, it also underscores how charters can give well-connected individuals outsize influence on local schools. The charter was the creation of a real estate development company that is also the county’s largest employer, Reynolds Lake Oconee. Company officials and their allies sit on many of the county’s most important boards.”  While the school does set aside some places for children who don’t live in its economically exclusive attendance zone, at Lake Oconee, there are other disincentives for families without resources to invest in their children. The school requires uniforms purchased from Land’s End.  And it does not offer any kind of transportation to school; parents have to drive their children—a burden for parents whose work schedules make it difficult to provide school transportation.

Felton concludes: “The proliferation of racially identifiable white charters in some states but not others can be attributed in part to differences in state laws. In addition to allowing charters to draw their own attendance zones, Georgia doesn’t require charter schools to provide school bus transportation. The four states with the most racially identifiable white charters—Michigan, Arizona, Texas and California—also don’t require charters to offer transportation or to address the issue in their charter applications. And in North Carolina, which had six such charter schools in 2015, lawmakers have discussed allowing charters to give priority to children whose parents work at corporations that have contributed at least $50,000 to the school.  In June, lawmakers passed a bill that lets four mostly white and affluent Charlotte suburbs open up charter schools that would give preference to their residents.”

School segregation is not by any means limited to charter schools. Nor is segregation limited to the South or to Republican all-Red states like Michigan and Arizona. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report identifying New York as the state with the most racially segregated schools in the United States: “New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.”

The news has been filled this month with stories about racial segregation in New York’s exclusive specialized high schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio has now pledged to address the problem, but even in New York, doing something about racial segregation is a tough problem. The New York Times addressed the shortage of black and Latino students in New York City’s elite high schools in an editorial on Monday: “Opposition has been swift and fierce, much of it from alumni of the specialized schools, who have said the mayor’s plan would somehow lower the quality of education or ‘set kids up for failure.’ The very intensity of the response underscores how formative an experience it is to attend a specialized high school—an experience that for years has been unfairly denied so many black and Latino New Yorkers.”

Here are the stunning and deplorable statistics: “Black and Latino students make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1.1 million school children. Yet, of the 5,067 offers of admission to specialized schools this year, 51.7 percent went to Asian students and 26.5 percent to white students.  Latino and black students received 6.3 and 4.1 percent of the offers respectively. At Stuyvesant, the most sought-after of the schools, just 10 of the 902 students offered admission were black.”  The Times Editorial Board continues: “New York’s elementary and middle schools do not prepare children for the test, all but ensuring that students seek out extensive test preparation.  Many Asian and white students have done so for thousands of dollars apiece. Black and Latino students are likely to walk in with little or no test preparation.”

In 1971, the state legislature established in a state law known as Hecht-Calandra that students would be chosen for New York City’s specialized high schools based on scores on a single test, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Even now as Mayor de Blasio has proposed expanding the admissions criteria: “Perhaps the biggest challenge to the mayor’s full plan is political, since it will require overturning Hecht-Calandra. That would take forceful lobbying from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has so far signaled only lukewarm support.”

Mayor de Blasio has suggested a plan clearly based on academic merit. It is hard to believe his idea would be controversial: “Mayor de Blasio has vowed to replace the test with a system, to be phased in over three years, that would eventually admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of grades and performance on state exams. City officials say that if the plan is implemented, the specialized high schools would be about 45 percent black and Latino.”

Dante de Blasio, the mayor’s biracial son and a graduate of one of New York’s specialized high schools, Brooklyn Tech, just had an opinion piece published in the New York Daily News on the subject of racial segregation in New York’s elite high schools. Now a rising senior at Yale University, Dante de Blasio writes about his experience as a black student in a school where he was in the minority: “When I went to Tech, it was clear that people were missing. Fort Greene, the neighborhood that houses the school, is majority black and Latino, and I remember the constant discontinuity of walking through this neighborhood of black faces in order to enter a school where hardly anyone looked like me… Let me tell you what I appreciated most about Brooklyn Tech. The school takes people from all across the city—many of them from immigrant backgrounds and who will be the first in their families to go to college—and offers them a quality of education that many public schools can’t. But the way these schools choose students is offering them another education: a distorted lesson in who belongs in the upper reaches of education in this nation, and who does not.”

Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s report card.  The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”

Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

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.

Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “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, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, 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….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

Rich Neighborhoods Seceding to Form Their Own Segregated Enclaves in New Trend

Racial segregation is a reality across the South and across America’s big cities.  In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch quotes the data:  “80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students attend majority-nonwhite schools. Forty-three percent of Latinos and 38 percent of black students attend intensely segregated schools, where fewer than 20 percent of students are white…  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.” (p. 292)

Segregation by income has also grown enormously since 1970.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.

While the extent of segregation is deplorable 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is well documented and not surprising.  Last week, however, Businessweek reported what it says may be becoming a new trend that will accelerate resegregation across school districts in the South that have been released from desegregation court orders.  According to Businessweek, “About half of the almost 500 districts under desegregation orders in 1990 were released by 2009…”  These districts have been awarded what is known as unitary status, by which the court releases them from oversight because they are said to have done all they were able to do to integrate their schools.

In several metropolitan areas, wealthy neighborhoods of large school districts are now simply seceding—pulling out to form their own small, exclusive, white school districts.  “In Alabama, which makes it relatively easy to create districts, two Birmingham suburbs have left the countywide system in the past two years.  After the majority-black Memphis schools merged last year with the majority-white county district, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature lifted a decades-old ban on creating new systems, and six suburbs seceded, approving sales tax increases to pay for their schools.  Parent groups in Atlanta and Dallas are considering similar proposals.”

Businessweek‘s story last week is about parents in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana.  Parents supporting an effort called “Local Schools for Local Children,” including parents whose children have been attending private, segregated academies, want to take their tax dollars and pull out of the “42,000-student school district they share with mostly black neighborhoods nearby, where many families live in poverty.”  Whether the parents in Baton Rouge will be able to form their own exclusive school district remains in question because the Louisiana general assembly has not yet approved the enabling legislation.  Persistent parents are working to form a separate town in order to help their chances.

“‘It’s going to devastate us,’ says Tania Nyman, who has two elementary-age children in Baton Rouge magnet schools. ‘They’re not only going to take the richer white kids out of the district, they are going to take their money out of it.'”  According to a research report from a local university, per-pupil spending in Baton Rouge would drop from $9,635 to $8,870.  According to the Businessweek reporter, this would be “a painful cut in a district where 82 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized school meals.  In the breakaway district, spending would rise to $11,686 per student.”

Concentrated Poverty in 2014 Now 50 Percent Higher than in 2000

In her recent book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch decries the lack of political leadership during the past quarter century to address what she calls “the toxic mix”: racial segregation, poverty, and inequality:

“In the absence of active leadership by federal officials and the judiciary, the public is apathetic about racial and ethnic segregation, as well as socioeconomic segregation…  Neither of the major federal efforts of the past generation—No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—has even mentioned segregation….  While these programs directed billions of federal aid, they did not leverage any funding to promote desegregation of schools or communities, and in their demand to expand the charter sector, they may have worsened the problem.  As black and Hispanic students remain segregated in large numbers, their academic achievement remains low.  Then federal law stigmatizes their schools as ‘failing’ and recommends firing their principals and their teachers and closing their schools.” (pp. 294-295).

One advocate who has persistently drawn our attention to the impact of concentrated poverty and inequality overlaid on racial segregation is Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.  In a new piece posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute, African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational, Rothstein describes his just-published review for the American Prospect of a new book by sociologist, Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place, which according to Rothstein explores the multi-generational impact of living in communities where poverty is extreme and children and their families are surrounded by a concentration of families where there is little hope.

Rothstein also directs our attention to Paul Jargowsky’s new report from the Century Foundation and Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education: Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium.  According to Jargowsky, “the number of high-poverty census tracts—those with poverty rates of 40 percent or more—fell 26 percent, from 3,417 in 1990 to 2,510 in 2000.”  However, “The sharp reduction in high-poverty neighborhoods observed in the 2000 census… has since been completely reversed.  The count of such tracts increased by 800 (32 percent) between 2000 and the 2005-2009 ACS data to nearly the level of 1990….  In the latest available data, spanning 2007-2011, the count of high poverty tracts rose by an additional 454 (14 percent) to 3,764, eclipsing the 1990 high.  Overall, the number of high-poverty tracts has increased by 50 percent since 2000.”

I agree with Rothstein that we must educate ourselves about our society’s growing inequality as one step toward building the political will to address the tragedy and injustice of ongoing denial of opportunity for generations of children.  Rothstein concludes his recent blog post: “Reading Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place and Paul Jawarsky’s Concentration of Poverty is a sobering way to start 2014  But for deeper insights into the challenges we face in narrowing inequality, I recommend you do so.”

Segregation, Poverty and Inequality: What Ravitch Calls the Toxic Mix At School

In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch identifies what she believes are the factors that affect academic achievement: “Segregation is most concentrated in the nation’s cities.  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.  Many black students are doubly segregated, by race and by poverty.”(p. 292)

Several important articles published this week explore the issues of poverty—and the related issue, inequality—and racial segregation, the factors Ravitch calls “the toxic mix.” According to all three writers, we misunderstand our history and hence the issues that plague us today.

In a piece memorializing Nelson Mandela, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute remembers that in South Africa, Mandela believed that deep confession—getting at the truth of the history that makes us who we are—is necessary as the path to reconciliation.  Rothstein asks Americans to be more honest about the factors that have segregated our neighborhoods, our cities, and our public schools.  “One of the worst examples of our historical blindness is the widespread belief that our continued residential racial segregation, North and South, is ‘de facto,’ not the result of explicit government policy but instead the consequence of private prejudice, economic inequality, and personal choice to self-segregate.”  Explaining the policy choices that caused housing and transportation patterns in the half-century after World War II, Rothstein examines high school history textbooks that make it appear instead as though racial segregation has really always been merely a southern phenomenon, and that today we can’t do anything about it.  Our blindness to the truth of our history is dangerous, writes Rothstein, for,  “If we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it.”

Two pieces in the NY Times over the weekend raise the issue of another kind of blindness, the blindness to poverty that may easily come with economic privilege.  Shamus Kahn, a Columbia University sociologist explores how our experience shapes the way we explain the world to ourselves: “We can think of elites as selfish power-hungry monsters, or we can think of them as being like others: products of their particular experience and likely to overgeneralize from it.  Elites understand their own world well enough.  Yes, they underestimate the advantages that helped them along the way and overestimate their own contributions to their status.  But they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago.  What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.”

Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s recent column, Why Inequality Matters, condemns the impact of the kind of attitudes Kahn describes.  Criticizing Washington’s obsession with closing budget deficits through austerity measures like the sequester, cuts to food stamps,  and threats to pare back Social Security and Medicare, Krugman writes: “Surveys of the very wealthy have… shown that they—unlike the general public—consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs.  And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse… Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping—and distorting—the debate.”

While it might seem that these more abstract commentaries on our deepest assumptions about race and class don’t touch on achievement at school, Diane Ravitch believes that honestly recognizing the long held attitudes that shape today’s inequality and racial segregation will be essential  if our society is to lift academic achievement. Schools cannot by themselves change the life trajectories of their students: “If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools… We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of.  We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation.” (p. 9)