by Jeff Garrett
Fifty-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that school segregation policies are unconstitutional. Yet despite the moral victory of the Brown decision, in the decades since 1954 we have failed to create educational equality in America. Despite countless initiatives, hundreds of billions of dollars invested in various school improvement efforts, and the passage of a federal law that mandates that no child be left behind, we continue to see gaps in educational opportunity that disproportionately impact the lives of low income communities and communities of color across the fifty states.
How can this be? In the wealthiest nation on earth, that has professed its commitment to eliminating these gaps for more than half a century, how can such glaring inequities persist? While we have gone to great lengths to experiment with education reform, we have done little to address the web of related social issues that together create the conditions necessary for educational success. We have spent our time and money focusing on things like toughening standards for students, making it harder to become a licensed teacher, and holding failing schools accountable for poor performance. And while many of these reform efforts have had some generally positive impact on the quality of education our children receive, all of these reforms ignore the fact that no matter what we do in schools, students still live their lives in communities that reflect the systemic economic, racial and environmental inequalities that our society has yet to resolve.
Like a patient with pneumonia who takes larger and larger doses of cough syrup and then wonders why they’re not getting better, we find ourselves treating primarily the symptoms of educational inequality rather than the root causes. If we hope to change our educational fortune, our society will need a cure that actually attacks the problem where it exists. It is only through a structural analysis of education that we can understand how issues like housing, school funding systems, and employment interact to shape our children’s ability to succeed in school.
Let’s start by looking at the issue of housing. There is perhaps no single greater factor in determining one’s educational experience than where you live. Despite the moral victory of Brown, for the average low income black and Latino student in America today, schools are only marginally less segregated than they were in 1954 and are growing more segregated every year.1 We have replaced the system of racial segregation with a system of residential segregation. Low-income blacks and Latinos are not explicitly forbidden from attending more affluent, majority-white schools because of their race, they are forbidden from attending because they are unable to secure housing in districts where affluent, high-functioning schools exist. This system, first declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1974 case Miliken v. Bradley, essentially means that middle class and wealthy white communities need only to prevent low income people and people of color from moving into their districts in order to maintain segregated schools. Even cities that have sought to voluntarily integrate schools, like Seattle and Louisville, have been thwarted by recent conservative Court rulings.2 In actuality then, the great dream of integrated schools in America not only never fully materialized, what little progress had been made is being undone before our eyes. For many low income communities and communities of color, little has ever happened to disrupt what has for generations been a schooling experience defined by crumbling infrastructure, poor quality teaching, lack of resources for arts, music, athletics, and extracurricular activities, and high concentrations of poverty along with all of its destabilizing effects on the lives of children.
To fully understand the structural connections between educational opportunity and housing, first we must understand how schools receive funding. The primary source of funding for most school systems is property taxes. This means wealthy districts with high property values not only have more to spend on education, they can actually tax themselves at lower rates than their less affluent counterparts and still raise more money for schools. Even within school districts with diverse populations, providing equal per pupil funding for schools that serve populations with dramatically different needs can result in schools that reinforce, rather than reduce, inequality. In New York City for example, where per pupil funding is constant3 in the public schools throughout the city, schools that serve students who come to school with a range of academic and social needs that are not being met at home are at a perpetual disadvantage when compared to schools that serve students from more affluent and less needy areas.
The Bronx, for example, when compared to the other boroughs of New York city is notable for being home to the neighborhoods with the city’s highest concentrations of poverty, adult incarceration, unemployment, and adults who themselves have not attained a high school diploma.4 Given these social factors, it is a virtual certainty that, on average, students from the Bronx will come to school with greater need for academic, social and emotional support than their less challenged counterparts in wealthier areas of the city.5 The Bronx also has the lowest rates of home ownership in New York City, making students especially likely to change residences and schools multiple times.4 Studies have shown this kind of mobility to be a strong indicator of low performance.5 It is no surprise then that the Bronx has the lowest rates of students performing at grade level on standardized tests in Math and English in New York City.4
Because of modern school segregation, low-income students not only struggle with poverty related issues at home but generally receive an inferior education at school as well. This combination creates a sense of hopelessness and the perception that the benefits of education cannot be realized among many in these communities. This leads many students to achieve below their potential and to disengage from school, leaving them with few opportunities for gainful employment or to secure housing in an area where better schools could serve their own children in the future. Together these structural forces create a self-reinforcing cycle of poverty (both economic and educational) that disproportionately impacts the lives of people of color in America.5
The problems we face in closing gaps in educational opportunity and outcomes are not purely the result of inaction, or lack of effort, but rather the misunderstanding of the source of the problem. To succeed in eliminating educational inequality in this country we must begin to address the social and economic conditions in low income and minority communities. The prospect of this kind of systemic change can seem daunting, but here are three ways we can begin addressing the issue:
Create strong incentives for businesses that locate long term, living wage, environmentally friendly employment opportunities in low income and minority communities. In cities like New York, low-income minorities often live in areas with few opportunities for gainful employment.4 This compounds their geographic isolation, increases adult and teen unemployment, and forces parents to spend more time commuting to jobs in which they earn low wages. The presence of stable, living wage earning jobs in low income communities not only improves the economic fortunes of the area, it also provides a critical mass of role models who can reinforce for students the value of educational achievement.
One of the more disastrous byproducts of poverty is many parents’ inability to support their child’s development and achievement in school. With inadequate access to physical and mental health care, vision testing, and nutritional counseling, many parents in low income and minority communities are unable to offer their children the support they need to be prepared for success in school. We would likely see greater gains in educational achievement among low income and minority students by investing in community support services like universal health care, school-based vision clinics, and mental health services, than we see from the billions we currently spend on No Child Left Behind reforms. 5
Simply put, we will not likely be able to achieve educational equality without a dismantling of the new class and race based separate-but-equal school system being reestablished in America. The best way to ensure school integration is through housing integration. To achieve this we need rigorous enforcement of the long neglected 1968 Fair Housing Act, which contains provisions to ensure municipalities structure housing policy in ways that don’t reinforce racial segregation. In addition, we need a comprehensive, national strategy to ensure that as affluent whites move back into city centers, and blacks and Latinos are priced out of gentrifying areas and into the suburbs, we don’t simply shift populations in still segregated schools.1
1 Orfield, Gary. “Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge.” The Civil Rights Project (2009): 1 Aug. 2009 http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/deseg/reviving_the_goal_mlk_2009.pdf
2 The 2007 cases, decided together, of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education where the Supreme Court struck down voluntary integration plans and ruled that voluntary desegregation plans presented no “compelling state interest.”
3 New York City schools receive equal funding for serving the same populations of students. Variances in average per pupil funding occur because schools receive greater funding for students fitting certain demographic markers, such as special education students. Schools with large concentrations of students receiving free or reduced price lunch also receive additional Title I federal funding.
4 State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods. 2007 ed. New York: Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, New York University, 2007.
Available online at: http://furmancenter.org/research/sonychan/
5 Rothstein, Richard. Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004.