American Schools – Back to ‘Separate But Equal’?

Cross-posted from Education Week

The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 that separate schools for minority students were constitutional as long as they provided educational services that were equal to those provided majority students.  In 1954, in one of the most important cases in the Court’s history, it reversed Plessy, holding instead that American schools could not be equal as long as they are segregated.  Now, however, the nation’s schools are nearly as segregated as they were before Brown vs. Board of Education.  But there is no hue and cry about this, no broad movement to reverse course.  Quite the contrary.  We have instead been busy accommodating ourselves to the idea that our schools will be segregated and have been trying to make the best of it.

The cause, of course, is not overt racial segregation of the kind rampant in the day of Plessy.  It is housing segregation.  So American schools are off the hook.  American educators can do nothing about housing segregation.  But, look again and we can see something interesting.

Poor people live in communities in which the price of housing is low, because they cannot afford anything better.  Those communities have poor schools, because poor people do not pay enough taxes to pay for good schools.  Rich people congregate in communities with other rich people, giving their children access to great schools, made possible by the fact that rich people, when they congregate with other rich people, can pay low tax rates and still raise enormous sums of money for their schools.  Each student in the schools serving the rich people benefits from going to school with other rich kids, who collectively create a school culture that champions high expectations and values education, the opposite of the typical culture in schools serving poor and minority children.

It may be true that the schools don’t tell people where they can live, but it is also true that the way we raise money for our schools does tell people where they can live and is therefore a major contributor not just to housing segregation but also to school segregation as well.  Changing the way we raise money for schools could—almost certainly would—contribute to a great moderation in school segregation.

But the relationship between housing segregation and school segregation is even more subtle than this.  Housing segregation does not simply lead to schools that have fewer dollars to spend on education for poor students.  It also leads to schools with profoundly different cultures—for both students and teachers—for rich, majority students on the one hand and poor-minority students on the other.  This difference in cultures contributes mightily to the gap in education outcomes that bids fair to tear this country apart.

The problem the Supreme Court dealt with in Plessy and in Brown was racial segregation.  But racial segregation is only part of the problem the schools are dealing with.  The other half is the issue of social class isolation and discrimination.  The rise in income inequality does not just affect how much families have to spend.  In his book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray documents the disintegration of the values of the American working class in the face of the relentless lowering of incomes and job loss of the last several decades.  This dynamic has produced challenges for public schools serving majority middle class families of much the same kind just described for schools serving low-income minority students.

The United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place.  The global economic forces unleashed four decades ago, forces that have only been intensified by the Great Recession, have not only put enormous direct financial pressure on the American working class—both those in the majority and those who are members of minority groups—but have also contributed to the social isolation of those groups and of the schools to which their children attend.  Murray has shown that this social isolation and the relentless loss of work and income that has been the lot of virtually all subgroups in the working class has all too often led to the steady loss of hope in those communities and all the problems that befall those who believe that the future can only be worse than the past.

I have just described a large and growing fraction of the American people.  I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that their best hope, perhaps their only hope, lies in education.  But the way we finance education has produced a pattern of education governance and provision that makes it almost certain that those who need a vastly better education the most—whether they are among the poor, the working poor or from a minority group—are those who are least likely to get it.  The Canadians have shown us in recent years that it is possible to change a system like ours to a system that is much fairer and much more likely to improve education outcomes for all kids.  Is there anyone out there who really believes that charters, vouchers and teacher evaluation are likely to address these issues?  Isn’t it time to tackle the real obstacles?  We are operating as if a new form of “separate but equal” will do just fine when, in our hearts, we must know that that it is foolish escapism.