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Can We Ever ‘Fix’ Segregated Schools?

Eleanor Barkhorn writes about a new study exploring the resegregation of American public schools. Excerpts: Fiel’s experience as a teacher inspired him to go to graduate school in sociology to study segregation and inequality in education. Now a Ph.D. candidate at University of Wisconsin–Madison, Fiel recently published a study in theAmerican Sociological Review that suggests the factors driving […]

Eleanor Barkhorn writes about a new study exploring the resegregation of American public schools. Excerpts:

Fiel’s experience as a teacher inspired him to go to graduate school in sociology to study segregation and inequality in education. Now a Ph.D. candidate at University of Wisconsin–Madison, Fiel recently published a study in theAmerican Sociological Review that suggests the factors driving segregation have increased in scale in the past several decades—and that fixing the problem will require a new set of strategies.

Nearly 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ordered school districts to desegregate, schools seem to be trending back toward their segregated pasts. In the 1968-69 school year, when the U.S. Department of Education started to enforce Brown, about 77 percent of black students and 55 percent of Latino students attended public schools that were more than half-minority. By the 2009-2010 school year, the picture wasn’t much better for black students, and it was far worse for Latinos: 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students went to schools that were more than half-minority. More than 40 percent of black and Latino students attended schools that were 90 percent to 100 percent minority.

Why is this a problem? According to Barkhorn:

The persistence of segregation is a problem because, today as in the Brown era, separate schools are unequal. “Schools of concentrated poverty and segregated minority schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes,” wrote the authors of a 2012 report by the University of California–Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project. “These include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials.”

In my mind, two related questions arise from this:

1. Why are today’s informally segregated schools as unequal as those from the days of formal segregation?

2. Is there a policy fix for this problem?

Generally speaking, the conservative insists on equality of opportunity; the liberal, on equality of outcome. Separate-but-equal was immoral because it divided schooling on the basis of race, and systematically under-resourced black schools. It was, among other things, a profound violation of liberty. When public schools embrace de facto segregation — as distinct from de jure segregation — this may simply be something that a free society simply has to tolerate as the price we pay for liberty. What is the alternative? Busing? As Barkhorn points out, the US Supreme Court, in a 1974 decision, outlawed imposing measures like busing on school systems that never had de jure segregation. The government cannot dismantle school systems that were never intentionally segregated for the sake of achieving racial balance within schools.

So, why are so many schools de facto segregated? Well, why are so many neighborhoods de facto segregated? A lot of it has to do with class, culture, and economics. In my town, there is one public school, and everyone goes to it. When I was a kid there, the school population was about half black, half white. That has tipped dramatically to white in the past 30 years, as the parish’s population has done so. As jobs for unskilled laborers have evaporated there and the cost of housing has risen, more African-Americans have migrated to Baton Rouge or elsewhere. Plus, black high school graduates who get college degrees tend to find opportunities in the city. Thus, our local school is getting whiter not because of any sort of policy, but because that’s how population patterns are shifting with the economy. My parish is gentrifying, and it’s affecting the white working class too, though not as seriously as it has hit the black poor.

But that’s just one place. What about in cities and suburbs? Is racism sufficient to explain the de facto segregation, or are there more complicated factors at work. Steve Sailer recently linked to a story about a place he sarcastically described as a “KKK-infested county,” based on this story from the town’s newspaper. Excerpt from that story:

Blacks are 5.5 times more likely than whites to be unemployed in Dane County.

Three-quarters of the county’s African-American children live in poverty , compared to 5 percent of white children.

Half of all black high school students don’t graduate on time, compared to 16 percent of white children.

African-American children are 15 times more likely than their white counterparts to land in foster care. And black juveniles are six times more likely to be arrested than white juveniles.

Those are some of the findings released Wednesday in a report, “Race to Equity,” by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. The report compared 40 indicators of well-being for Dane County residents, mostly between 2007 and 2011. In nearly every category, the study found, blacks, who make up 6.5 percent of the county’s population, fare much worse than whites.

Dane County is Madison, Wisconsin, described in the story as “the epicenter for progressive politics in Wisconsin and often ranked among one of the best places in America to live.” It is relatively rich, culturally sophisticated, quite liberal (it went almost 3 to 1 for Obama in 2012) — and one of the worst places in America to be a black person. Why is this? I’m not asking in a trollish way. My guess is that it is almost entirely to do with culture. The thing that we can’t seem to figure out how to talk about in these debates is that it may be entirely rational for middle-class people of all races, and those who aspire to middle-class status, don’t want to be in schools dominated by poor people who do not possess a culture geared toward educational achievement. Stuart Buck’s terrific book about the “acting white” phenomenon — read John McWhorter’s rave review to understand what the book is about — reveals both that a) there really is a culture of disparagement toward intellectual achievement in black America, and b) it is a relatively recent thing, dating from the time of integration — that is, African-Americans historically have been no more antagonistic toward educational achievement than any other Americans.

But we are where we are, and it should not surprise any of us that parents and teachers of all races do not want their children to go to school with kids who, for whatever reason, are not dedicated to the mission of learning. It should not surprise any of us that many of the best teachers do not want to teach in places like that. If people are given the freedom to move where they want to move to, then people with middle class values will want to move away from poor people, if only because they want a more stable environment in which to raise their families.

Barkhorn’s article raises an interesting point: what will any of this mean when whites are an absolute minority in America, which will be the case in a couple of decades? How will we talk about it then?

On the class front, in 2011, the NYT reported on a study showing increasing segregation by class across America. More:

Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard, said the evidence for the presumed adverse effects of economic segregation was inconclusive. In a recent study of low-income families randomly assigned the opportunity to move out of concentrated poverty into mixed-income neighborhoods, Professor Katz and his collaborators found large improvements in physical and mental health, but little change in the families’ economic and educational fortunes.

Why would that be? If families who leave poor neighborhoods for better neighborhoods do no better economically or educationally, how do we explain that? Is there something in the nature of those families and their personal culture, versus their environment? More from the NYT piece:

But there is evidence that income differences are having an effect, beyond the context of neighborhood. One example, Professor Reardon said, is a growing gap in standardized test scores between rich and poor children, now 40 percent bigger than it was in 1970. That is double the testing gap between black and white children, he said.

And the gap between rich and poor in college completion — one of the single most important predictors of economic success — has grown by more than 50 percent since the 1990s, said Martha J. Bailey, an economist at the University of Michigan. More than half of children from high-income families finish college, up from about a third 20 years ago. Fewer than 10 percent of low-income children finish, up from 5 percent.

To what extent is the resegregation of American public schools that Barkhorn notes really about class and culture, and only tangentially about race? Can you imagine any possible solutions that wouldn’t be an intolerable infringement on liberty, and a repeat of the mindless egalitarianism that destroyed so many public school systems in the 1970s?

I know I’m asking more questions than I’m answering here. But I really do struggle with how to confront these issues in a morally responsible but realistic way. If you want to help push the conversation forward constructively, please join in.



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