Equity & Diversity Opinion

The American Dilemma Continues

By Sheryll Cashin — May 19, 2004 8 min read
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Brown at Fifty

Public schools became more segregated in the 1990s. More so than our neighborhoods, our schools are bastions of race and class privilege on the one hand, and race and class disadvantage on the other. Everyone in America, from President Bush to the average parent of whatever race, intrinsically understands this. It is an unspoken truth that we do not own up to: America’s schools are separate and unequal.

Brown at 50
Marking a Milestone: Commentaries

  • The American Dilemma Continues

In any given metropolitan area, I could tell a tale of two different schools, a tale in which inequality closely mirrors the race and class of the students attending the school. Parents know these dichotomies all too well. Many, if not most, white parents stake their decisions about where to live and where to send their kids to school on such inequality—that is, they assiduously avoid the “bad” schools, which typically are minority and/or heavily poor, and they work overtime to get their children into the “good” schools, which typically are predominantly white and middle class.

In the Washington metropolitan area, where I live, an idyllic suburban high school like Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Md., stands in stark contrast to Ballou Senior High School, located in Congress Heights in the District of Columbia’s poorest ward. Whitman is high-achieving, 78 percent white, and only 1 percent to 2 percent poor. Ballou is low-achieving, 99.9 percent African-American, and 87 percent poor. Recently, fewer than 5 percent of Ballou students performed at the level of “proficient” on Stanford-9 tests in math and reading. The current school year has been hellish. In addition to being closed for a month in the fall when someone took mercury from a science classroom and spread it around the building, Ballou has been plagued by fits of violence. The latest of several fistfights that have broken out among students involving loosely organized gangs turned deadly. Thomas Boykin fatally shot another student, James Richardson, a star football player, near the school cafeteria. The children of Ballou deserve a shot at the first-class quality of education Whitman students receive. Yet their racial and economic isolation translates into a reality that would make most of us shudder were we forced to endure it.

The Brown decision represents an idea that is fundamental to our democratic values. It reimagined Thomas Jefferson’s vision of common schools: the idea that there should be at least one institution in American society that provides a common experience of citizenship and equal opportunity, regardless of the lottery of birth, on a free and open basis to all. Clearly we have failed to live up to Brown; we are not even living up to the repugnant principle announced in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Our schools are separate, but hardly equal.

As of 2000, seven out of 10 black and Latino students attended predominantly minority schools, and eight out of 10 white students attended predominantly white schools. The average black or Latino student attends classes where almost half of his peers are poor. The average white student, on the other hand, attends a school where less than one in five of his peers is classified as poor. Asian students come closest to the integrationist ideal; they are most apt to be in a school that is both middle- class and multiracial.

When you place most black and Latino kids in majority-minority and heavily-poor schools, there are two main consequences, both of which contribute to an achievement gap. First, because poor students typically have greater needs, schools composed of poor students are costlier to run than schools composed of middle- and upper-income students. But in a segregated landscape where property-tax wealth is concentrated elsewhere, these extra costs are rarely covered in a way that can make a difference—that is, with small class sizes and excellent teachers. With national teacher shortages, very few strong teachers are opting to teach in challenging, often dangerous high-poverty schools that offer less pay than that available from more advantaged school systems. Second, students in schools with large numbers of poor students risk falling prey to an oppositional culture that often denigrates learning—one where pursuit of academic excellence is often perceived as “acting white.” They do not enjoy a wealth of activist parents who model success and can work the educational system. White students, on the other hand, largely attend school in predominantly middle-class environments and therefore experience a very different culture—one oriented toward achievement.

The latest federal approach is not helping much. The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act responds to the achievement dilemma in part by requiring standards testing for all racial groups and mandating penalties for failing schools. But the act is heavier on mandates for testing than it is with additional resources for the most challenged schools to meet these demands. In fact, the Bush administration reneged on its promise to seek an additional $5.8 billion in funding for the poorest schools to meet the act’s tough performance requirements. Even assuming that all promised extra funding were forthcoming, overcoming the oppositional culture that tends to permeate high-poverty environments cannot be done with mere dollars. Rhetoric and mandates are easy. Transforming urban education in school districts saddled with concentrated poverty and fewer resources is not.

If the answer to the problem of concentrated poverty in schools is breaking up those concentrations and sending more inner-city kids to suburban schools or attracting more middle- class kids to public schools through magnet and charter school programs, it is not clear that the great suburban majority—70 percent of voters now live in suburbs—will support this. Many white people are tired of hearing about “black complaints.” They know ghettos exist. They know urban schools are often quite bad. A majority of whites are suburbanites who have escaped these problems.

One way to build support for more innovative responses to race and class separation in schooling is to educate the vast majority about the costs they directly bear under this system. Historically we have accepted inequality in our nation when it appeared that it was racial minorities, particularly black people, that were receiving unequal treatment. But middle-income whites who cannot afford private school tuition also suffer in this system. In a public school system that is essentially premised upon the notion that some children will fall behind, middle-class parents must be ever vigilant to make sure that their kids get in the right classes with the best teachers.

In a socioeconomically integrated system fundamentally committed to bring every child of whatever background along, parents would not have to fight so hard to ensure their child is not one of the ones who fall through the cracks. There would be less anxiety for everyone. White, middle-class anxiety will only increase as public school systems become more and more populated with disadvantaged minority kids. Those who cannot escape to private school or “safe” havens of white affluence will pay a price, just as the minority kids do, in schools systems that have failed to figure out how to educate all kids.

American life is hard. Both parents, if there are two of them, feel compelled to work. Raising children well seems a challenge. Affording the safest path to a middle-class existence for one’s child seems to require choosing separation either in the form of private school or a more homogeneous neighborhood that offers “good” schools. There are often quality alternatives within even challenged public school systems, but it might require a white parent to be willing to place her child in a school where the child is outnumbered by students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. White colleagues of mine who have pursued this road less traveled have found quality alternatives that enable both their children and, dare I say it, other people’s children, to thrive.

In the din of debate about what can work to ensure a quality educational experience for all children, a small movement for economic integration has been emerging. About two dozen school districts, from Cambridge, Mass., to St. Lucie County, Fla., have adopted “controlled choice” plans that attempt to ensure that no school is overwhelmed by poverty. I think this is the right focus of the debate, although I am aware that these strategies swim against a tide of parental skeptics who are not much interested in integration.

Where will the political will to solve the “hard” problems surrounding public education come from? It will come, I hope, from an ethos of togetherness that we need to cultivate, lest the public, common good be completely sacrificed, and those disadvantaged at birth left to falter in inadequate public schools. Herein lies the rub. Unless more middle-class students, including white students, enter into the multicultural fray, we are doomed to a status quo of increasing segregation, and inequality.

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Sheryll Cashin is the author of The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2004), from which she adapted this essay. A professor of law at Georgetown University, she was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as The American Dilemma Continues


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