Is School Integration Necessary?

A recent article by Education Post Executive Director Peter Cunningham starts the conversation about integration and where do we go from here as a nation. Please read his thoughts:

I recently moderated a panel during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform, featuring a civil rights attorney, an advocate for criminal justice reform, a Colorado state legislator and a charter school leader.

The topic was education “intersectionality” – which is essentially how issues outside the classroom affect performance inside the classroom. During the discussion, a member of the audience raised the issue of segregation and I said something that has gotten some attention on social media:

[READ: In Charter School Fight, Who Speaks for Communities of Color?]

“Maybe the fight’s not worth it. It’s a good thing; we all think integration is good. But it’s been a long fight, we’ve had middling success. At the same time, we have lots and lots of schools filled with kids of one race, one background, that are doing great. It’s a good question.”


The context for my comment was how politics, demographics and racism impede integration. America tried to integrate schools back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but many white families fled cities for mostly white suburbs. Some cities, like Boston, tried busing but the negative reaction from parents was swift and severe. Few places do it today.

Some cities created magnet schools that students test into, with the explicit goal of creating a handful of racially diverse schools. Today in Chicago, magnet schools have managed to keep the white public school population at about nine percent in a city that is more than one third white. And many have pointed out the downside of magnet schools – intellectual segregation – because they pull stronger students out of neighborhood schools.

Today, 62 years after the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violate the Constitution, American public schools remain deeply segregated by race. One study concludes they are more segregated today than they were 40 years ago.

Housing patterns that drive school attendance boundaries in cities all across America are also segregated by both race and income. In most communities, efforts to integrate schools have largely been abandoned.

L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a Black sociologist from New York and the author of a 2014 book on educational inequality in the suburbs, further suggests that, even in somewhat integrated schools, classes and social networks are often segregated.

Also, for the first time in history, more than half of America’s public school students are non-white and for the first time in history, more than half of America’s public school children are also poor or near-poor. So, in a school system that is blacker, browner and poorer, is racial and economic segregation increasingly unlikely?

[RELATED: The New Front in the School Integration Battle]

New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones has reported on the troubled effort to integrate a Missouri community. She also wrote a lengthy piece about her own decision to enroll her middle-class, African-American child in a school serving mostly low-income, black children, achieving a small measure of economic, though not racial, diversity.

Today, many states have open enrollment policies that, in theory, allow inner-city children stuck in underperforming schools to attend better-performing suburban schools. In practice, however, there are many barriers restricting their freedom to transfer.

In some places, districts have also tried redrawing attendance boundaries to promote racial and economic integration. A few communities like Berkeley, California and Oak Park, Illinois have made heroic efforts to proactively integrate schools and neighborhoods, as have some charter schools like Blackstone Valley Prep in Rhode Island.

But, as The New York Times recently reported, even parents on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a bastion of progressivism, will resist integration when it comes to their children’s education.

Education historian Diane Ravitch recently wrote in The New York Times that poverty and racial segregation are the, “main causes of low student achievement,” and lamented the failure of policymakers to address these issues. She also insists that efforts to reform public schools with high standards, improved teaching and more options can’t overcome these challenges, despite countless examples of good schools serving low-income kids of color, from George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama to Ariel Academy in Chicago.

[PHOTOS: The Big Picture – July 2016]

I support every effort to address poverty and segregation, but not at the expense of needed reforms. Moreover, ending poverty and integration are politically difficult and financially expensive goals at a time when political courage is in short supply and many elected officials – especially on the right – seem intent on starving government.

So here’s the question: Should America spend hundreds of billions more to reduce poverty and should we risk more bitter battles to reduce segregation, or should we just double down on our efforts to improve schools? The liberal in me says we should do both. The pragmatist in me wonders if we can.

As always, please email us at [email protected] to let us know your thoughts. 

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