Link between vouchers, segregation gets welcome attention

White citizens across the South resisted after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that “separate but equal” schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Most resistance was futile, but Prince Edward County, Va., came up with an approach that endured.

“The white elite of Prince Edward County defied the Brown decision by closing the entire public school system and diverting public education funds into vouchers to be used at a segregated private academy that only white students could attend,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, writes in Dissent. “As the battles over the implementation of Brown played out, African-American students were denied access to education for five years in a row.”

As Casey explains, the story didn’t end there. Prince Edward County set the stage for the “school choice” ideology that has been embraced by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Betsy DeVos.

Economist Milton Friedman, the intellectual father of the voucher movement, gave a nod to vouchers-for-segregation in his influential essay “The Role of Government in Education” – written in 1955, the year after the Brown decision. Friedman wrote in a footnote that he deplored discrimination and segregation but deplored “forced unsegregation” even more.

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Discussions to focus on equity in local schools

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.

HMI symposium posterOne 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.

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Data on choice-segregation link easy to find

Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, said this week that she wants to see the data tying school choice to segregation. It’s not hard to find.

A good place to start is the excellent series of stories on race and segregation in Indianapolis schools produced this summer by Chalkbeat Indiana, WFIU and the Indianapolis Star. One story describes how charter schools became some of the most segregated schools in the city, many of them nearly all African-American and a few largely white. Another tells about an Indianapolis Public Schools magnet school where most students are white and almost none qualify for free school lunch.

Here are a few other sources, local and national:

  • Marc Stein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University, published an article in 2015 showing charter school choice in Indianapolis produced “higher degrees of racial isolation and less diversity.” Black students enrolled in charter schools with more black students than the public schools they left; and white students enrolled in charters with more white students. Charters were becoming more racially isolated.
  • A study this summer from three leading educational researchers finds that schools have become significantly more segregated by family income in the past two decades. A factor, they say, is the growth of school choice programs, with affluent families taking advantage to place their children in more desirable schools, regardless of where they live.
  • A new study by Steven Glazerman and Dallas Dotter of Mathematica Policy Research looks at the factors that cause parents to rate some choice schools better than others. They find that white parents, especially, favor schools where more students were of their own race and class. “Teacher Wars” author Dana Goldstein writes about the study in Slate.
  • A research review by William J. Mathis and Kevin Welner for the National Education Policy Center finds choice leads to segregation. “While some choice school enrollments are genuinely integrated,” they write, “the overall body of the research literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation—particularly in charter schools—by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.”
  • The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented segregation in charter schools for years. A policy paper from the center says charter schools “are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”

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‘Separate but equal’ still a bad idea

The Supreme Court got it right 61 years ago when it ruled that “separate but equal” schools weren’t feasible, education and civil-rights scholar Gary Orfield told an Indiana University audience last week.

“We don’t have a set of institutions that are separate but equal in our society,” he said. “We’ve never had separate but equal.”

But policymakers have spent the past 35 years ignoring that simple truth, he said. America largely abandoned its successful but brief attempt to desegregate public schools and turned instead to assuming that all schools should be effective and calling out those that aren’t.

“In the ‘80s, we had this decision that you could ignore race, you could ignore class and you could create equal schools by command – test and accountability and it will work,” he said. “But it ends up that all the schools we sanction are schools that have concentrations of poor and minority students.”

Orfield was the keynote speaker at IU’s Martha McCarthy Education Law and Policy Institute. He is a professor at UCLA and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, which over 20 years has produced hundreds of studies related to issues of educational equity.

Another thing that hasn’t worked, Orfield said: Relying solely on school choice to improve education. “Freedom of choice” was the approach Southern states adopted after Brown v. Board of Education. But schools remained profoundly segregated until federal authorities demanded change in the 1960s.

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Segregated schools in a progressive town

The Monroe County, Ind., school board thought it was doing the right thing nearly 20 years ago by approving a redistricting plan that clustered many of the community’s neediest children in a single elementary school.

But times have changed, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision.

The 1997 redistricting did a number of things, but the biggest was moving students from a large public housing complex to Fairview Elementary, which was already a high-poverty school. The plan prioritized “neighborhood schools.” The housing complex was near Fairview, so that was where the kids would go.

My two younger children were Fairview students at the time, and along with most teachers and parents, I thought the plan made sense. Fairview was a good school, with dedicated staff and engaged families. Those kids needed to be taught somewhere.

But the decision failed to anticipate a couple of trends. One is the way schools with high poverty have been increasingly labeled and stigmatized as “failing.” The other is the way parents with means have been able to use school choice to opt out of neighborhood schools.

At Fairview, 71 percent of Fairview students qualified for free school lunch after redistricting. Today the figure is 84 percent. That’s in spite of the fact that neighborhoods near the school have gentrified. And in spite of the Artful Learning the school board approved in hopes of retaining middle-class families.

Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and we entered a new era of school accountability. Publicly reported test scores and, eventually, school grades bolstered the idea that Fairview was a “bad” school. Some middle-class families in the neighborhood transferred their kids to private schools or a local charter school. Or they simply moved when their children reached school age. Continue reading

Education panel calls for equity as path to excellence

Education policy debates have long pitted supporters of equity against advocates for excellence. A report from a congressionally chartered commission suggests we can’t have one without the other.

“For Each and Every Child,” issued last week by the federal Equity and Excellence Commission, echoes the sense of urgency of the “A Nation at Risk” manifesto that came out 30 years ago. But its primary focus is on the dramatic inequality of opportunity that characterizes America’s schools.

“With the highest poverty rate in the developed world, amplified by the inadequate education received by many children in low-income schools, the United States is threatening its own future,” it says.

The 52-page report centers its recommendations on five themes: developing fairer approaches to school funding; training and retaining good teachers; expanding pre-school; mitigating the effects of poverty; and tying governance and accountability systems to the goals of equity and excellence.

The commission that produced the report was packed with influential figures: scholars, union and civil rights leaders and others. And the members seem determined not to let the report gather dust. They’re out doing media interviews and writing op-eds about their findings and recommendations.

Yet implementing their ideas will likely be a struggle. Continue reading