In the NYT this weekend, David L. Kirp examines the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education in recognition of its 58th anniversary. Many schools that were integrated after the decision have since been re-segregated due to recent Court decisions and the absence of a vocal support for integration. And that is a shame, because integration worked:
The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did.
Given that evidence, Kirp argues, we should move away from many of the common education reforms of today–charter expansion, closing failing schools, teacher accountability–and focus instead on integration. That is ultimately the answer.
I don’t disagree–I think integrating our schools, particularly between cities and the suburbs areas, would be a great way to improve our system. But how do we actually do that? This is where Kirp’s argument is insufficient. As he writes:
In theory it’s possible to achieve a fair amount of integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries or opening magnet schools attractive to both minority and white students. But the hostile majority on the Supreme Court and the absence of a vocal pro-integration constituency make integration’s revival a near impossibility.
Indeed, “in theory it’s possible” for that to happen. But let’s think about what would need to happen. White parents whose children attend great schools in the suburbs would have to vote in favor of integration. This means their tax dollars would be diverted away from their own children and towards lower-income children from the city; furthermore, children who previously attended bad schools in the city would likely be higher need and require even more resources.. I’m not saying that this will never happen, and I hope that someday it will. But it is foolhardy to base a plan for education reform on people voting against their self-interest.
Once again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. A massive redistribution of resources spent on education–which is essentially what integration would accomplish–would definitely be the ideal solution to educational inequity in this country. If students in Philadelphia could instead attend schools in Lower Merion, they would have dramatically different lives. But they can’t. And until that changes, we need to do everything we can to help them. Making small, incremental improvements to our schools and pursuing, massive, systemic change are not mutually exclusive.