Education Opinion

School Integration Comes at a Price

By Walt Gardner — March 18, 2016 2 min read
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Despite efforts to integrate public schools over the decades, too many still fall short of the goal (“The Secret to School Integration,” The New York Times, Feb. 23). I support integration, but I think the concerns of many middle- and upper-income parents are not unfounded.

The quality of neighborhood schools is a top consideration when families move into communities. But the widening income gap since the Great Recession means that only high-income parents have the means to live where they want. That disparity reinforces de facto segregation. Recognizing the unfairness, New York City now allows some principals to reserve a percentage of seats for low-income families (“New York Schools Wonder: How White Is Too White?The New York Times, Feb. 16).

Although research says the achievement of middle- and high-income students is not negatively affected, that’s not what happened at the same high school near UCLA in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years. In fact, it was just the opposite. I think it’s worthwhile describing what I experienced.

When I began teaching at the high school in 1964, it was consistently ranked as one of the best in California because of its long record of academic excellence. The students were overwhelmingly white and Japanese, with a small percentage of Mexicans. All lived in the middle- to upper-class neighborhood. Graduates were routinely accepted at highly selective colleges across the country. Those who were not attended community colleges or went into the trades.

Busing changed everything. Despite its commendable intent, it created immediate problems in instruction because the vast majority of students brought huge deficits in academic ability through no fault of their own. As a result, teachers had to create lesson plans that invariably bored other students. Parents complained about the quality of instruction - not about the integration of classes. I don’t blame them. They had made great sacrifices to buy homes or rent apartments in the area, with the reasonable expectation that their children would be receiving the kind of education the high school had historically provided. Instead, they felt shortchanged.

As the academic program slowly deteriorated, parents reluctantly withdrew their children and enrolled them in private and religious schools. I never saw signs that they were motivated by anything other than eroding standards. By the time I retired in 1992, the high school was virtually indistinguishable from those in the inner city. The last report that I read identified the high school as a Title I school. Although its recent test scores and graduation rate have slightly improved, they still have not fully recovered. I occasionally drive by the school, which now looks like a fortress. I don’t know any parent who chooses the school, except as a last resort.

I hope the students now enrolled will get the education they deserve, but it’s going to be hard to attract parents in light of the new realities there.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.