Our Collective Responsibility for School Integration

In his historical portrait of federal, state, and local efforts to integrate schools, James Ryan, former law professor at the University of Virginia and current dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), boiled down the essential message of the courts on desegregation to one of stubborn individualism and privilege:  “Save the cities, but spare the suburbs.” After finally listening to the recent two-part series on school segregation from “This American Life,” I am dismayed but not surprised to hear that this motto remains deeply embedded in our collective unconscious. I am talking specifically about the collective unconscious of those who would preserve the privileged position of suburbs in school improvement.  

In the first episode, Nikole Hannah-Jones – a reporter for the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica and a graduate of desegregated schools herself – noted that school integration has a demonstrated track record in improving outcomes for poor students of color and closing the achievement gap, a public policy goal that few would dispute is both worthy and urgent. A National Academy of Education analysis of amicus curiae briefs in the 2007 Parents Involved Supreme Court case that struck down voluntary school desegregation plans concluded that race-conscious school assignment policies are "the most effective means of achieving racial diversity and its attendant positive outcomes." No other policy intervention can match the positive effects of integration when it comes to closing the achievement gap. And yet serious attempts to revive desegregation policies are virtually non-existent in the contemporary narrative of education reform. 

Taken together, these conclusions led Hannah-Jones to conclude (rightly, I think) that, despite urgent policy rhetoric that seeks out “what works” and the evidence that desegregation has a positive effect on school outcomes, our failure to take it up is less a matter of empirical evidence and more a matter of will. As Hannah-Jones said in her reporting, we have decided that integration is simply “not worth the trouble.” The “trouble,” in this case, is the accompanying need for families and communities to confront and reckon with their unconscious biases. Such trouble is not new. Indeed, it has a long shadow.  Listening to the white parents (who had decamped for the suburban and mostly white Francis Howell School District) trip over themselves to argue that they did not see color and only wanted "good schools" made me cringe, but it also reminded me of the dozens of friends of mine who have said similar things, albeit in less overt and inflammatory ways, as they packed up their families and left for the suburbs themselves. For that matter, my parents – white progressives active in late 1960s social movements – moved from New York to New Hampshire just in time for me to start first grade. The timing was not coincidental. We are all those parents.

I do not mean to minimize the emotional process that parents undergo when their children reach school-age. My children – 22-months and 7-weeks old – are still years away from that milestone, but I can imagine how difficult and wrenching it must be to transfer your many hopes for your child to the school he or she attends. Parents want schools they can trust to keep their children safe and to help prepare them for the wider world. It is not surprising that the search for the "right" school may lead parents far outside their neighborhoods, which is why the school choice movement equates the limited choice offered by vouchers and charter schools with the mobility of middle-class families. But without race-conscious policies accompanying them, choice programs too often reinforce segregation and lead to even more hyper-segregated schools.

Even the individual decision to attend “integrated” schools is a charged one: if my wife and I choose to send our daughters to the public schools in the city where we live – as we intend to – we will be contributing to the schools' integration, but we will still need to contend with our privilege.  Urban schools struggling with segregation and lower relative achievement have an interest in attracting and retaining middle- and upper-middle-class families like us, because we bring with us social capital and access to other resources that can enable continued school improvement. And yet, as HGSE Professor Meira Levinson documents and as the second episode in the "This American Life" series made clear, our means also gives us a trump card over the district: that of threatened exit. Such a threat may lead schools and school districts to pander to people like me and my family in a way that they would not do for other families, and my values may not be consonant with the values of other families. As a parent of a child who hopefully will attend an integrated school, I have a responsibility to be an engaged and collaborative and humble member of the community.

As a researcher and public policy advocate, though, I have a responsibility to be more assertive. I know that there are individual schools – charter or magnet and otherwise – that are, against all odds, dramatically improving outcomes for poor students of color. And the accompanying argument that we must therefore scale up these schools is alluring, but ultimately I believe it is a distraction. It is a drop in the bucket and a free pass.  It is an excuse (to coin a phrase) for privileged white people not to pay attention to systemic and sustained segregation. It enables people like me to continue using the passive voice when we talk about segregation and racism: it is a problem being dealt with, but never a problem that we must actively confront. We cannot “scale” our way to better education for all if that also means turning our backs on segregation. We cannot continue to let suburbs off the hook. We have a collective responsibility for school integration.