The landmark ruling declared that there could be no "equal" education in racially segregated public schools. At the time, Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case before the court, believed we would see full integration in American schools within five years.
That true school integration has not yet come to pass even 60 years later speaks to a complicated reality that has evolved far beyond the reach of traditional education policies: It’s that much harder to integrate classrooms when the communities where children live are still so segregated.
Since the Civil Rights Era, residential racial segregation across the U.S. has steadily declined. But segregation among school-aged children has startlingly lagged behind this progress. In the communities where they live, black and white children -- as well as the poor and non-poor -- are more isolated from each other than adults in the U.S. population at large.
That graph, drawn from an analysis by Rutgers University Professor Paul Jargowsky, shows the “index of dissimilarity” between whites and blacks, whites and Hispanics, and the poor and non-poor in the U.S. The index measures the extent to which two groups are isolated from each other – a score of 0 reflects total integration, a score of 1 total segregation. That graph illustrates that black-white segregation is particularly high for Kindergarten and Pre-K children in the U.S. compared to the non-school-aged population. The same remains true of how poor children are separated from non-poor children.
How is it possible that school children would experience residential segregation at higher rates than the rest of us? Think about who lives in the changing neighborhoods of Washington, Philadelphia or Brooklyn. Whites have begun to move back into urban neighborhoods – but, for the most part, they are not yet moving back with children. Young singles, childless professionals and empty-nesters are returning to cities that were abandoned by the white middle class decades ago in large part because of their struggling schools.
These demographic changes will be key to whether we can achieve more integrated public schools in the coming years. But today, black children in high-poverty urban neighborhoods in particular remain deeply separated from the peers, teachers and resources of high-performing schools. And rising income inequality is making residential segregation by income even worse.
This residential isolation of the most disadvantaged children – a product of migration patterns and economic trends that have occurred since Brown -- points to one set of strategies that’s been given little attention over the last 60 years. What if we made a more concerted effort to integrate schools by integrating neighborhoods? What if we tried to improve the educational prospects of low-income minority students by breaking down barriers to affordable housing in the communities where good schools exist? What if we wielded zoning laws and housing vouchers as levers of education policy?
“Basically, housing policy is school policy,” says Jargowsky. “It’s just so much easier to think about making schools work better if we don’t have these neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.” This doesn’t mean, he adds, that we should give up on investing in high-poverty neighborhoods. “But unless we take seriously the idea that we can’t have so many of these neighborhoods,” he says, “we’re always going to be trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom as the tide is coming in.”
How housing patterns perpetuate segregation
When the Warren Court struck down the idea of “separate but equal” schools in the 1950s, segregation largely occurred within school districts, as public schools in Tuscaloosa or Atlanta or Alexandria separated black and white students living just miles or blocks apart. Today, however, white and minority students, wealthy and low-income ones are more often separated across school districts, municipal boundaries and property tax lines.
As the middle class migrated to the suburbs – often fleeing what families perceived as worsening schools – they left behind urban school districts with higher poverty, more concentrated minority enrollment and declining property tax revenues. They also moved beyond the reach of legal busing or school-assignment policies that have traditionally been used as levers of integration.
"That’s why housing policy has to be part of the solution," says Rucker Johnson, an associate professor at the University of California Berkeley who has researched inequality in education. The traditional tools of schools policy can't reach from Washington's classrooms into the suburbs, or from a high-poverty black neighborhood in Baltimore into an adjacent school district with better-paid teachers and higher test scores.
The story of whites moving away from court-ordered integrated urban school districts has been a story of housing patterns. And so it follows that solutions to the unequal education landscape we have today would be at least in part about housing, too.
Trace back the achievement gaps of low-income children, Johnson says, and you'll find opportunity gaps in the places where they live. You'll find school districts that receive fewer property tax dollars and schools that have a harder time retaining and paying good teachers. You'll find classrooms where turnover is high among low-income students whose families must move more often. You'll find classrooms where special needs are more common and where involvement among single parents more scarce.
You'll also find neighborhoods where crime is high, preventing children from playing outside, and where environmental hazards are high as well, resulting in elevated rates of asthma that keep children out of class. You'll find neighborhoods short on primary-care doctors, jobs and mentors.
Integrated schools matter for all of these reasons: not just because they enable low-income children to sit in AP classes with middle-class peers (or because they enable white children to encounter other backgrounds), but because the access to teachers, resources, other parents and expectations changes, too.
Now what if we created a home for a disadvantaged child in an integrated neighborhood with a strong school, and he could benefit not just from all of those opportunities at school, but from the neighborhood, too.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t also invest in struggling schools, or pursue school vouchers that give a child a chance to attend an integrated school outside of her high-poverty neighborhood. We should probably do all of these things at the same time.
“The trap that people get into is this short-term need to enhance education for kids who are struggling in poor schools,” says Philip Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. “That becomes such an important short-term priority that the longer-term priority of breaking down racial and economic segregation is put off for another day.”
What housing policy could look like
How, then, would you begin to change housing patterns? Racial and economic segregation do not exist across U.S. metropolitan areas today by accident or coincidence. Segregation persists as both a legacy of overt historic discrimination (including by government agencies and banks) and as a reality of more subtle housing policies.
“Just because the Fair Housing Act was passed didn’t mean that people now have more choice to live in more integrated communities,” says Corianne Payton Scally at the University at Albany, “because their choices are limited by the choices that other people make, and by active barriers and incidents of discrimination.”
Today, many communities have zoning ordinances that actively keep out affordable housing, and the kinds of families who might live in it. Zoning codes that set minimum lot sizes -- meant to ensure the construction of large-lot single-family homes -- make it impossible to build smaller, more affordable housing. This type of “exclusionary zoning,” which may also limit multi-family housing or higher-density development, is ubiquitous in American suburbs.
The more drastic solution would be to limit such zoning policies at the federal or state level, or to withhold federal resources from local communities that pursue them (a tactic George Romney once tried unsuccessfully as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development). The more politically palatable solution lies in what’s called “inclusionary zoning,” ordinances that mandate the construction of some affordable housing alongside market-rate homes in new developments.
One of the best examples of such a policy exists in suburban Washington, in Montgomery County, Md., where researcher Heather Schwartz has found direct links to educational outcomes for low-income children. Since the 1970s, Montgomery County has required developers to set aside 12-15 percent of homes in new developments for affordable housing, and the local public housing authority has the right to buy and operate a third of those units.
That program has created about 14,000 affordable housing units scattered in neighborhoods throughout the county. Some of the homes are in multi-family developments. Some are single-family homes in subdivisions. “That’s kind of the beauty of it -- it’s whatever the market demands,” Schwartz says.
In 2010, she released a widely discussed study that found that low-income students who were able to attend better-performing local schools thanks to the inclusionary zoning program performed better on standardized math tests than low-income students who attended higher-poverty schools – even though those higher-poverty schools had received additional resources from the district.
Schwartz’s research can’t easily tease out how much of the effect was due to the neighborhood versus the school itself (standardized tests are also an incomplete metric of student achievement). But her finding is frequently cited by advocates who argue that we might change the educational outcomes of low-income children by changing how we build housing.
“There’s no decision that you make that has more consequences for the people around you than the housing that you build,” Jargowsky says. “Housing that’s built today will stay there for the next 30 to 50 years.”
Inclusionary zoning will clearly not work as an education tool in communities that aren’t growing as rapidly as suburban Washington (and even there, the progress is incremental). But there are demand-side solutions, too. The federal government could reform – and better fund -- housing vouchers that enable low-income households to move to high-opportunity communities. Currently it’s difficult to transport those vouchers across municipal lines, from an urban neighborhood into a suburban one. It’s also legal in most states for landlords to refuse to accept vouchers.
As an alternative, the government could encourage housing authorities to work regionally instead of locally, while coaching families to leverage vouchers in search of good schools.
Can we leverage a tectonic demographic shift?
The kind of neighborhood integration that people like Jargowsky are talking about may sound even more politically unpalatable than classroom integration. HUD last year was barraged with angry public comments on a proposed rule governing a seldom-used part of the Fair Housing Act that requires the government to “affirmatively further” fair housing in pursuit of integration.
The prospect of a government interest in diverse communities still makes many Americans uneasy (it’s also not likely to be championed by a Supreme Court that keeps insisting that race doesn’t matter any more). But consider the alternative, from an education point of view. If we wanted to improve the outcomes of those most disadvantaged children living in high-poverty neighborhoods in a holistic way, we’d need to invest in prenatal care for their mothers, in family support and early childhood education before kindergarten even begins, in smaller class sizes and good teacher salaries, in high-quality after-school care, in good summer programs, in regular pediatric care.
Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, has calculated that we would need to make a $300,000, 19-year investment in each child to help overcome all of the disadvantages these students face. That’s more than $15,000 a year.
“It’s politically difficult to accomplish any of these things,” Rothstein says of the housing solutions. “But what people conclude from that is that they should do something that is equally politically difficult, if not possible, and that is to try to solve the problem without integration.”
In fact, while the politics may look grim, there is one other piece of this puzzle that does not: demographics. This fall, for the first time, white students will make up less than half of the enrollment in public schools in America. And just as the country – and its youngest generation – is becoming more diverse, we are witnessing what Amy Stuart Wells calls a moment of “trading places” across American cities and suburbs.
Middle and upper-income whites are starting to move back into cities. And suburbs are rapidly growing more diverse, as a first destination for immigrants and as a home for lower-income families who have been pushed out of cities. Historically, neighborhoods and public schools in flux rapidly turn over from all-white to all-minority as existing residents perceive property values and the quality of education to decline.
“It’s this vicious self-perpetuated cycle of self-fulfilling prophesies,” says Wells, a professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University. Now, however, we are entering another era of widespread demographic transition, and it’s a moment we might leverage to create the kinds of communities and schools that have evaded America since classrooms began re-segregating.
“There’s this massive tectonic shift of people in metro migration patterns and immigration from other countries,” Wells says. Suburban and urban neighborhoods alike are becoming -- at least for now -- more diverse. “But if you don’t do something to sustain that, then they start to become lopsided in one way or another.”
Middle-class residents moving back into the city are not yet bringing children in droves. But all those young professionals will have children soon.
“Things are so much in flux right now and changing that if we had some vision of what our goals are here around changing demographics in education and neighborhoods,” Wells says, “we could really make some awesome diverse public schools by the time those Millennials have their babies -- in the city or the suburbs.”
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, perhaps this is a new chance, although it’s one that requires us to think in some very different ways about the role of diversity in what constitutes “good schools,” and the types of policies that will get us there.