A new study of segregation in charter schools has been released. Authored by Julian Vasquez Heilig, T. Jameson Brewer, and Yohuru Williams, "Choice without inclusion?: Comparing the intensity of racial segregation in charters and public schools at the local, state and national levels" concludes that "national, state, and local data indicate that the charter industry has a segregation problem in the US and it is not simply explained away by locality or demography."
In other words, despite charters periodically being labeled the "civil rights issue" of our day, they are failing to reverse segregation in US schools. Public schools have less of a segregation problem than charter schools.
But let's be honest. Having less of a segregation problem than charter schools, like being more civil than Donald Trump, is not a brag-worthy high-bar-clearing achievement.
Even in a post Brown v. Board world, public schools have found ways to maintain plenty of segregation. Some examples are particularly egregious, like the Pinellas County schools of Florida. As laid out in painful detail by the Tampa Bay Times, the district first systematically moved most of its poor, minority students into five previously-average schools. Then they systematically starved those schools of resources, turning them into "failure factories."
Adam Harris, in a recent Atlantic article, profiled the Waterbury School District, a district that is systematically "walled off" from surrounding districts that are whiter and better funded. Put that together with years of white flight, and you get a segregated set of districts. And if the feds stop paying close attention-- well, here's a study from Stanford that followed districts under desegregation orders and what happened when the orders were lifted. Segregation increased.
In a sort of counter-report to the Vasquez-Heilig-Brewer-Williams report, the entirely reform EdBuild has a report showing almost a thousand borders between school districts where one side is considerably wealthier and whiter than the other. I've also looked at another of EdBuild's reports showing 128 communities trying to secede from their district since 2000, with 74 succeeding. A local peculiarity in Maine inflated those numbers a bit, but honestly, the uninflated numbers are nothing to brag about. I don't trust EdBuild's motives-- but their basic information
And that's just segregation between and within schools. A 2014 piece from The Atlantic lays out how segregation can occur within a school--by simply keeping poor, minority students out of the higher tracks for classes.
There is plenty of room for discussion and argument, and measuring segregation can yield some conflicting results depending on which yardstick you use. But there is no yardstick that let's us as a country say, "Oh, well, we've totally eradicated that problem now."
EdBuild's chief Rebecca Sibelia points to the case Milliken v. Bradley, a 45-year-old lawsuit charging Detroit with racist policies:
The plaintiffs argued that school policies reinforced racist housing practices that had trapped black families inside the city. It was a story playing out across the United States.
"The story was the story of American apartheid," says Michelle Adams, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She's writing a book on Milliken and says federal redlining of neighborhoods and race-based restrictions on house sales, known as covenants, had made it nearly impossible for black families to move to the suburbs.
"Over and over and over again, the plaintiffs used this phrase, 'contained.' "
Tie school districts geographically, and then restrict where Black folks can live, and you get segregated schools. But the justices decided in a 5-4 ruling that echoes many rulings since, that since the school district lines weren't drawn with the intent to segregate, it didn't matter that those lines followed housing lines that were drawn with intent to segregate.
And with that, Brown v. Board lost half its teeth and white flight was given a supreme stamp of approval. And public education settled into its own version of school district gerrymandering.
Yes, I know what reformsters are getting at-- if public school systems are unwilling to redraw district lines, well, then, a system of charters that could simply disregard district lines should be able to cross those lines and desegregate education.
The problem with that argument is laid out simply enough in studies like the one we started this post with-- charters have had a couple of decades to show how they can be engines of desegregation, and they haven't done it. Instead, somehow, they've done worse. Could be that they've generally targeted poor minority communities as their market and occasionally marketed charters for the white flight crowd. Could be that desegregation was never really on their To Do list. Or it could be something else.
But look-- I'm not one to stand up in defense of charters or any of the reformy groups pushing them, but public education is not in a position to say, "Yeah, charters dropped this ball, but don't worry-- we've got it under control." Because they don't.
I will give the ed reform movement some of the blame. The continued framing of education as a commodity and parents as the only customers in a scarcity market can only lead to people scrambling after what they believe is a limited resource in a zero-sum game-- and in any such scrambling, the wealthy will probably win.
But ed reform didn't create segregation. Didn't improve the situation, but didn't create it.
The problems of segregation are not simply that we get apartheid, with people growing up in their own isolated cultural silos. The problem-- perhaps even the bigger problem-- is that, as in Pinellas County, segregating the students is a tool for segregating resources. If I don't want my tax dollars to go to educate Those Peoples' Children, then collecting all of Those Peoples' Children in one school makes that denial of resources much easier to pull off.
I don't have a solution for fixing the real problem here, which is racism, prejudice, bias. You can set up any kind of school system you like, and as long as many white folks are inclined to keep their kids away from Those Peoples' Children, you'll get segregated schools. Collect enough people who want segregation, and, as in this NYC school, you get it.
At a minimum, our priority should be the resources. Segregate or don't segregate, but as a state, put an end to districts that can afford wildly different amounts of per-pupil spending. Wealthy families will always find a way to get their children something extra, but we should be making sure that every school district has enough. No, having the money follow the child does not accomplish this, any more than Daylight Savings Time creates more hours of sunlight in the day.
US education has a racism problem because the US has a racism problem. Thirty years ago you might have convinced me that a school choice system that allowed families to ignore school district boundaries might be a help. But we've tried it, and we now know that it makes things worse rather than better. It exacerbates segregation as well as leaving those students who are still in public schools with even fewer resources. We need a new answer. School choice isn't it.