Op-Ed: Why School Desegregation Needs to Be Back on the Education Reform Agenda

On the 60th anniversary of the 'Brown v. Board' decision, our schools are still separate and unequal. But they don’t have to be.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a former teacher and the executive director of Integrity in Education.

On May 17, 1954, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al., ruling that because separate public facilities for different races were inherently unequal, segregation in public schools constituted a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to all citizens of equal protection before the law.

Sixty years later, most (though not all) American schools are as segregated as they have ever been. The word integration is virtually unheard from most of the loudest voices on both sides of the education reform debate. It has been largely replaced by a 21st-century version of separate but equal: the notion that our first priority should be to make sure kids are in “high-performing” schools—so defined by tests that have been shown to have racial and class biases—without regard to race or anything else.

As if we hadn’t already established that separate is never equal, and therefore this would be an impossible goal.

As if “equity” in funding or anything else can ever be achieved as long as those kids remain concentrated in schools in the neighborhoods public officials often “forget.”

What happened?

A few generations beyond “Whites Only” signs, many of us seem not to recognize that segregation is still a matter of public policy. Storm clouds didn’t rain racial and economic separation on American communities. Gerrymandered school districts don’t create themselves, and education dollars don’t allocate themselves. We, the American public—and the public officials we endorse through our votes (or our inaction)—have moved, voted, and legislated this problem into perpetual existence.

That means we can make different choices to eradicate it.

For starters, we have to confront racial and economic segregation. The few people who dare to speak about segregation often fall back on residential segregation as an excuse for school segregation. They conveniently forget that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “the ghetto is public policy.” We can take steps, such as revitalizing public transportation, reviving rent control, and embracing other fair housing policies, to enable poor and working-class folks to remain in cities gentrified by wealthier residents—or to empower them to live in otherwise out-of-reach places they might rather be.

We should also rethink what constitutes a school district. For a short while, before our courts began undermining desegregation orders, Southern states were more successful with integration than many Northern ones. Their tendency to have county-wide school districts instead of township-wide ones meant that residential segregation didn’t have as much of an impact on their ability to craft effective school desegregation plans. Advocates for educational justice should think about how we can organize to get public officials to redesign district boundaries, which would give us more options for integrating schools and creating equitable school funding streams.

Another long-overdue approach to ending school segregation would be to insist that the U.S. Department of Education stop promoting policies such as high-stakes testing, school closures, and forced charter takeovers, which exacerbate segregation and inequity. The Department of Education needs to return to making Title I and other such funding available based on need, not competition. Further, such funding needs to be dedicated to the people and resources that directly support meaningful student learning opportunities—not to consultants, testing companies, and those who develop stultifying canned curricular materials. Not only would that improve schools and facilities in short order, but it could encourage families of all colors who might have been turned off by inadequate facilities and programming to opt back into previously segregated, neglected public schools.

Related to that, we must demand that the rest of our federal government make it its priority to make more funding available to schools. Though redrawing district boundaries and the like could be a multigenerational project, closing the tax loopholes and other gimmicks that allow corporations and powerful individuals to avoid paying their fair share for critical institutions they benefit from is something we can accomplish quickly—if we’re committed enough to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Rededicating ourselves to integration will require some intense, sometimes uncomfortable policy dialogues. But it’s high time we stopped prioritizing the comfort of adult voters over the grave material harm done to children—of all colors—when we pretend to be powerless over segregation.

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