Every February, to honor Black History Month, students around the country are taught about America’s glorious victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal moment that undid Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal racial segregation.
Desegregation is touted as a gold standard of equality and progress. But ending segregation is different from creating integration, let alone justice and equity, especially considering that as of 2011, according to PBS, the percentage of black students in majority white southern schools was “just below where it stood in 1968.”
This lack of progress since Brown has led to calls for integration measures, notably in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a measure that would expand the admissions process for the city’s specialized public high schools, in order to claim more spots for black and Hispanic students at institutions dominated by Asian and white children.
It sounds progressive, decent, and just. But what if it’s not? What if, at the risk of sounding like a modern-day segregationist, integration isn’t the way forward? What if our attempts to rectify the injustices of Plessy are wasted when we focus primarily on the separate, and not the equal?
Consider this: With school funding formulas in many states placing the brunt on localities and their taxable wealth, it becomes a near-certainty that communities living in poverty will be served by chronically under-resourced schools, while communities of wealth have thoroughly resourced schools.
Philadelphia and the surrounding region provide stark examples of this phenomenon. In 2016, In the School District of Philadelphia, a typical student was allotted $13,494 for their education. Cheltenham and Lower Merion, which neighbor Philadelphia, allotted $22,498.83 and $28,172 respectively per pupil.
Considering these systemic disparities, moving kids into different schools is akin to putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.
The root causes of educational inequities tie back to the long-standing racism in America’s social structures, including red-lined neighborhoods, mass incarceration, and limited means of employment, that left many black neighborhoods impoverished. These factors, combined with funding formulas that draw primarily from the local tax base, have created a system in which under-resourced schools serve under-employed and over-incarcerated communities of color.
Integration as a standalone solution undervalues the power of black communities while overvaluing that of white communities. The underlying assumption of too many desegregation attempts is that proximity to white students alone is, in and of itself, the key to educational reform. This form of integration is often justified by the notion that placing black and Latino students into better-funded schools, where they will be in better physical environments and have access to improved educational resources that are denied to their home neighborhoods. But this reasoning creates the narrative that quality education lies only within schools that mostly serve white students.
Integration in this fashion moves black and brown kids to where the money is, which happens to be, not coincidentally, where the white kids are. That doesn’t necessarily improve outcomes for black and brown students. In fact, it often leads to intra-school segregation wherein AP classes remain predominantly white, and lower-ranked classes mostly students of color. As noted in the Atlantic in 2014, black and Latino students made up 37 percent of high school students, yet only 27 percent of students taking an AP class. Sixty percent of Asian students with strong math skills took AP math, compared to 30 percent of black students with those skills.
These are the deeply entrenched realities that need to be addressed. Funding formulas should be revised so that schools serving families in poverty receive increased funds to address the social-emotional needs of students living with the trauma that accompanies growing up in a society built on racial injustice, perpetuated by issues like the over-policing of communities of color.
We need to stop tricking ourselves that simply shuffling students around until the schoolyard looks diverse will magically address educational disparities. The real work is harder because it’s about the almighty dollar. We need to abolish the alignment of school funding to localities’ taxable wealth. Only then will a child’s access to quality education not depend on their zip code.