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Posted at 10:35 PM ET, 04/19/2010

Did DOE get memo on school desegregation?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education, equal opportunity and civil rights.

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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The graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in Wake County, NC was 54.2 percent last year.

Perhaps the so-called "best way to connect low-income students" wasn't so great after all.

Posted by: tstoops | April 20, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

Your comparison of magnet schools and charters is misleading and based on flawed data. Magnets are most often selective; charters are not. They are open to all and are a lifeline for many urban families. Charter schools are not more segregated than the public schools in their own communities; the report linked here compared mostly inner-city charters to broad metropolitan populations including affluent suburban schools. Both kinds of schools can play important roles, but you needn't slur charters in order to promote magnets.

Posted by: postns | April 20, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

postns: I don't know about the entire country, but in St. Louis, magnet schools conduct a lottery. The only selectivity is that parents must make an effort to apply. Charter schools, on the other hand, tend to be quite selective and seem to be set up by people with an agenda to keep certain kinds of students out.

Charter schools have far less responsibility for educating all children and no accountability for treating children equitably.
That is the failure of American public schools in general. Since they were created to educate all children to be good citizens, public schools should be given the resources and support to do so.
What we have instead is a sorting mechanism driven by standardized testing. Instead of identifying weaknesses to be strengthened, such tests function as rating systems, helping the stratification fans identify which are the "best" schools.
The best schools are the ones that educate all children to their potential. The best schools are those that educate the children of poor people with as much care and respect as the children of wealthy people. The best schools are those that educate regardless of socio economic class.
You don't encourage schools like that by emphasizing standardized tests or by firing all the teachers in a school.
There's no silver bullet. There's no golden shotgun shell. You don't make good schools by shooting down scape goats like teachers or the students themselves.

Posted by: lagibby1 | April 20, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

In addition to ignoring the low graduation rate in Wake County you neglect to mention that minority and low income students' scores have not budged in Wake County for the past three years. Meanwhile in higher poverty Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), which no longer buses, test scores have been rising. In recent NAEP math results CMS high poverty scores topped other large urban districts, while Jefferson County (Louisville), still busing, was at the bottom.

Posted by: whitsmom | April 20, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Hey, Kahlenberg, Salem, the "white" school in the DoJ suit, is 33% black. Did you send your kids to a school that was >30% black? If you've got an older kid, let's say a bright, eager recent college grad who wants to be a teacher, do you think his/her skills would be best put to use, do you think he/she would feel most fulfilled, in a "high poverty" school full of dumb, rowdy kids?

Posted by: qaz1231 | April 20, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Thank the Post for the recent article on “schools drifting back into segregation”. It isn't just race and we don't have to go to Mississippi. I thought you were going to look at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (TJ), a Fairfax County Public School. Although blacks, Latinos, mentally and medically disabled have legal rights, how is that working in practice at TJ? Not too well --- if one looks at the number of blacks and Latinos at TJ and a 2009 OCR decision. “In practice many receive less access” to the “best” school in America.
The March 2010 Connection newspaper article by O’Donoghue addresses a “drift” of resources and economic advantage. “According to the audit, the science and technology magnet program deposited $1.67 million for the 2008-2009 school year”. “The amount of private money is likely to be much higher than what is reflected in an audit, since many school fundraising organizations….have their own bank accounts.” “Thomas Jefferson High School already has one of the most prolific fundraising efforts of any school in Fairfax.” “The school (TJ) also has one of the county’s wealthiest student bodies. Only 1.73 percent of Jefferson students are considered poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. In Fairfax County overall, 22.47 percent of the student body received free or reduced-price lunches.”
“Some schools drifting back into segregation”? Do we need to look any farther than TJ?

Posted by: BarneyURspecial | April 21, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

"Your comparison of magnet schools and charters is misleading and based on flawed data."
Don't believe this for a minute. Charter schools may enroll all students who register with them, but this is only because they get per-student funding for them. As soon as student count day is over (October), students with behavioral and academic problems are sent back to public schools with impunity. Uninvolved parents will send students to schools where they are treated fairly. Many will not send to charters for this reason. Affluent and involved parents will move their students away from what they perceive as riff-raff to charters, in effect, getting a private school education for their children on the public dole.
Remember that two out of three charter schools fare worse than public schools!
I'm tired of billionaires who are not elected experimenting on education with no proof that their experiments work!
I'm tired of students being left behind in an ironic manipulation of NCLB!
Our country deserves better than to have greedy opportunists destroy public education (for a buck!). My tax dollars should not go to Biff and Muffy so they can have an exclusive and segregated education.

Posted by: jaustin923 | April 23, 2010 1:58 AM | Report abuse

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