21st Century School Segregation

baltimore-integrationThis post is the beginning of a series of posts I will write about 21st century school segregation. I want to start by acknowledging a few factors that influence my perspective and shape my writing.

  1. This topic is complicated and multifaceted
  2. Nuance is hard to write in a blog
  3. I’m a white lady without children
  4. My instructional choices and community activism is shaped by my evolving understanding of my role as a white, female educator
  5. I love metaphors and analogies

Recently, I met with two outstanding women—one I consider the “Godmother” of my teaching practice and the other a teacher, community activist, and all-around inspiration. Over a cup of coffee, we grappled with elements of a conversation that started on Facebook then moved to email and finally to Bluebeard Coffee Roasters. As white women, what do we do about increasingly segregated schools? What do we do about the segregated schools in our city? 

Grappling with these questions is like swimming the English channel–it can be done but it’s cold, choppy, and overwhelming. These questions are particularly relevant because I am part of that “interchangeable white lady” teaching force working in a school with a majority of students of color.

As a nation, we were founded on simple truth. “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” See that tension there: liberty and equality. At their core those two ideas seem to be at odds with each other. Which has more value? Personal liberty? Equality? Overall, good for the majority of the communities?

As Americans we value choice–what we eat, where we shop, and where we send our kids to school. The policy obsession school choice is undergirded by America’s obsession with exceptionalism. In my freedom, I deserve to have choice because I’m exceptional. We want to be special. We want our kids to be special. And we want to choose an exceptional, special school for our child.

The unacknowledged issue with school choice is that it really isn’t a choice for everyone. School choice is limited by a parent’s employment situation, their transportation costs and access, and the services their child needs. As noted in “Not Everyone Has a Choice”, parents lack access to all the information necessary to even make the best choice for their child. School choice is actually a privilege that is only readily available for middle and upper class Americans. It is these parents that have consistent access the innovative programs across town and can get their students there.

If we’re serious about doing something to stop our segregated school system we have to be honest about the beliefs that undergird the choices we make about where we send our children and why we send them there. We have to decide if we want liberty or if we want equality. As the system now stands, we can’t seem to have both. Due to a myriad of factors–among them underfunding, legislative incompetence, voter apathy, and a skewed sense of social responsibility–current policy conditions we don’t have the resources to make all schools exceptional. You can’t create exceptional schools without the commensurate support from the community.

So where does that leave us? Rationing. People with means use their means to provide themselves with choices and options. People with means in our society are more likely to be white, leading to school segregation.

As a childless, white woman I’m left pondering the way forward from here: Open enrollment? Options for parents in poverty are limited by ineffective and underfunded public transit. Charters? I am skeptical. Vouchers? Results are mixed at best and exacerbate existing underfunding of K-12. I really don’t have an answer, but I am hoping to stumble my way to one in this series.

15 thoughts on “21st Century School Segregation

  1. Rachel J

    This is an articulate and insightful start to the conversation. I really appreciate your approach here, Hope. This line will stick with me for some time: “We have to decide if we want liberty or we want equality.”

    1. Hope Teague-Bowling

      Thanks Rachel. What do you think about the tension between liberty and equality when it comes to education?

  2. Korbett Mosesly

    This is such a great topic, thank you! I think this is a complicated issue. We used to live on 19th and L street when my three boys were young. Our elementary school at the time (5 years ago) was McCarver Elementary in the heart of the hilltop a diverse school in a neighborhood with persistent poverty. Because many students were not meeting state standards, we were giving the option to have our children bussed to Grant Elementary on the northend, which we choose to do. It was a good a decision for our boys. I’m not sure that racial segregation is the issue as opposed to concentrated poverty. This brings us back to the conversations about brown vs. board and whether to invest in black schools or desegregate them because we were sure the investment would not happen. What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. it is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. Its a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.

    1. Hope Teague-Bowling

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

      I especially like the way you expressed this:
      “What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. it is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. Its a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression”

      We’ve got to reexamine how we look at these systems of oppression.

      I heard a stat (need to find it) that there is something like a 20% threshold for making poverty “manageable” in a school. So if each school had that manageable percentage, they could still effectively meet the needs of ALL their students. Rather than what we have now–disproportionate have/have nots (aka high poverty schools with more needs than resources and everyone stretched thin). Thoughts on that?

  3. Mary Sharp

    Thank you for writing this! I think better teachers, more focus on creating a student-centered, dynamic, social justice -oriented, positive school culture, engaging, “highly capable” curriculum for all, & less focus on remedial measures to boost test scores would help.

  4. Jay Quackenbush

    1. If you consider liberty to be the power to live the sort of life you deem to have value (a la karl marx via Amartya Sen) equality isn’t in opposition to liberty, equality IS liberty.

    2. The framing of the problems of socioconomic inequality in the language of identity politics is counterproductive, as i know you know i believe. Therefore handwringing about your being a white lady or the supposed privilege of disadvantaging your children by choosing to send them to private schools (a longer argument, the gist being that rich kids are going to go grow up to be rich adults wherever they go to school but only sending them to elite exclusive expensive private institutions is going to turn them into classist, racist, assholes) is only going to interfere with the ultimate solutions to the problem you are trying to solve (ie a finnish style radical egalitarianism in the provision of basic education services.)

    3. You can’t win the fight with the forces seeking retrenchment of segregated education by accepting the validity of their “school choice” euphemism. School choice is a lie. Its a pretty face to hang on the ugly desire to take your child out of a school that you have deemed to have “undesirables” also in attendence. So school choice is not a solution to a real problem, it is the socially acceptable face of racism and classism. It is James Whedon Johnson’s mess of pottage and WEB du bois’s wages of whiteness all bound up togeter; the small beer you earn by going along with the classist impulse to divide the working class and set them against the middle so that the bourgeoisie don’t have to worry about their mansions getting torched by mobs of the exploited.

  5. John Frederick Newton

    Good job Jen, you identifying this issue shows your upbringing . Very proud.

  6. Tom White

    As a practical matter, I see “School Choice” as the start of a death spiral for some schools. Affluent, engaged parents pull their kids out of neighborhood schools, leaving behind a higher percentage of high-needs kids. And so on, until what’s left are the families who have no choice but the neighborhood school, which has now become a “high-needs school.”

    1. Hope Teague-Bowling

      Do you think it’s better for a child to go to a neighborhood school or “out of neighborhood” if it offers better programs for the student?

  7. Sean Riley

    Seems like you and I are noodling on similar issues. I hope we get to collaborate sometime.

  8. Gery Gerst

    Hope, so commendable is your effort and the start of this blog; you’ve received great replies thus far. The word ‘equality’ as used in your opener begs a question in me: do you mean equality of opportunity? Resources? Income? Standards and expectations? Rights? Treatment? Maybe it would be good to clarify. I know some reactions differ when I use the term, and their issue response/poltical views seem to emanate from their view of that word. Those who take it to mean “equal pay/resources/etc” relegate the conversation to “socialism” and thus reject it; those who view it as “opportunity / rights equality” react differently. Anyway, maybe concept clarity when it comes to education vis-a-vis ‘liberty/equality’ might help focus of the conversation. Of course there will always be those who feel the plight of “those” kids/schools/districts are their own fault, but no blog or discussion will engage nor persuade those folks. We’ll just have to effect change without them, and you’re helping! Thanks for how you use your heart and your gifts.

  9. Mark Gardner

    I love this series that you’re starting, and you’re voicing many of the internal struggles I face as a white male teacher in an affluent (and predominantly white) district. Issues of race an privilege are ones I haven’t yet figured out where my voice fits, since I’m sitting in a place of privilege in our society…and I’ve procreated three more white males, so my struggle is how to ensure that they grow up mindful that their experience won’t necessarily be universal.

    The themes of inequity and inequality must be in the air (maybe it has to do with presidential rhetoric about “us and them,”) but I’ve been prepping a SfS post highlighting some discipline data about our district that reveals vast discrepancies between the exclusionary discipline our low-income students receive compared to their peers…because while my district does not have “visible” diversity (as one colleague called it) we do have socioeconomic diversity that is apparently manifesting unequal treatment of students (with regard to exclusionary discipline).

  10. Andrya Packer

    School “choice” is really about parents. We should be more concerned about the rights of students than about their parents. All students deserve a quality school–“choice” is another form of discrimination, one that children are helpless to address.

  11. Pingback: 21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools | Stories From School

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