In School Administrator Richard Rothstein takes a look at housing segregation and schools making two important points. First, some residential segregation is a result of deliberate public policy choices – for instance the siting of housing projects. And, second, we don’t do a very good job talking about or teaching this history. Yet while the issues he raises are important there are a few problems that complicate a simple narrative and really make any remedies challenging.
1) For starters, while there is certainly much to dislike about housing policy (and many other public policies where race is concerned) even in places where progressive housing ideas were tried and the schools ended up more integrated on the surface there is still a great deal of segregation within the schools. There is plenty of data on this but DC area wonks need only jump in their car. Reston, Virginia the famed planned community (disc - where I grew up) offers an example of this issue. Housing projects in Reston were integrated within the rest of the planned community (although all the usual politics existed as this was being done) and still all the standard challenges around underrepresentation of low-income and minority students in gifted or AP classes and overrepresentation elsewhere persisted. This points up two issues. First, the debate about what happens within schools versus what happens outside of schools is a false one. It’s generally both although most advocates tend to address one or the other and interest groups have a vested interest in only focusing on one aspect of a complicated problem. Second, any remedies here have to involve more than just moving kids around. What happens in school is instrumental. That’s where school reform comes in.
2) This conversation frequently ignores that residential segregation is not only a result of whites moving to segregated areas. Many cities have prosperous and largely black suburbs bordering them that are the result of capital flight. The end result is the same in terms of residential patterns and racial isolation but the causes are different – and not as convenient for a binary narrative about this. The bottom line is that while Rothstein is right housing is not all de facto as the result of individual choices, it’s also not the case that this is merely an outgrowth of public policies that can be unwound. It’s both and that’s why it’s such a knotty problem.
3) That’s why undoing or addressing all this is not easy. Regardless of the causes, voters are lukewarm – on a good day – about the remedies and the courts are not favorably disposed toward coercive plans insofar as race is involved. Advocates turn then to economic integration of schools as a remedy – using income as a proxy to create more mixed schools. But these plans have not proven especially popular with parents either. Advocates, the most vocal amongst them Richard Khalenberg of the Century Foundation, tend to wish this away but on the ground the resistance is a real problem. There is a reason you don’t see school board candidates making this a cornerstone of their campaigns. Khalenberg engages in some sleight of hand by adding up all the kids in school districts with some sort of economic integration program and then essentially saying, look how big this is, it’s only the policymakers who don’t get it. But that’s like adding up all the people in any city with an NFL franchise and then counting them all as football fans. In practice these programs remain small, marginal, and voters have not demonstrated much appetite for having them any other way. Until we deal honestly about the political realities here we’re dealing in wisholutions.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve the situation – and Rothstein is right in my view that the country struggles to have an honest reckoning about race (and poverty, too) – but the politics to support public policy remedies of any real magnitude are generally not there right now. Which in addition to the question of how to change that through the political or judicial process raises the more immediate and obvious question: What to do for all the kids who are not well-served by their current schools in the meantime? There are many plausible answers from across the political spectrum, but telling them to just wait for a large political shift in the country or suggesting we shouldn’t demand a lot more from their schools in the meantime do not seem satisfactory ones.