Top 5 Points to Keep in Mind on Segregation in U.S. Schools

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

November 8, 2017

A civil rights summit kicks off tomorrow in Minneapolis featuring prominent national leaders and top officials from both national teachers’ unions. We agree with the premise of the summit, that segregation in America has “broad impacts and terrible costs.” The Government Accountability Office found a significant increase over the last decade in the percentage of schools with high concentrations of students of color and those from low-income families. A wide body of research shows that students can benefit academically, socially, and emotionally from attending racially diverse schools.

Mainstream debates on school segregation, however, often overlook key issues when it comes to racial inequities in education. In the interest of enriching the discussion, here are 5 points to keep in mind:

1. Politically powerful special interests send mixed messages on whether and how to desegregate school systems.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, 8/2/16: “It’s unbelievable that 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education [sic], we are more highly segregated than desegregated. It has a lot to do with the economy, with the fact that our housing patterns are more and more segregated...” [emphasis added].

AFT President Randi Weingarten, 9/12/17: “There is zero ambiguity when it comes to what parents want for their children’s education: safe and welcoming, well-funded neighborhood public schools” [emphases added].

Obviously, if segregation is rooted in housing patterns, then focusing public policy solely on “neighborhood schools” will only further solidify school segregation. Both major unions have ignored recommendations from experts like Rick Kahlenberg to create alternatives to segregated neighborhood schools through integrated public schools of choice.

 2. Progressive leaders have surrendered the de-seg fight.

Even nationally recognized progressive leaders like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio don’t want to fight with white, affluent parents who believe that their property wealth endows them with the inalienable right to inequitably resourced and racially homogeneous schools. National expert and 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award winner Nikole Hannah-Jones:

“[W]hen asked at a news conference…why the city did not at least do what it could to redraw attendance lines, [de Blasio] defended the property rights of affluent parents who buy into neighborhoods to secure entry into heavily white schools. ‘You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area,’ he said, because families have ‘made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.’”

3. Desegregation is not the only lever for improving educational opportunities for students of color.

There has always been a diverse range of views among civil rights leaders about whether desegregation is the best way to ensure equal educational opportunity. Twenty-five years after Brown v. Board, Derrick Bell, Jr., who worked as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund alongside Thurgood Marshall and others and litigated hundreds of desegregation cases, concluded:

“Plans relying on racial balance to foreclose evasion [of Brown v. Board] have not eliminated the need for further orders protecting black children against discriminatory policies, including re-segregation within desegregated schools, the loss of black faculty and administrators, suspensions and expulsions at much higher rates than white students, and varying forms of racial harassment ranging from exclusion from extracurricular activities to physical violence.”

“I believe that the most widely used programs mandated by the courts—‘antidefiance,  racial balance’ plans—may in some cases be inferior to plans focusing on ‘educational components,’ including the creation and development of ‘model’ all-black schools.”

Indeed. Even though both national teacher unions beat the drum loudly on school segregation, some of their favorite policies exacerbate racial inequities in education. For example, class size reduction has been shown to dramatically increase the number of underqualified teachers who in turn are disproportionately concentrated in schools with high percentages of low-income students of color. Collective bargaining agreements that prioritize seniority over other considerations in teacher transfers drive staffing patterns that pair the least experienced teachers with schools that have the highest concentrations of non-white students. These staffing patterns also drive racial inequities in real per-pupil spending between schools.

4. Charter Schools Are, Generally, Not Part of the Problem.

Some studies misleadingly claim that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools. First, it is not surprising that charter schools are concentrated in communities with high proportions of students of color. Charter schools were created to provide an alternative for those very children to the low-performing traditional public schools they were previously forced to attend. Second, in comparing schools, these studies often have employed faulty methodology comparing the demographics of individual charter schools to the demographics of the district or the state in which they are located. The only valid comparison, however, is that between a public charter school and the traditional public school to which a student would otherwise have been assigned. On that basis, there are some instances where charters may lead to more segregated schools, an outcome that deserves serious attention. But those cases are – by far – the exception.

5. Black and brown children don’t need to attend school with white children to achieve to the highest levels.

Although attending an integrated school increases the odds, all other things being equal, of success for students of color, we see high-achieving schools across the country that comprise a majority of black and brown students. CREDO has found that across public charter schools in all urban regions, Black students in poverty receive the equivalent of 59 days of additional learning in math and 44 days of additional learning in reading compared to their peers with similar demographics in traditional public schools.