Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality
Much of the discussion about school reform in the U.S. in the past two decades has been about racial inequality. President Bush has promised that the No Child Left Behind Act and the forthcoming expansion of high stakes testing to high schools can end the “soft racism of low expectations.” Yet a disproportionate number of the schools being officially labeled as persistent failures and facing sanctions under this program are segregated minority schools. Large city school systems are engaged in massive efforts to break large segregated high poverty high schools into small schools, hoping that it will create a setting better able to reduce inequality, while others claim that market forces operating through charter schools and private schools could end racial inequalities even though both of these are even more segregated than public schools and there is no convincing evidence for either of these claims. More and more of the still standing court orders and plans for desegregated schools are being terminated or challenged in court, and the leaders of the small number of high achieving segregated schools in each big city or state are celebrated. The existence of these schools is being used to claim that we can have general educational success within the existing context of deepening segregation. Clearly the basic assumption is that separate schools can be made equal and that we need not worry about the abandonment of the movement for integration whose history was celebrated so extensively last year on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision even as the schools continued to resegregate. There has been a continuous pattern of deepening segregation for black and Latino students now since the 1980s.
What if this basic assumption is wrong? What if the Supreme Court was correct a half century ago in its conclusion that segregated schools were “inherently unequal”? What if Martin Luther King’s many statements about how segregation harms both the segregator and the segregated, drastically limits opportunity, and does not provide the basis for building a successful interracial society are correct? What if the Supreme Court’s sweeping conclusion in the 2003 University of Michigan case that there is compelling evidence that diversity improves the education of all students is true and applies with even greater force to public schools?
If, however, it is wrong to assume that segregation is irrelevant and policies that ignore that fact simply punish the victims of segregation because they fail to take into account many of the causes of the inequality, then current policy is being built on the foundation that it cannot produce the desired results and may even compound the existing inequalities. We believe this to be true. Segregated schools are unequal and there is very little evidence of any success in creating “separate but equal” outcomes on a large scale.
One of the common misconceptions over the issue of resegregation of schools is that many people treat it as simply a change in the skin color of the students in a school. If skin color were not systematically linked to other forms of inequality, it would, of course, be of little significance for educational policy. Unfortunately that is not and never has been the nature of our society. Socioeconomic segregation is a stubborn, multidimensional and deeply important cause of educational inequality. U.S. schools are now 41 percent nonwhite and the great majority of the nonwhite students attend schools which now show substantial segregation. Levels of segregation for black and Latino students have been steadily increasing since the l980s, as we have shown in a series of reports. Achievement scores are strongly linked to school racial composition and so is the presence of highly qualified and experienced teachers. The nation’s shockingly high dropout problem is squarely concentrated in heavily minority high schools in big cities. The high level of poverty among children, together with many housing policies and practices which excludes poor people from most communities, mean that students in inner city schools face isolation not only from the white community but also from middle class schools. Minority children are far more likely than whites to grow up in persistent poverty. Since few whites have direct experience with concentrated poverty schools, it is very important to examine research about its effects.
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