Did DOE get memo on school desegregation?
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
Kudos to the U.S. Justice Department for attacking de jure racial school segregation in a rural Mississippi County, as outlined in a story by The Post’s Stephanie McCrummen. But the Justice Department’s actions raise an important question: Why has the U.S. Education Department been silent about the far more profound challenge to equal opportunity today – the de facto economic and racial segregation of America’s suburban and city schools?
These days, the blatant practice of allowing white kids to transfer out of predominantly black schools – which the Justice Department rightly stamped out in Walthall County, Miss. -- is much less common than the separation of rich and poor children based on residential patterns.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate John Edwards proposed financial incentives for suburban districts to recruit low-income students stuck in failing schools and to draw middle-class students into urban magnet schools. But the Obama administration’s Education Department has been strikingly lackluster in its approach to economic school segregation, which considerable research suggests lies at the fountainhead of educational inequality.
For example, the administration’s “Blueprint” for revising the No Child Left Behind Act calls for ending the law’s requirement that low-income students stuck in failing schools be allowed to transfer to better performing public schools.
In press reports, Republicans have complained about this move, but the school transfer policy was also championed by civil rights groups, which saw it as a tool for school integration. Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University and Jennifer Jellison Holme of the University of Texas, for example, have persuasively argued that few students took advantage of transfer provisions because choices within urban districts were often not much better.
Rather than scrapping NCLB’s right to transfer, it should be extended to allow reasonable numbers of urban students to transfer to suburban schools – with financial sweeteners to reduce political opposition.
Likewise, the administration’s approach to turning around failing schools is all about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work. Among the favored approaches is firing teachers and principals – which ignores the fact that a school’s educational environment is shaped by students and parents as well as educators.
Pupils in schools with concentrations of poverty have classmates who are less likely to have big dreams, and are more likely to get in trouble; and parents in the larger school community, often stretched by several jobs, are less likely to volunteer in the school and are four times less likely to be members of the PTA.
Peers and parents not only directly influence school quality; they also affect the quality of teachers that a school can attract. Research finds that educators care less about salary than working conditions – factors such as levels of student disorder and parental support – so what makes the Education Department think it can attract new teachers to high poverty schools who will be substantially stronger than the old ones?
So too, the administration’s “Race to the Top” fund rewards states for adopting teacher merit pay plans based on test score gains (an approach even Florida Republican governor Charlie Crist sees is flawed) but not a single point for states pursuing voluntary integration programs.
Magnet schools, which are purposely designed to integrate students, receive far less money under Obama’s budget than charter schools, which have been found to be more segregated than regular public schools.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge recently and announced efforts to encourage school districts to assign better teachers to low-income kids.
But as Wake County (Raleigh) N.C. has found, the best way to connect low-income students with great teachers is to reduce concentrations of school poverty, so that educators will be willing to teach in any of a district’s schools.
When Republicans recently organized to dismantle Wake County’s nationally-recognized economic school integration program, there was not a peep of protest from the Obama administration. Instead, the administration chose to intervene in a different local district – Central Falls, Rhode Island – to applaud the mass firing of teachers in a high poverty school.
During the campaign, candidate Obama, in his brilliant address on race in Philadelphia, correctly observed that “segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools.” The Department of Justice got the memo. When will the Department of Education?
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| April 19, 2010; 10:35 PM ET
Categories: Equity, Guest Bloggers | Tags: DOE, Education Department and segregation, Justice Department and school segregation, Walthall County and schools, civil rights, desegregation of schools, school busing, school desegregation, school resegregation
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