The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A disturbing trend in school integration programs

Thurgood Marshall, who served as the NAACP’s chief legal counsel through <i>Brown v. Board of Education</i> and who later became the first black Supreme Court justice, is pictured here in 1958 on the steps of the Supreme Court after filing an appeal in the integration case of Little Rock’s Central High School. Around him are students from Little Rock and their chaperon. (AP Photo)
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U.S. public schools are more segregated today than they have been for decades. In a 2013 report, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein wrote:

Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.

In the following post, Wendy Lecker and Lisa Donlan talk about a disturbing trend in today’s school integration programs, which are supposed to be about achieving educational equity. Lecker is senior attorney at the Education Law Center, a nonprofit in New Jersey that advocates for equal educational opportunity and education justice. Donlan is the former president of the Community Education Council in New York City’s District 1.

By Wendy Lecker and Lisa Donlan

Public schools across this country have undergone a demographic shift in recent years.  Mirroring demographic shifts in our nation, in 2014, American public schools became, for the first time, majority non-white.  In 2015, it was reported that more than half of American public school students live in poverty.

These demographic shifts may be partly responsible for the recent renewed media attention to school integration.  School integration, a long-neglected but core value in American education, should be an integral part of any reform efforts to achieve equity and quality in our schools.  When our schools provide equal access and thus can reflect the demographics of our communities, resources can be allocated fairly, and we can ensure that all children regardless of socioeconomic status, race or zip code are served fairly. All members of a school community can move forward together.

However, a disturbing trend is emerging in the coverage of school integration, and even in the school integration programs themselves. Coupled with any talk of or move toward school integration is a notion that school must have a “strong core of middle class students,” and thus ensuring only a certain percentage of “diversity” would be allowed. Rather than design an enrollment policy in which the demographics of schools reflect their demographics of the district, proponents of this type of school “diversity” establish a limit on the number of low-income or at-risk children who can be admitted to a particular school.

Thus, for example, in New York City, where a majority of students in every local district is low-income, new “diversity” plans set aside small proportions (only 20-40 percent) of seats to low-income students for schools situated in districts where the percentage of low-income children is much higher. In a district with 70 percent low-income students, such a cap creates an imbalance in the set-aside school and in all other schools in the district, as the percentage of low-income students in those schools will necessarily rise as a result of the set-aside. If all schools in that district were to adopt these set aside caps, a majority of students could very well be shut out of their own district schools.

These “limited diversity” policies seem to define integration as excluding all but a select few poor children and children of color- even in a district where they are the majority.  This exclusionary view of diversity is consistent with the mindset underlying many educational reform movements, particularly the charter school movement. Rather than work to improve a school system, many reformers prefer instead to “save a few” select children and ignore the rest.  This myopic orientation explains why some proponents of “limited diversity” plans put forth the outlandish notion that charter schools can be a “tool” of integration.([] ) Charter schools are notorious for failing to serve and/or pushing out students with disabilities, English Language Learners and the poorest children. Thus, they can only be seen as advancing diversity if diversity is defined as serving only limited numbers of at-risk children.

Those who advocate these “just a bit of diversity” schools maintain that limiting the number of low-income children is necessary to maintain school quality. This argument seems to rest on the fact that schools with more higher-income children have higher standardized test scores. The majority of factors that account for the variation in standardized test scores occur outside the school walls. Thus, while standardized test scores may give a clue as to the conditions in which children live, they are not a measure of school quality. A policy that claims that including more students with high test scores will improve a school by raising test scores is not a policy; rather it is a case of circular reasoning.

A more abhorrent version of this view, advocated by some, is that a “strong core of middle-class students” in a school will ensure “good values.” This view posits that middle-class students have “big dreams” of bright futures non-existent in high-poverty schools, and “involved and caring parents”; and therefore the presence of a large percentage of middle class students in a school is necessary so that these values can somehow rub off on low-income children and their families.  The notion that good values are the exclusive property of the more affluent is noxious and has no place in discussions of integration.

Yet the discussion seems to be framed around how to make low-income, children more like white, middle-class children.  A recent New York Times article took for granted the idea that low-income children need to be exposed to middle class children in a majority middle- class school in order to do well.[]

Defining diversity in terms that exclude a majority of children from certain schools in their district is clearly seeing integration from the perspective of the privileged and powerful. Perhaps in reaction to the shifting demographics, this group is attempting to hold onto power by creating enclaves where they are still the majority; while claiming the mantle of diversity and integration.

Whatever the motivations, integration should never mean exclusion. There are districts across this country that have made district-wide integration work for years. These communities establish enrollment policies that seek demographic balance throughout the district, so all children are served. To paraphrase a recent brilliant op-ed by an African-American postdoctoral student in the New York Times, it is not the purpose of poor children or children of color “to serve as ‘seasoning’ to the academic soup.” Rather, the goal of integration should be to ensure that our schools reflect our communities and provide equal access and opportunity to all children.