Why School Integration Is So Hard

Guest post by Laura McKenna, former political science writer, blogger, and freelance writer. 

In yesterday's New York Times, David Kirp, a public policy professor from Berkeley, explains that school integration made a large, long term impact on African-American students.

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children -- and in the lives of their children as well. These economists' studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What's more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank -- not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they're also healthier -- the equivalent of being seven years younger.  

Kirp calls for a return to integration. "If we're serious about improving educational opportunities, we need to revisit the abandoned policy of school integration."

I haven't seen those studies. I would like to see how they controlled for certain factors. Was there something different about the parents of African-American children who got their kids into those integrated schools? Did white students maintain their education advantage, because their parents put them in private schools or relocated to another town? Still, I'm pretty sure that their findings are accurate. Many other studies have shown the importance of peer group influences and the impact of wealth of a community on education outcomes.

Kirp is right in some ways. Creating larger, more diverse schools would definitely improve outcomes of more children. However, he has little sympathy or understanding for the forces that stymie the efforts of reformers.

There's no way to go back to busing or 70s integration methods. Racism might be a factor, but the biggest problem is self-interest. People worry that integration will harm their kids and their property values.

It's a natural parental drive to provide your kids with the best things in life -- a nice home, good food and an excellent education, even if it comes at the expense of others or it flies in the face of political ideology. Our last two Democratic presidents sent their children to private schools, while at the same time having lunch with the teachers' unions. Parents want their kids in the Gifted and Talented Programs and don't want the special education kids to suck up too many resources.

While there's little evidence that a diverse student body in terms of income, ethnicity, or cognitive abilities creates a worse learning environment for the most privileged kids, any threat to a child drives a parent insane. Protecting one's child is a natural instinct, and school reformers must deal with this instinct with compassion.

When our public schools were gerry rigged a hundred years ago, few would have predicted the value ofone's home would be so tied to school quality. If my house was hoisted by a crane and dropped in Newark, NJ, the value of the home would plummet. If an influx of new kids cause overall test scores to drop, my property value would most likely drop, too. For most people in this country, their home is their biggest investment. A loss of property value makes even the most well meaning individuals to hyper-ventilate and worry about eating cat food during their Golden Years.

This natural instinct to protect property and children has undone more than integration efforts. School vouchers proposals were shot down in state after state in part because of the strength of the teachers unions, but also because there was huge resistance from suburban voters to open their schools to other children. Republicans, who ideologically support vouchers, voted it down in state legislatures, because their suburban constituents did not want urban kids using a voucher to attend their schools.

So, how do we create more diverse schools without stepping on the natural instinct to protect children and property?  Baby steps and compassion.