As we approach 60 years since U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and stand in the wake of a 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington, Richard Rothstein details:
Today, many black children still attend schools in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, while their families still reside in lonely islands of poverty: 39 percent of black children are from families with incomes below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent of white children (U.S. Census Bureau(a)); 28 percent of black children live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 4 percent of white children (Casey 2013).
Reports from 2012 also highlighted the growing resegregation of schools in the South and across the U.S. Concurrent with the re-segregation of public schools—along with the ignored reality that children’s ZIP codes tend to determine their access to high- or low-quality schools, which reflect the affluence/poverty of the community—a growing commitment to charter schools ignores that charter schools fail to achieve academic success distinguishable from traditional public schools (both formats of schooling produce a range of outcomes) but tend to segregate children by race and class.
Rothstein recognizes a historical link between burying the Coleman report from the mid-1960s and the rise of “no excuses” reform today:
The fear of education reformers today, that discussion of social and economic impediments to learning will only lead to “making excuses” for poor teaching (Rothstein 2008), mirrors fears in 1966 that similar discussion would undermine support for federal aid to education.
A few important lessons lie beneath these historical and current patterns.
First, continuing to refuse to confront, discuss, and address directly race, class, segregation, and inequity guarantees that none of these contexts will ever be overcome.
Next, continuing to focus on bureaucratic and political answers to complex social and educational issue is the central failure we associate with “government.” When government is primarily political and bureaucratic, it is impotent or even corrosive.
For democracy and government to work, then, we must re-envision government as a mechanism for democratic goals. That will require lessening our faith in the free market and the Invisible Hand while increasing our faith in the Commons.
Segregation itself is ugly but so is its recent history in the U.S.
Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. has nearly eradicated blatant and legal segregation. But that structural shift forced segregation to go underground.
A second wave of segregation developed and has existed in public schools for decades—schools within schools. The persistent use of tracking and the gate-keeping mechanisms that create Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate “schools” within the “other” schools where mostly black and brown children living in poverty sit in overcrowded classes with inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers have institutionalized a masked segregation that we still mostly ignore.
Upon that second wave of insidious and tacit segregation we are now confronted with a third frontier of segregation that almost no one seems to find offensive—represented by Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and their copy-cat “no excuses” charters (see the story of New Orleans for a vivid picture).
Public education is a mirror of U.S. society. Our schools do not change society; they mimic and perpetuate our society.
The school-choice-option of the day, charter schools, is yet more of the great bureaucratic failure of government—investing precious public funds to build a system of schools that are indistinguishable from the schools we claim are failing, replete with the worst public education has to offer.
If segregation is a scar on a free people (and it is), then segregation cannot be tolerated in any form in our public institutions.
Commitments to new standards, next-generation high-stakes tests, charter schools, and Teach for America are not only failed education reform mechanisms, but also tragic re-investments in segregation that remains separate and unequal.
The rich get richer, and fewer, while everyone else frantically competes for the little that is left over.
Rothstein ends his report by confronting public policy:
It is inconceivable to think that education as a civil rights issue can be addressed without addressing residential segregation—a housing goal of the March on Washington. Housing policy is school policy; equality of education relies upon eliminating the exclusionary zoning ordinances of white suburbs and subsidizing dispersed housing in those suburbs for low-income African Americans now trapped in central cities.
By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right. It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve, but to renew it.
Saying education is the civil rights issue of our time, as President Obama and Secretary Duncan do, is a hollow political act. To continue that refrain while embracing policies that increase inequity and segregation tarnishes daily the brave and bold words and actions that held such promise at mid-twentieth century.