By Amy Stuart Wells and Douglas Ready
Two top news stories in August – the tragedy in suburban Ferguson, Missouri, and the end of the white-student majority in U.S. public school enrollments nationwide – speak to the changing identity of our nation, our suburbs and our public schools. Our recent research report, Divided We Fall: The Story of Separate and Unequal Suburban Schools 60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education, offers a reality check for anyone ignoring the changing racial demographics of our suburbs and the need to work toward sustainable, racially diverse suburban communities and schools.
Our in-depth analysis of one suburban county and its 56 separate school districts on Long Island, New York, uncovered the process by which once all-white suburbs such as Ferguson change as more blacks or Hispanics move in and white residents leave. In suburbs across the country, we see this 21st Century version of “white flight” leading to a declining tax base and too often increasing racial tension. Ferguson is not unique in that respect, and the changing demographics of our nation’s K-12 public school population – now more than 50 percent “minority” – implies that suburban public schools will be the front line of these changes moving forward.
The New Suburban Reality
Indeed, American suburbs are in the midst of an identity crisis. In many metro areas, the affluent and the poor, people of color and whites, the well-educated and poorly educated are “trading places” across urban-suburban boundaries. In fact, the number of Americans living below the federal poverty line is now greater in the suburbs than the cities, and fewer than 20 percent of people in the largest metropolitan areas still live in predominantly white suburbs.
We studied Nassau County, Long Island – the home of Levittown, the first post-WWII archetypal suburb – as a microcosm of this larger shift. We analyzed statistical, survey and interview data over five years. We documented mounting anxiety about the future of American suburbs and their public schools.
Our conclusions apply to other suburban counties across the country, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest, where suburbs and their school districts are smaller and more divided. Thus, in metro areas like New York and St. Louis, the main obstacles suburbs face include:
- Ongoing racially and ethnically segregated housing patterns that negatively affect property values in communities becoming increasing diverse
- Fragmented and divided municipalities and school districts, making it easier for patterns of racial distinction to emerge and evolve into material (tangible) and reputational (intangible) inequalities
- A public school funding formula that makes each small suburban school district “tubs on their own bottoms,” heavily reliant on “local” sources of funding, namely property taxes.
This means that public school resources and reputations are spread unevenly across separate and unequal suburban school districts, even as small and autonomous suburbs face mounting pressures to sustain themselves economically. It also means that once predominantly white and middle-class communities and their public schools begin to change demographically, absent a concerted effort to stabilize the housing market and public schools, a downward fiscal and educational spiral can ensue. First, the “perception” of the school districts change, and home buyers and realtors begin talking about these communities as “less desirable” – even when tangible measures such as test scores and course offerings are the same.
This leads to a decline in property values, which we have documented statistically and in interviews with realtors and home buyers. Once perceptions and the value of a community and its public schools change, a self-fulfilling prophecy unfolds, as both the tax revenues and the reputation decline. If people with the income to pay higher property taxes and the education levels and political clout to demand more of public schools leave in search of “better” communities, then the distinctions between separate and unequal public schools become greater. The cycle of separate and unequal schools and communities tends to repeat itself again and again.
Implications for Suburban Public Schools
While there is nothing inherently wrong with public schools with no white students – we are not arguing that black students need to sit next to white students to learn – history and recent events suggest that stark separation along racial lines fosters inequality of resources and reputations. This is particularly true in small suburban school districts that rely heavily on the local property tax bases and word-of-mouth recommendations.
Furthermore, the more racial divisions there are within and between suburban communities, the more likely they are to erupt, as we saw in Missouri this month. In a global economy in which employers are clamoring for workers who work well with people of all different backgrounds, we argue that, in the new suburban reality, racial integration should be viewed as an asset and not a liability.
Some of the most salient factors working against creating and sustaining vibrant, diverse suburban public schools are described in our report as “The Perfect Storm” of economic, political and social pressures:
- Shrinking property tax bases amid unfunded mandates from the federal and state government, an increase in students’ educational and social service needs, and relatively high suburban salaries for teachers and administrators all adds up to severe budget cuts that often compromise the academic quality of the schools
- An increasingly burdensome public education accountability system, which now puts pressure on students, teachers and administrators to focus on narrow measures – standardized tests – of student learning.
- Local anti-public school (and anti-teachers union) politics in the context of communities where decent-paying jobs are evaporating, more families are financially stressed, and educators are seen as overpaid and underworked.
We argue that while all suburban school districts face these pressures to some extent, those experiencing the most rapid demographic change and those with the least stable housing markets and fastest decline in middle-class residents are most negatively impacted.
Finally, our report offers some insight into how we could reverse this trend in a country that is changing rapidly in terms of our demographics, our public, and our sense of who we are:
- Build on the changing racial attitudes in this country – particularly among younger generations – to promote racially and ethnically diverse schools and communities as the best places to educate the next generation of Americans
- Provide Federal and State resources to support and sustain racially diverse public schools and their students
- Pass educational policies that encourage schools and educators to focus more on how students in diverse schools and classrooms can best learn from each other and become multicultural voters and workers for the 21st Century.
In addition to these educational policies, if preparing the next generation to cross cultural boundaries and work in a global economy is a priority, policy makers should also support housing policies that sustain diverse communities and schools. Assuring more-equal access to suburban housing and schools is a first step toward embracing the potential of the most racially and ethnically diverse democracy in the world. A second step is assuring that, as demographics change, plenty of existing residents and their resources to support and educate their children in diverse, public neighborhood schools.
One strategy without the other will not work, because housing policy is education policy. In both spheres, when we are divided, we fall. When we embrace the demographic destiny of this country, we have strong local communities and schools. The time to choose the right path for suburbia and America is now. Ferguson and our changing demographics provide a wakeup call.