Disparities in education and voting disenfranchisement reinforce each other, and the wave of more-restrictive voter laws will lead to more racially charged education debates down the road, argues James D. Anderson, a top education-policy historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during the 2014 Brown v. Board of Education lecture in education research, sponsored by the American Educational Research Association.
Anderson has found a regular (and somewhat grim) pattern of minority groups gaining voting rights and strength in American politics, leading to a stronger voice in local, state, and national education policy decisions, leading to academic gains for their children—and then followed by a backlash by the majority (until now, white majority) who move to restrict minority groups’ voting rights, which ultimately leads to widening educational disparities for the next generation.
In states like Louisiana in the 1860s or Texas today, he told me in an interview earlier today, rising black and Hispanic populations meant “you really had the basis of an interracial democracy, a multiethnic democracy. And instead of embracing the diversity they[the citizens of those states] chose to disenfranchise. ... You can see the fear on the part of many Americans about this demographic change; they don’t welcome the change. There is this fear that demographic changes will mean the end of the nation as we know it.”
At the lecture in Washington this evening, he laid out just how far back this pattern goes—from post-Civil War debate over the 14th Amendment all the way up to modern fights over voter-identification laws—and if you missed it live, the video will be posted here soon.
During the Reconstruction era, for example, when newly freed black slaves gained citizenship and elected representative members of school boards and legislatures, Anderson found much broader funding equity for schools serving black children. For example, by 1890, when black students made up 43.8 percent of Alabama schoolchildren, they received 44 percent of the state education funding. By contrast, by 1930, during intense voter suppression efforts, black students were the recipients of only 11 percent of school funding in the state, though they still accounted for about 40 percent of the population.
Struggles for voting and other rights of citizenship create a strong argument for well-integrated schools, he said. “With sweeping demographic changes,” he said, “you don’t want segregation mapped onto that because then you can end up in a nation where education does look like an apartheid system.”
He told me education policymakers have, in a sense, a civic duty to keep “the common school ... the capacity to bring in students from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, different languages, and keep them together so they become comfortable with living and working together in a democracy—that capacity is still there, that promise is still there.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.