Researchers have shown school choice via charter schools and private school vouchers is increasing the segregation of American schools by race and social class. That’s a worrisome and important finding, but schools were growing more segregated before the rise of choice, in part because of decisions we made as individuals and communities.
One example is Bloomington, Ind., the small college town where I live. With relatively few black and Latino students, you can’t say the schools are segregated by race. But students from different socioeconomic groups are separated in different schools.
That’s the backdrop for discussions that will take place this week at the Harmony-Meier Institute’s third annual symposium. It will include conversations on local school equity issues on Thursday and a panel featuring legendary progressive educator Deborah Meier and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick on Friday.
Thursday’s event celebrates the legacy of the late Indiana University education professor Ellen Brantlinger, who described class segregation in local schools in her 2003 book “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.”
The local school district has put more resources into high-poverty schools since then, but the basic situation continues. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch range from over 85 percent in one school to less than 7 percent in another. Not surprisingly, low-poverty schools tend to have higher test scores and consistently get As on the state’s school grading system, while high-poverty schools sometimes struggle.
The usual excuse for Bloomington’s disparities is that we want “neighborhood schools” and our neighborhoods are economically segregated. That’s part of the problem, but few of the schools actually serve as walk-in centers. Most students ride buses to school or are driven by their families.
As Brantlinger wrote, “Affluent people use the rhetoric of the value of neighborhood schools to preserve their domains, yet a perusal of each (Bloomington) elementary school’s enrollment area reveals that boundary lines were configured not to have children in the closest school but rather to separate high- and low-income children.”
If anyone is being hurt by this arrangement, it’s probably poor children. There are plenty of studies that find poor children do better academically in schools that are socioeconomically integrated. But it’s not like we’re doing middle-class children any favors by isolating them. According to Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, emerging research suggests middle-class kids benefit from diverse schools.
The Century Foundation has reported on dozens of school districts that have taken steps to create more economically diverse schools. Some have redrawn attendance areas with an eye to equity. Others have used magnet schools and “controlled choice.”
There’s no easy way to address this issue, but nothing will change unless we recognize that segregation exists. Maybe this week’s conversations will be a start.