Human Rights

A Tale of Two Schools

Fifty years after Brown, our schools are still separate, but hardly equal.
In any given metropolitan area I could tell a tale of two different schools, a tale in which inequality closely mirrors the race and class of the students attending the school. Many parents stake their decisions about where to live and where to send their kids to school on such inequality – that is, they assiduously avoid the "bad" schools, which typically are minority and/or heavily poor, and they work overtime to get their children into the "good" schools, which typically are predominately white and middle class.

In the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, where I live, an idyllic suburban high school like Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Maryland stands in stark contrast to Ballou Senior High School, located in Congress Heights in the District's poorest ward. Whitman is high achieving, 78 percent white, and only 1-2 percent poor. Ballou is low achieving, 99.9 percent African-American, and 87 percent poor. Recently, fewer than 5 percent of Ballou students performed at the level of "proficient" on Stanford 9 tests in math and reading. Worse, Ballou has been plagued by fits of violence, the latest resulting in a fatal shooting of a star football player just outside the school cafeteria during the school day. The children of Ballou deserve a chance at the first-class quality of education Whitman students receive. Yet their racial and economic isolation translates into a reality that would make most of us shudder were we forced to endure it.

Fifty years after the Supreme Court famously declared in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," America venerates the decision because it represents an idea that is fundamental to our democratic values. It re-captured the eighteenth century reformist vision of common schools: There should be at least one institution in American society that provides a common experience of citizenship and equal opportunity, regardless of the lottery of birth, on a free and open basis to all. Clearly we have failed to live up to Brown; we are not even living up to the repugnant principle announced in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Our schools are separate, but hardly equal.

Our public schools have been re-segregating rapidly for more than a decade. As of 2000, the average black or Latino student attended a school where the majority of his peers were minority and at least half were poor. The average white student, on the other hand, attended a school where large majorities of his peers were white and middle class. When you place most black and Latino kids in majority-minority and heavily-poor schools, there are two main consequences, both of which contribute to an achievement gap. First, because poor students typically have greater needs, schools composed of poor students are costlier to run than schools composed of middle- and upper-income students. But in a segregated landscape where property tax wealth is concentrated elsewhere, these extra costs are rarely covered in a way that can make a difference - that is with small class sizes and excellent teachers. With a national teacher shortage, very few strong teachers are opting to teach in challenging, often dangerous high-poverty schools that offer less pay than that available from more advantaged school systems. Second, minority students in schools with large numbers of poor students risk falling prey to an oppositional culture that often denigrates learning – one where pursuit of academic excellence is often perceived as "acting white." They do not enjoy a wealth of activist parents who model success and can work the educational system to their advantage.

The latest federal approach is not helping much. The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act responds to the achievement dilemma in part by requiring standards testing for all racial groups and mandating penalties for failing schools. But the Act is heavier on mandates for testing than it is with additional resources for the most challenged schools to meet these demands. In fact, the Bush administration reneged on its promise to seek an additional $5.8 billion in funding for the poorest schools to meet the Act's tough performance requirements. Even assuming that all promised extra funding were forthcoming, overcoming the oppositional culture that tends to permeate high-poverty environments cannot be done with mere dollars. If the answer to the problem of concentrated poverty in schools is breaking up those concentrations and sending more inner-city kids to suburban schools or attracting more middle class kids to public schools through magnet and charter school programs, it is not clear that the great suburban majority – 70 percent of voters now live in suburbs – will support this.

Where will the political will to solve the "hard" problems surrounding public education come from? It will come, I hope, from an ethos of togetherness that we need to cultivate, lest the public common good be completely sacrificed, and those disadvantaged at birth be left to falter in inadequate public schools. In the din of debate about what can work to ensure a quality educational experience for all children, a small movement for economic integration has been emerging. About two dozen school districts, from Cambridge, Massachusetts to St. Lucie County, Florida, have adopted "controlled choice" plans that attempt to ensure that no school is overwhelmed by poverty. I think this is the right focus of the debate, although I am aware that these strategies swim against a tide of parental skeptics who are not much interested in integration. Herein lies the rub. Unless more middle class students, including white students, enter into the multi-cultural fray, we are doomed to a status-quo of increasing segregation, and inequality.

Sheryll Cashin is the author of "The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream."
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