By Peter Piazza
Although perceived to be an old ghost, of a distant and worse time, school segregation animates our education policy discussions today in complicated ways, and affects students’ educational experiences in deeply negative ways. In an age supposedly dominated by data, this is a problem whose solution – school integration – has strong support in the research. A solution that offers enough promise for America’s educational and social future that, at the very least, we should be talking about it more.
Because de facto school segregation is very real now. It affects a lot of people (all of us, really) and all signs indicate that school resegregation is only going to continue to get worse in the upcoming years. Maybe much worse. Released in April 2016, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that:
- High poverty (>75% of students on free/reduced price lunch) and high minority (>75% black or Hispanic) schools increased from 9% of all US public K-12 schools in the 2000–01 school year to 16% of all schools in the 2013–14 school year. So, high-poverty/high-minority schools more than doubled in a span of 13 years, from 7,000 total schools to more than 15,000 (pg. 10).
- Of course, the number of students attending these schools increased as well, from 4.1 million in 2000–01 to 8.4 million in 2013–14 (pg. 12). That’s 8.4 million people in extremely challenging learning environments, in a country that can offer them so much more. If those students made up their own state, it would rank 12th in population – 12th!––just behind New Jersey (approximately 8.7 million people) and ahead of Virginia (approximately 8 million). It would be a national crisis.
- Schools with these characteristics offered lower percentages of challenging coursework in math, science, Advanced Placement (of all kinds), and Gifted and Talented Education programs (pgs. 17-21).
- Schools with these characteristics held back, suspended and expelled their students at alarmingly high rates. Although they represented only 12% of the total school population, students in these schools accounted for 16% of all expulsions and 22% of all out-of-school suspensions (pgs. 22-26).
Sixty-two years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still have a long, long way to go and the GAO report is one of a number of sources illustrating that schools are resegregating. And, it may not be the best measure of how bad things have gotten. The report focuses on a 75% cutoff for both poverty rate and non-white student population. It only briefly notes that schools with a 90% poverty rate and 90% black or Hispanic students increased by 143%, now encompassing just under 3 million people, roughly equal to the entire population of Mississippi (pg. 16). The coursework disparities noted above were, of course, even more pronounced in these schools.
With new leadership in Washington, prospects for school integration have become even dimmer. Many have asked themselves how to respond productively to the social justice challenges that are coming from the Trump Administration. My answer, however small, has been the creation of a new blog, School Desegregation Notebook. We now have a president who landed in the oval office, in large part, by regularly stoking racial resentment, and whose election was hailed by white supremacists. Considering his cabinet picks, I am not hopeful that his administration will do much of anything to make America great for the non-white or the non-wealthy. For me, the Trump election is a dark backdrop that brings out the bright social value/purpose of school integration––something with considerable promise (and proven effectiveness!) for addressing economic and racial division. Like Thurgood Marshall wrote in his dissenting opinion in 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley case, “unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”
And, there’s a profound educational purpose as well––in the education policy debate, we’ve been talking about racial inequity/gaps for a long time, yet we are largely overlooking one of the most effective vehicles for ending it.
Of course, there’s a lot to explore about an issue that has such a long and contentious history. A very short, preliminary list of sources and topics available for further exploration on the blog includes:
- Books like “All Deliberate Speed” (Charles Ogletree) and “Justice, Justice” (Daniel Perlstein);
- Reporting on: the recent desegregation order for Cleveland, Mississippi, public schools and on any of the approximately 178 desegregation orders still open and monitored by the Justice Department;
- The fantastic and heartbreaking Segregation Now series at ProPublica, and this New York Times piece written by Nikole Hannah-Jones;
- Research on: benefits of school integration for white and non-white students alike, challenges to various school integration efforts, the prevalence of racial segregation over and above economic segregation, the role that charter expansion and voucher programs play in school segregation;
- Documentaries like“Separate and Unequal” (Frontline/PBS) or more recent reviews on “This American Life” and on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”;
- Changes regarding school integration under Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice or Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education;
- The many Supreme Court decisions following Brown that have constrained school integration efforts and the basis for school integration in the U.S. constitution.
Of course, I know there is a complicated and very tense history to explore here. I know it arouses a lot of very strong emotions. But, there are too many reasons not to at least talk about it more openly. In each post, I’ll pick a new source or topic and explore what it might mean for school integration today. I hope you’ll join me.
Peter Piazza completed his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the Boston College Lynch School of Education in 2015. His work focuses primarily on democratic engagement in public education policymaking and on the impact non-profit advocacy organizations in the post-Citizens United era of policy development. His blog, School Desegregation Notebook, can be found at https://sdnotebook.com/