Segrenomics: Cashing In on Our Unequal Education System Goes Way Back

Today's Silicon Valley hustlers belong to a long tradition of making money off a segregated education system.

Photo Credit: Philadelphia Student Union

Noliwe Rooks is the director of American studies at Cornell University and the author of Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education. This is an edited transcript.

Jennifer Berkshire: In your new book, Cutting School, you introduce a concept you call 'segrenomics.' It’s the combination of the segregation that continues to define education in the US, and economics—whole industries that make money off of our unequal system. Like the Silicon Valley hustlers who have their sights set on the Baltimore Public Schools.

Noliwe Rooks: Baltimore would be a perfect example of segrenomics. You have a school district that’s predominantly poor students of color. And here comes Silicon Valley saying ‘we'll teach you about computers and coding and you’ll be prepared for the jobs of the next century.’ But it’s within the context of a fundamentally unequal form of education.There’s this deep belief that somehow the technology is going to be the great equalizer. If we can just find the right delivery mechanism, segregation will be OK, meaning that we don't want to make white people have to change their lives at all. So in the case of Baltimore, the answer is laptops.  They’re going to make up for the lack of stability that higher achieving kinds of school districts have. And by the way, the solution is always an idiosyncratic form of education that benefits these companies more than the communities.

Think about all the energy that’s being spent on trying to come up some new experimental way to educate these kids vs. taking a hard look at what it would take to integrate our schools. There’s just no constituency keeping that issue alive other than, you know, Nikole Hannah-Jones. And in the meantime you have tech companies and other businesses basically driving a truck through the hole that’s left.

JB: You make a convincing case in your book that segrenomics didn’t just appear with the rise of, say, Silicon Valley edupreneurs or for-profit charter school operators. In fact the tradition of cashing in on inequity has deep roots.

NR: When I was writing the book, I was trying to figure out when there was a period when you didn’t see this dynamic of black communities being denied equal education, while at the same time being tightly intertwined with well-meaning white philanthropists and business folks. And I kept backing up just a little bit more. Was it the 1980’s? Or maybe it was the 70s. Let's look at the 60s. I literally backed all the way up to Reconstruction, to the 1890s, and the beginning of taxpayer-supported compulsory education. Even then you had this same dynamic. You had business folks who needed workers and wanted to increase their bottom line, and you had wealthy philanthropists who were actually going to benefit from some of the things they were doing because tax breaks have started to come along. And all along you have people coming up with these experimental, idiosyncratic forms of education that always manage to put the burden on the people who have been denied education.

JB: There’s a scene near the beginning of your book when a student comes to your office at Princeton, where you were teaching at the time. She wants to tell you about the civil rights issue of our time, education reform. Princeton, of course, is where Wendy Kopp was a student when she came up with the idea for Teach for America.

Rooks: Kopp had started TFA 10 years before I got to Princeton, but it was still very much in the air that she had done that. I shared the story of that student because all of a sudden there so many very earnest, overwhelmingly white students who’d never been around poor people, never been in inner city schools, who saw unequal education as a moral or ethical failure at the heart of America. I found it compelling. I was thrilled that there were suddenly more people who wanted to try to help expand ideas of democracy and access. That’s great! But I just couldn’t understand where all of the energy was coming from. And the more that I would sort of engage in and look at it it really seemed to me to be all about career and business—what they were going to do next to give back, but also advance their own careers.

What you’d see is that the students were going into these communities and acting as if the people in them didn't care about children or didn't care about education, and that they were coming in to fix the problems and community members just needed to be grateful. The more I listened, the more I heard the same narrative coming from people like Mark Zuckerberg, with his $100 million to reform the Newark schools or with President Obama with his Race to the Top. Most of the reform ideas for these struggling communities were for privatizing education, closing traditional public schools and expanding charter schools.

JB: The sad irony at the heart of your book is that if segrenomics has enriched generations of school improvers and edupreneurs, reliably populating the Forbes 30 under 30 list year after year, nobody seems to be getting rich pushing integration.

NR: That’s right. One of the questions I started to ask is what would have happened if all of these so-called educational entrepreneurs—Wendy Kopp and Mark Zuckerberg, or Chris Whittle, who started Edison Schools—had put all of that time, expertise, access, privilege and money into trying to solve this riddle of why we can't integrate schools? Imagine if they’d done that instead of coming up with these different idiosyncratic forms of education that arguably widen some of the very achievement gaps they claim to be so concerned about. The only thing that worked for that very short period of time where we allowed it to work was integration. I could quibble with some of the metrics we use. But if we want test scores and dropout rates and college attendance to be the same across economics and across race, you have to wonder why all of the energy and the money and the privilege is so focused on doing anything but the one thing that we know that has consistently worked.

JB: You have a whole chapter in your book called “Stealing School” about the industry that has arisen to ensure that poor students, especially students of color, don’t attend school in districts where they don’t live. I have to confess that as a vocal defender of traditional public schools, this was the hardest part of the book to read, and yet you make a really compelling case that both the exclusion and the industry that enforces it are part of segrenomics.

NR: There's a multimillion dollar industry that has come up around keeping poor students out, including private investigators who literally follow people to and from school to see where they live. You even hear about people being offered finder’s fees for turning in kids who, you know, look like they don’t belong here. In the book, I tell the story of a woman who worked as a live-in housekeeper for a family in Orinda, California. She lived there with her daughter, who attended a school that was a few blocks away. Now the school district used a company to verify student residency. School district officials decided that even though she lived there, because she wasn’t the one paying taxes, she was “stealing school,” and so they filed a lawsuit against her.

In this case, the woman ended up having to turn over the guardianship rights of her child over to her employers, and then her daughter would have the legal right to attend that school. And that to me is just horrifying and extreme, that this working-class Latino parent actually had to share custody of her child with her employers so that she can go to school. In other cases, people have been charged with felonies and jailed. By the way, I have yet to find an example of someone who is wealthy being prosecuted for the same thing. It's not just poor people are using addresses to go to different school districts. It’s ubiquitous.

JB: As you point out, there’s money being made on both sides of this unequal divide. In addition to the companies tailing the kids to make sure that they don’t “steal school” by leaving their segregated school systems, these systems are their own cash cows.

NR: We’ve put up all these barriers, but one of them is that you need to stay in your segregated school system because you are the thing that's allowing businesses to come in and test you. We have to test you to see how well you’re doing, and that’s a growth area—but it’s not going to be a growth area if you don’t have people who are willing to stay in those areas and be tested, or be subject to these other fly-by-night ideas. Let’s have the children be educated virtually. Let’s have for-profit companies teach them. Or let laptops take care of it. If the form of education that you want to prescribe is not something that would be accepted in a wealthy community, if it’s  not something that wealthy parents would allow their children to be subjected to, then I don't think you should be allowed to engage in those educational practices with poor people. I think it should be illegal and I think there should be consequences.

JB: Believe it or not, the book actually ends on a really hopeful note. You introduce us to some of the students who are pushing back against school privatization, excessive discipline, and are actually having an impact. I needed that.

NR: I think the most uplifting and the heartwarming and hopeful thing that I found is that you have students who are advocating on their own behalf across the country. They're organizing student unions in Philadelphia and Detroit and Chicago. They’re in middle schools and high schools in many of the places where you see the most aggressive forms of privatized education taking place. They’re pushing back against all the testing, and excessive punishment in their schools and the violence that's being enacted against them by police officers and security officers. And they're advocating for for traditional public schools. Young people are taking taking their educations in their hands and they're winning.That was to me the biggest gift I gave myself in researching this book because I didn't know it was happening.

A lot of that organizing has been taking place under the radar, but what you’re seeing now is that people in these communities are starting to speak up. They’re  saying ‘you know—we live here. These are our brothers, our sisters, our cousins. These are our children and we want to sit at that policy table and we want a say over what happens. You can't continue to ignore us.’ Seeing how widespread this organizing is and the fact that they’re winning was really encouraging to me. I was happy I could actually in the book on that note.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this interview referred incorrectly to the Baltimore County Public Schools providing students with Chromebooks. The school-issued laptops are by HP. 

Jennifer Berkshire writes about the end of public education and co-hosts a biweekly podcast on education in the time of Trump.

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