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Law & Courts Opinion

It’s Time to Confront the Class Divide in American Schools

By Peter Sacks — September 10, 2007 3 min read
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So this is what it’s come to. In the 1950s, blacks in the South sued schools because white segregationists were excluding black children from attending their pseudo-private public schools. Now, in 2007, white families sue schools for including blacks and other minorities, for trying to prevent the resegregation of American schools.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court realized it couldn’t do much about racial segregation in the society at large, but it could do something about separate and unequal public schools for blacks and whites. And the historic result was Brown v. Board of Education, the single most important legal event in the past half-century for integrating blacks into the fabric of the American enterprise.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., tells us that, in the name of Brown v. Board of Education, the best way to stop racial discrimination is to “stop discriminating by race.” Our society may not be colorblind, but our Constitution is. Therefore, local governments in Seattle, Jefferson County, Ky., and elsewhere can’t even think about race when crafting policies to attack racially segregated schools, lest they run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause. (“Use of Race Uncertain for Schools,” July 18, 2007.)

One possible result of the Roberts court’s decision is that it leads us nowhere good, to a segregated system that keeps the “good” kids in good schools safe from the society’s castoffs. We’ll keep the untouchables in educational holding cells until they enter the America prison system or get shipped off to Iraq.

The class divide runs like a fault line throughout the education system, and yet policymakers and politicians rarely confront it.

Then again, perhaps the Roberts court has opened the door to another remedy, one that Americans may at long last be willing to confront. And that is a remedy based upon social class.

To be sure, race continues to play a powerful role in American society and our education system. Race is a touchy subject, and yet Americans seem more willing to talk about racial, gender, or ethnic inequality than the class divide, wedded as we are to the Horatio Alger myth of the classless society. Young people will readily admit what race they are, but who is proud of being poor?

Class lacks a political constituency in modern America, and yet many of the inequalities we observe in the American education system are rooted in class. Although the United States has made significant progress since Brown at improving the educational achievements of blacks and other disadvantaged minorities, solving the class inequalities in education has proven to be far more intractable. Of course, a child’s race plays a role in his educational opportunities, but his or her class background is a far better predictor of how much education that child will achieve, and whether he or she will attend good schools surrounded by high-achieving peers. That might come as a great surprise to thousands of affluent parents who base their home purchases on whether their children will attend schools in the right ZIP codes, but decades of social science research has proven this to be true.

The class divide runs like a fault line throughout the education system, and yet policymakers and politicians rarely confront it.

As unhelpful as the Roberts court might first appear to the cause of racially balanced schools, the legal environment is now ripe for policymakers to alleviate the class inequalities among schoolchildren. Local officials can integrate schools by class without running afoul of the Constitution. According to the Century Foundation, some 40 school districts across the country, enrolling 2.5 million students, currently use family income rather than race to assign students to schools.

The class-based remedy works because academic success isn’t a zero-sum game. The evidence strongly suggests that lower-income students achieve far more in economically integrated schools than they would otherwise, while high-achieving affluent students continue to thrive. And, ironically, parents, once they learn how economically integrated schools work, are more comfortable with class-based remedies than race-based ones.

To be sure, cynics in conservative legal circles likely will charge that integrating schools by class is tantamount to backdoor affirmative action, an attempt to skirt the legal prohibition against race-conscious school assignment plans. Yes, poor blacks, Hispanics, and Asians could be helped with class-conscious policies. And so, too, would poor white children. That’s not backdoor affirmative action. It’s not even a way to save the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. That’s progress, and Americans are ready to make it happen.

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as It’s Time to Confront the Class Divide in American Schools

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