American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, 43 years ago. The average white child in America attends a school that is 77 percent white, and where just 32 percent of the student body lives in poverty. The average black child attends a school that is 59 percent poor but only 29 percent white. The typical Latino kid is similarly segregated; his school is 57 percent poor and 27 percent white.
Overall, a third of all black and Latino children sit every day in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black and Latino.
This is a sad state of affairs in a pluralistic society, and it is borne of two factors: 1) residential segregation and 2) purposeful drawing of school district boundaries to isolate middle class and white families from poor families of color. So it is absolutely a good thing that last Thursday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a letter chiding the Wake County, North Carolina school board–which has been taken over by Tea Partiers–for dismantling a groundbreaking school integration program.
The Wake County program located high-achieving, themed magnet schools within poor neighborhoods, and opened them up to any interested student. For each seat at the magnet school occupied by a middle class or affluent kid from across town, an inner city child was given the opportunity to bus to the neighborhood school the wealthier kid would have attended, if he hadn't chosen the magnet instead. Such schemes are known in wonk world as "voluntary intra-district transfer programs," and in many of the cities where they exist (such as Milwaukee, Hartford, and Seattle), they are popular and vastly oversubscribed.
The problem is that Arne Duncan's words of support for the Wake County integration plan have never been backed up by Obama administration policy. Neither of the Department of Education's two big school reform grant programs–Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation–provide any funding at all for districts that wish to pursue magnet school-driven integration as a reform tool. And make no mistake–integration is one of the most powerful school reform tools in the kit.
Here's how we know that: At the macro level, four decades of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress–the "nation's report card"–show that the achievement gap between white and minority students shrunk fastest during the 1970s and 1980s, the era of Court-mandated school desegregation. Between 2004 and 2009, on the other hand–our NLCB, "standards and accountability" era–the achievement gap between white children and black and Latino children did not shrink at all.
Let's see how this operates on the ground level, around the key issue of teacher quality: When another North Carolina school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, ended its 30-year busing program in 2000 and reverted back to racially segregated schools, the highest-performing teachers fled schools that became predominantly black and poor.
Here's another local example: In Montgomery County, Maryland, a largely affluent area that has taken care to locate several pockets of public housing within high-performing school districts, those poor students who attended the lowest-poverty schools had significantly better academic outcomes than demographically similar poor students–also living in randomly-assigned Montgomery County public housing–who attended schools that served a greater percentage of poor kids.
Given this track record, it's a disappointment that the Obama administration has not created incentives aimed at encouraging school districts to experiment with magnet schools and other means of desegregation. On the upside, there is good work being done at the Department of Housing and Urban Development on attacking residential segregation; in 2009, for example, HUD told Westchester County it could no longer build affordable housing only in towns and cities that already had high concentrations of poverty. (Doing so was always illegal, but past administrations failed to enforce the law.)
Still, what we really need is a multi-pronged approach to attacking segration: First, we need to fight poverty and economic inequality broadly. But while we do that, we also need to use every tool at our disposal–meaning both housing and education law and policy–to diversify our existing neighborhoods and schools.
Advocating for such policies does not imply that high-poverty, all-minority schools cannot be excellent. We know they can be. But on the whole, such schools are failing. One way to reverse those outcomes for kids is to get them into more diverse, higher functioning schools that are not overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty.