School Daze

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by Thomas Sugrue

It's been more than a half-century since the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. "Separate educational facilities," the court ruled, "are inherently unequal." But for all of our celebration of a "post-racial" America, separate and unequal education is still the norm--and by all measures it's getting worse. In his 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, then-candidate Obama recognized the problem. "Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools: we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students."

Look at New York City. The most recent test score data, reported here, give the lie to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein's "mission accomplished" moment a few years ago, when they touted the narrowing of the gap between black and white students. New York might be one of the richest cities in the world, but its schools are still fundamentally failing. No surprise that New York schools are among the most segregated by race in the country.

Or take the train out to Roosevelt, Long Island, one of the poorest districts in New York state (and a place, by the way, that reminds us that suburbanization does not equal upward mobility, especially for minorities). Today's New York Times reports "glimmers of hope" in a place where four-fifths of students qualify for subsidized lunches. Those glimmers: test scores have inched upward. And woohoo, the district spends $3000 for an annual barbecue to reward students for academic achievement and good attendance. If this is the "road to recovery"--as the Times reports--it's a cul-de-sac.

The grim reality is this: the biggest gains in educational achievement for minority students, especially African Americans, occurred in the 1970s. With the exception of a few years at the turn of the century, progress has stalled nearly everywhere, despite all the hope we've put in charter schools and in fads like a much-touted but now-discredited New York experiment (one of the more absurd manifestations of our faith in markets), offering cash incentives to families whose children regularly attend classes.

Why did the racial gap narrow so much in the '70s--and why has it stalled since? It's not because the '70s was a period of great educational innovation. Instead, it was the one moment in recent American history when there was still political will to support educational integration. Around the country through the mid-'70s, school boards, state departments of education, and the federal government supported plans to desegregate schools.

Many of those plans were voluntary: some were court ordered. The road to integration was bumpy--I don't need to recap the whole busing brouhaha here (except to remind you of Julian Bond's famous reminder that white folks had no problem putting their kids on buses in all-white suburbs: "it's not the bus, it's us.")  Even if it wasn't a panacea, when it was tried, integration worked. (Harvard political scientist Jennifer Hochschild and Princeton policy professor Nathan Scovronick have made the case impeccably in their book, The American Dream and the Public Schools.) But it wasn't tried for long.

Since the '70s, support for integration, except rhetorically, has plummeted. Many black parents were (and are) rightly skeptical of the rhetoric of some integrationists--namely that mere exposure to whites would somehow magically uplift their children. And most whites tell pollsters and survey researchers that they support racial integration, until more than a handful of minority students show up, and then they bolt. The result is that school districts have resegregated. And more recently, the Roberts Court has struck down even voluntary school integration plans. All but the most hardcore advocates of Jim Crow from the Brown v. Board days would be pleased. 

But, hey, we have a president who supports integration, don't we? Unfortunately, so far, his support also seems to be mostly rhetorical. Obama has emphasized education, but his administration is walking down the same rutted path as his predecessors. More funding for charter schools. More teaching to the test in a warmed-over version of No Child Left Behind. And Obama--always optimistic about the power of well-turned words--serves up bromides about "self-discipline" and "hard work," believing somehow that he will fire up little Johnny or Jamal and that miraculously, they will make it in a school system where the deck is stacked against them. 

One fundamental problem (and there are many more that I can't list here) with the Obama administration's policies is that they take for granted that segregation by race and class is unchangeable. They take for granted that disadvantaged students will remain concentrated together. And they accept as a given the reality of ghettos of wealth in privileged school districts.

Susan Eaton, a Harvard education researcher, puts it well: "Government spends most of its education money trying to make 'separate but equal' work. Separate but equal has never worked. Growing inequalities in the society are replicated in school hallways and classrooms."

For most of American history, we've lived with separate and unequal. And we continue to live with the consequences. Uplifting speeches, school barbeques or a even a handful of successful charter schools won't solve that problem. They make it worse.

UPDATE:

Great comments--especially cynic, whose arguments about Charlotte are right on the mark. I certainly don't expect Obama to advocate busing, but I would argue (as I did in a paragraph that I inadvertently lobbed off from my post in a neophyte blogger "d'oh" moment). Here goes:

It's time for the administration to put its money where its mouth is. Obama supports, at least in principle, integrated education. And the best research shows that educational outcomes improve significantly in schools that are diverse by race and income. Here's a modest proposal to push education in the right direction after years of accepting an unacceptable status quo. The Department of Education has the power of the purse. States--even those led by Republicans running against Obama--have jumped into the fray to compete for federal "Race to the Top" funds. They invariably follow the money--and that is right into unproven charter schools and programs to teach to the test that leave racial isolation untouched. Why not add an incentive: set aside funds for districts and states that come up with plans to diversify their student bodies. It's happened on a small scale in metropolitan Boston, where METCO has opened spots (not enough) for city students in some of the region's best-funded and excellent public schools. The administration has the way--but not yet the will--to make the bigger structural changes necessary to bring the goals of Brown, a half century later, to fruition.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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