We know the best way to integrate schools. Too bad we choose not to do it.

Members of the 101st Airborne escorting the "Little Rock Nine" in 1957.

Members of the 101st Airborne escorting the “Little Rock Nine” in 1957.

This is a good post from Matt Bruenig:

In his piece, Williams hems and haws around for a bit until noting: isn’t it weird that affluent liberal whites won’t advocate for charter schools arrangements wherein their kids might go to school alongside poor black kids?


After pointing this out (in somewhat more muted ways), Williams goes on to cast his support of things like charter schools and school choice (and whatever) as indicating that he and his ilk are the real upstanding guys in all of this. But I am not sure he really makes a good case on this point.

You see, we know very well how to integrate schools along class and racial lines. It’s called busing and we used to do it. Yet, isn’t it weird that Williams never writes about busing? […] Isn’t it awfully convenient that these folks say they definitely care about school integration and inequality but refuse to advocate for the most effective solution for it?

I suppose the short answer to that last question is, well, yes. It is convenient insomuch as these types of things are often more about the process—like fire-bombing the institutional structure you dislike on principle by privatizing education—rather than achieving greater egalitarian outcomes through desegregation in the most effective manner possible. A less-disingenuous argument would be that privatization is a normative goal in its own right and that it may result in greater racial equality, although the evidence is limited, not particularly promising, and ultimately irrelevant to your ideals. But that’s a lot of words. Easier to say, hey oh, look at those hypocrites.

Now, Matt’s broader aim here is to answer why, as a result of all these choices made before the question of integration is even asked, charter schools get a lot of attention and effort in spite of the evidence while more effective solutions like busing are being left off the table. His answers seem pretty cogent to me so you should click-thru to read them before continuing. 

My narrower intent is using this as an excuse to point you toward a few of the more recent and excellent media forays into contemporary school integration and its decline while pouring out that last drop of hope at the bottom of your favorite red.

I cannot recommend more highly This American Life’s podcast episode 562, “The Problem We All Live With.” If you’re really only going to be able to check up on one of these pieces then make it this one—it’s easily digested within an hour. They cover the accidental desegregation of the Normandy school district after losing accreditation from the state of Missouri. As a consequence some portion of Normandy’s majority-black students were bused to other school districts for one year. One of those highlighted in the episode was Francis Howell — a higher-performing and majority-white suburban school thirty miles away. The fallout, including the community’s reaction, is a distressingly clear reminder of how quickly 58 years of progress since Brown v Board of Education can disappear in a wave of resurgent racism.

This story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, but for those who were able to attend Francis Howell busing worked really well. Contra the hysteria of residents, violence did not explode and the school’s test scores did not drop. Former Normandy students who made the trip got quality instruction, excelled at extra-curricular actives, and otherwise thrived. Then the state of Missouri reclassified Normandy as a ‘non’-accredited district, allowing it to cease integration while continuing to struggle financially and academically.

Here’s Libby Nelson’s write-up of TAL reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones succinct explanation for why integration worked in this instance, as well as in the past, to close the educational outcomes of non-white students:

“It is not something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids,” she said. “It’s not suddenly that a switch turns on and they get intelligence or the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. It gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore it gets them access to the same things that those kids get — quality teachers and quality instruction.”

Those gains from past efforts go well beyond public schools, too, as integration successfully increased “occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status.” As many would painstakingly explain, it most certainly is not a panacea. That would require more radical ideas. But Hannah-Jones, and Matt, and everyone else with two eyes and lick of sense understands that if your goal is to desegregate school districts and boost positive outcomes for a historically and contemporarily disadvantaged social group, then busing works. It may not be easy, as folks in Louisville, KY understand, but it works!

So, yes, integration is better than anything else we’ve tried. Of course it was a long slog of an effort that makes folks uncomfortable because it was and remains a reminder of racial obstructions in a country that’s been so over that Race Thing since 1965: hear, for example, much of the anti-busing sentiments proffered in that TAL episode. But those afflicted by this remembrance have, in effect, been winning since the early 90s when court-ordered integration plans began falling to the wayside, and as a result the percentage of black students attending majority-white schools has actually declined from it’s 43% peak in 1988 to only 23% in 2011. Race-neutral plans have became the norm and, predictably, school segregation has risen while the educational racial gap has ceased shrinking or widened.

This is an old story, then, a marathon trot of a rotting social zombie movement that helps explain the continued rise of school segregation in other areas. It’s within this narrative that we can see the explicit anti-magic of resegregation working in a fantastic investigation from the Tampa Bay Times:

On Dec. 18, 2007, the School Board met to consider a new plan.

It called for a “neighborhood schools” system that kept students close to home.

It was de-facto segregation.

Children in white neighborhoods would go to mostly white schools. Children in black neighborhoods would go to schools that were almost entirely black.


But the effects of giving up on integration were immediate.

In less than a year, schools on St. Petersburg’s north side became whiter, and the neighborhood schools to the south began drawing primarily from the city’s blighted avenues and subsidized housing complexes.

Before, the area’s most disadvantaged children, including the relatively few with serious behavior problems, were spread among a large area, mixed in with more affluent classmates and given access to several schools’ worth of teachers and counselors. Now they were all concentrated in a handful of schools.

The new system left Fairmount Park, along with the other neighborhood elementary schools, utterly transformed.

Housed at Fifth Avenue South and 41st Street S, the one-time A school is now the second-worst in Florida.

Pinellas County, FL voted to implement a race-neutral plan of neighborhood schools. Recognizing that doing so would necessarily concentrate the poorest (black) students in the poorest (black) section of town the school board promised additional resources to ensure that those schools would not be left behind. Those resources never materialized. It only took Pinellas County five years to turn a handfull of average to above-average elementary schools into “failure factories” after ending its busing program. And just like the woman in TAL, who during that brutally embarrassing town hall meeting complained that trying to keep black kids out of her good school was “not a race issue,” here we have pro-segregationist school board members Linda Lerner blaming the sudden changes on “the cycle of poverty” and Peggy O’Shea scoffing that “[w]e only talk about it in black schools…but we resegregated white schools as well.”

This outcome, and the justifications given for it, is not unlike what occurred in Tuscaloosa Alabama, where “nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.” Jobs and housing discrimination, wealth and income gaps, disparate health treatments, school resegregation, mass incarceration, narrowing voting rights. It’s a like a racist reversion to the mediocre, as gains from the civil rights movement wither on the vine. In short order, as Matt notes, any policy that involves government enforcement of equality is simply outside the purview of what’s doable. Remove that option from the Overton Window and subsist on hot take-blogging goading liberals about their own racism and NIMBYism while bemoaning the inability of inferior market tools to produce equality. Keep it up long enough and it’s like the option never existed, I suppose.

This is how we forget. We are so desperate to look at what works and conclude that anything but that one thing should be done. We’ll organize for everything other than It. We’ll test on the basis that it doesn’t exist as the most effective widespread solution. We’ll do whatever it takes to advance, as Ta-Nehisis Coates describes it, The Dream. We’ll type ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and move on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s