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Segregation, ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ Fire Up Democratic Debate

By Evie Blad — July 31, 2019 5 min read
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School segregation and educational disparities for students of color aren’t issues of the past, Democratic presidential candidates stressed in a primary debate in Detroit Wednesday that also touched on the the intersection of education and criminal justice issues.

The sometimes emotional exchanges renewed the spotlight on former Vice President Joe Biden’s support of bills that restricted “busing” for purposes of desegregation in the 1970s. California Sen. Kamala Harris, citing her own childhood experience under a voluntary school integration plan in Berkeley, had pressed him on the issue in a Miami debate last month.

When CNN moderators asked about the issue again Wednesday, other candidates were quick to highlight the problems that still exist in education: disproportionately high rates of discipline for black students, poor academic outcomes for students from poor neighborhoods, and yawning differences between adequately and inadequately funded schools.

“Our schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said in a portion of the debate that focused on race, education, and criminal justice. “We need a conversation about what’s happening now.”

Still Segregated

Various data show continued, and sometimes growing, racial isolation of students in U.S. public schools. Almost 9 million students attend schools in districts “that are both racially isolated from their neighbors and receiving substantially less in funding per student,” found a recent analysis by EdBuild, an organization that campaigns for equitable funding in schools.

“Equal is not equal,” said Bennet, the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, when some students have access to preschool and others don’t. “Eighty-eight percent of the people in our prisons dropped out of high school. Let’s fix our school system and maybe we can fix the prison problem that we have.”

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, one of the first candidates to release a broad education plan, referenced President Donald Trump’s recent tweets about Baltimore, a largely black city, being a place where “no human being” would want to live. The problem is bigger than Trump’s words, Castro said: The president’s policies are also failing to address the needs of children in communities like Baltimore.

“We need to make sure that you don’t have to get out of West Baltimore ... or anywhere if you’re going to reach your American Dream,” he said.

Castro’s education plan calls for teacher pay raises, free universal school meals, universal prekindergarten programs, and a “progressive housing policy” that desegregates neighborhoods, which contributes to segregated schools.

Other candidates have pushed for expanded education funding: Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have both pledged to triple Title I funds for low-income schools, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke wants to create a permanent federal fund targeted toward educational equity.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee touted his state’s recent teacher pay raises and policies to combat the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term civil rights groups use to refer to school discipline policies and practices that disproportionately affect black and Latino students.

Inslee’s education plan calls for boosting federal education spending and repealing a provision in the tax bill, signed by Trump, that caps taxpayer’s ability to deduct state and local taxes from federal tax returns, which is seen as a way of ensuring states can generate adequate revenue to fund schools.

Inslee is also among several candidates who’ve called for the reinstatement of Obama-era guidance that put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if their discipline policies and practices disproportionately affect students in one racial group, whether or not those polices were written with discriminatory intent.

The Trump administration withdrew that guidance, which some conservative groups saw as federal overreach, at the recommendation of Trump’s federal school safety commission last year.

Harris on School Segregation

In the June debate, Harris pressed Biden on his opposition to busing, citing her own experiences as a child. Biden said then that his opposition was to federally mandated busing plans for districts that hadn’t legally enforced school segregation. Harris’ schools implemented a voluntary plan, he said, which is different.

In the time since, NPR located archival tape suggesting Biden’s past positions went beyond that, and that he considered a constitutional ban on busing.

Biden’s current education plan calls for reinstating Obama-era guidance on school integration and creating federal grants to pay for voluntary school integration efforts.

Harris has said she doesn’t support mandated transportation plans to integrate schools today. But, since the June debate, she has signed on as a supporter of the Strength in Diversity Act, introduced this year by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. The bill would provide grants to districts that want to address racial and socioeconomic diversity, including those who want to use a transportation plan to do so. Its cosponsors include Sanders and fellow presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Neither Harris nor Biden support forced busing today. So, the CNN moderators asked on Wednesday, does that make her a hypocrite for pressing Biden on his position on the issue in the 1970s?

It doesn’t, Harris said, because opposing busing in the 1970s meant opposing it at a time when it was needed to undo the inequities that developed before the U.S. Supreme Court mandated school integration.

“Had I been in the United States Senate at that time, I would have been completely on the other side of the aisle,” she said. “On that issue, we could not be more apart. The vice president has yet to acknowledge that it was wrong for him to take the position that he took at that time.”

Biden countered that, as state attorney general, Harris never took any action to combat segregation in California’s schools.

“I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate them,” he said.

Photos from top: From left, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro participate in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. --Paul Sancya/AP; Former Vice President Joe Biden listens as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. --Paul Sancya/AP

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