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Why We Should Pay Renewed Attention to School Desegregation
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By Ansley Erickson, Assistant Professor, Cultural Foundations of Education and History, Syracuse University and Heather Schwartz, Associate Policy Research, RAND Corporation
Note: The authors are recent alumna of the Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellows Program who, through the program, discovered their shared substantive interests and began to work together. This article reflects their unusual collaboration that draws together history (Erickson) and education policy (Schwartz) to suggest new ways to argue that racial and economic segregation in schools still matters and that desegregation is both a meaningful and achievable policy goal.
Economic and racial segregation creates striking disparities in children’s educational opportunities and outcomes. In 2009, more than one-half of fourth and eighth graders who attended high-poverty schools failed the national reading test, compared to fewer than one in five students from the same grade levels who attended low-poverty schools. And because income and racial minority status are strongly correlated, high-poverty schools often have high concentrations of racial minorities. The prevailing theories about the advantages of low-poverty schools are that they benefit from having more material resources, reap the stability-conferring benefits from having greater parental stewardship, and have the ability to attract and retain a better-prepared corps of teachers, administrators, and students.
Despite persistent segregation by race and class in schools and communities, support has been waning for policies that acknowledge and challenge these patterns. In the 1990s and 2000s, federal courts authorized numerous districts to end intentional racial desegregation efforts. In 2007, the Supreme Court further narrowed the boundaries of desegregation efforts when, in Parents Involved, it struck down voluntary plans in Seattle and Louisville. In the past year, even the most celebrated of socioeconomic integration schemes, in Wake County, North Carolina, saw its political base crumble (although an intriguing alternative policy to integrate students using academic performance is now under debate.
In our research, we analyze the cases of Nashville, Tennessee and Montgomery County, Maryland to demonstrate historic (Nashville) and ongoing (Montgomery) relationships between residential and school segregation. We show that racial and economic segregation (which are closely intertwined) still matter for school quality and for student outcomes. Thus policies to desegregate students are still salient. And we argue for new policies that recognize the historical linkage between housing and schooling instead of seeking to ameliorate segregation in schools solely through additional funds.
Nashville, Tennessee and The Schooling-Housing Nexus
However, the very notion of de facto school segregation is a fallacy. A strong body of historical work has proved how deeply rooted residential segregation has been in intentional policy and, thus, how housing segregation is not de facto segregation. Building on this work, Erickson joins fellow historians Karen Benjamin and Andrew Highsmith in showing that the de facto label also mischaracterizes the origins of school segregation. Local and federal officials developed housing segregation and school segregation in tandem, through intentional policy, in both Northern and Southern cases, and both before and after Brown. The very landscape of the segregated metropolis was constructed around schools, and that landscape structures school segregation to this day.
In the case of Nashville, urban renewal projects in the 1960s used still-segregated schools as anchors and markers for new, segregated, housing construction, while local planners maximized joint federal and local funding schemes so that segregated school and housing construction could subsidize one another. In many cities from the 1920s into the 1970s, urban planners and developers understood the power of schools to shape new suburban development and used this power to intentionally encourage segregation. Decisions about where public schools should be opened, or closed, were not made apart from the private property market but rather were intertwined with it. These examples blur the lines between private and public and between housing and schooling, the lines on which the idea of de facto segregation stands.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, school district after school district gained “unitary” status in court and, as a consequence, ended or severely curtailed intentional desegregation efforts. A clear increase in patterns of segregation in schooling resulted, particularly in those Southern districts that had achieved the highest levels of statistical desegregation into the 1980s. In particular, unitary status authorized Nashville schools to return to neighborhood assignment at the elementary level, matching strikingly resegregated school populations with promises, not always realized, of more funding for those that were overwhelmingly poor and black.
This policy approach ignores the history of the schooling-housing nexus and accepts the de facto label for continued segregation. Instead, rejecting the fallacy of de facto segregation and recognizing the depth and historic durability of previous policy commitments to segregation can open the way for renewed efforts to address current segregation. Evidence from Montgomery County, Maryland suggests the utility of one such effort based on this approach.
Montgomery County, Maryland as an Example of Economic Integration in Schools
To examine the educational consequences of housing policy, Schwartz examined the schooling effects of the nation’s largest inclusionary zoning (IZ) program in Montgomery County, Maryland. This program requires real estate developers to set aside a proportion of the homes they build to be rented or sold at below-market prices. Since 1974, the IZ program has produced more than 12,000 moderately-priced homes in the county and done so in a manner that has prevented the concentration of poverty.
What is especially unusual about the County’s inclusionary zoning program is that its public housing authority purchased hundreds of these homes to operate as public housing. All told, the housing authority currently leases out almost 1,000 public housing family homes and the majority of these are dispersed among market-rate subdivisions.These subsidized homes are located in hundreds of neighborhoods throughout the county and are zoned into almost all of the school district’s 131 elementary schools. In 2007, families who occupy public housing had an average income of $22,460, making them among the poorest households in Montgomery County.
The housing authority randomly assigns families to its public housing homes, which effectively randomly assigns children to residentially-assigned elementary schools. As a result, the educational effects for public housing children living in lower and higher poverty settings can be assessed. To do so, Schwartz examined the longitudinal school performance from 2001 to 2007 of approximately 850 students in public housing who attended elementary schools and lived in neighborhoods that fell along a spectrum of very-low-poverty to moderate-poverty. After five to seven years, students in public housing who were randomly assigned to low-poverty elementary schools significantly outperformed their peers in public housing who were randomly assigned to moderate-poverty schools in both math and reading. Further, by the end of elementary school, the initial, large achievement gap between the district’s non-poor children and those in public housing who attended the district’s most advantaged schools was cut in half for math and by one-third for reading.
The benefits of attending lower-poverty schools even outweighed the benefits of attending higher spending but higher-poverty schools. In 2000, the County directed additional resources to its 60 neediest elementary schools. These were used to reduce class size, introduce full-day kindergarten, create greater time for teaching literacy and math, and provide further professional development opportunities for teachers. Despite these additional resources, by the end of elementary school, public housing children who attended non-needy elementary schools still substantially outperformed their public housing peers in the extra-investment schools. These findings suggest that providing low-income children with access to lower-poverty schools is even more powerful than research-backed investments and extra resources provided to higher-poverty schools.
What would a policy approach look like if it acknowledged the historical origins of segregation, in their full breadth and complexity — but then used this knowledge to redress current patterns of segregation and their related inequalities of resources, opportunities, and outcomes? Such an approach would not re-adopt Brown’s logic that segregation was psychologically damaging , would not assert that all-black spaces are inherently unequal, nor would it measure equality solely via racial ratios. It would, instead, recognize the depth and historic durability of previous policy commitments to segregation, and take this recognition as license to create broader approaches to desegregation today.
Montgomery County took such an approach. Unlike the hundreds of cities and suburbs where the paired construction of segregated housing and segregated schooling went unchallenged, the County crafted and voluntarily adopted an inclusive housing policy. In so doing, it provided low-income families access to lower-poverty schools that, in turn, yielded notably higher levels of educational achievement for poor children. This approach contrasts with a more common policy of designing compensatory programs such as Title I for higher-poverty and racially segregated schools. Rather, Montgomery County’s inclusionary zoning recognizes the connections between housing and educational opportunity and transforms these connections to change the lives of poor children. One result was that, over the course of elementary school, poor children from the district’s lowest-poverty neighborhoods and schools began catching-up with their non-poor, high-performing peers, while similarly disadvantaged children without such access did not.
For further reading and references, see
Correction: A previous version of this essay misstated an aspect of Parents Involved. The version stated that “Parents Involved [held] that creating racial diversity in K-12 institutions was not a ‘compelling state interest.’” Although the plurality opinion made this argument, a four-justice dissent and Justice Kennedy’s partial concurrence together held that racial diversity remained a compelling state interest.