The Rhetoric of Resegregation

The issue of school segregation – particularly, the trend toward re-segregation – is once again in the news in Boston, with a Boston Globe analysis finding that 60 percent of schools were “intensely segregated” (defined as at least 90 percent students of color). This was up from 42 percent of schools two decades ago. The Globe further concluded that this trend was “largely the consequence of steps taken by city and school officials to allow more students to attend schools in their neighborhoods.”

Given this, there is an understandable impulse to point fingers at the district for actions taken or not taken these last 20 years. But I’d argue that responsibility for the failure to sustain and extend progress on desegregation lies to a large degree outside the school department. Indeed, our indifference to desegregation is a collective failure and reflects a profound lack of will. This failure is not new. Rather, it flows from decades of ambivalent or even hostile public rhetoric from our politicians, our neighbors, even ourselves.

Superficially, public officials often claim what I am sure is a sincerely-held commitment to desegregation. At the same time, many of these same individuals have worked steadfastly to return the district to neighborhood schools. In 1987, after the courts declared the schools officially desegregated, then chair of the Boston School Committee John Nucci said, “We’ve been committed to the principles of desegregation, because we do not ever want to run a segregated school system again.” In 2013, then a member of the External Advisory Committee charged with dismantling the last vestiges of Boston’s desegregation-era student assignment plan, Nucci appeared to contradict his own rhetoric, saying, “We have to do something bold… The mayor is right that the goal has to be quality schools close to home.”

Efforts to reconcile an acceptance of desegregation with a desire for neighborhood schools has often centered on the push for educational quality. We are told that we need quality schools in all of our neighborhoods, which is true. We are then told that if every school were a quality school we would not need desegregation and could once again have neighborhood schools we so desire, which is ridiculous.

The idea that we can have universally high quality schools without deliberate and sustained efforts to desegregate (and stay desegregated) is an illusion. Harvard sociologist Charles Willie, appointed as a special Court master in 1975 and then tapped to design the Controlled Choice plan adopted in 1988, wrote, “In a pluralistic society, there can be no quality education where there is not desegregation” (1976, p. 325). Decades of empirical evidence back up Willie’s claim. For example, a 2007 National Academy of Education research synthesis concluded that race-conscious school assignment policies were “the most effective means of achieving racial diversity and its attendant positive outcomes.” In addition, a 2011 study examined longitudinal data from a representative sample of over 8,000 Americans and found that African Americans who attended schools desegregated by court order were more likely than their peers to graduate, attend college, and earn a degree.

From the time desegregation first entered the public consciousness, through decades of overt and often hostile resistance in the 1960s and 1970s, punctuated by the tumultuous years of court oversight, and ending with the gradual slide back to home-based school assignment, a persistent stream of rhetoric – by parents, policymakers, educators, and others – has been relentlessly uneasy about the benefits of desegregation and equally romantic about the benefits of neighborhood schools. This binary, like all binaries, lacks nuance, but more perniciously it overlooks the fact that we barely gave desegregation a chance.

Even during the ten years of Controlled Choice in Boston – a period when racial isolation went down, student achievement ticked up, and parent satisfaction with the process was generally positive – skeptics were committed to dismantling it. A survey conducted by Bain Capital of parents in 1995 found that 72 percent preferred the Controlled Choice plan to an alternative that would automatically assign them to their neighborhood school (see Willie & Alves, 1996, p. 54). But four years later, facing a White parent-initiated lawsuit, the Boston School Committee dropped the plan’s racial fairness guidelines. Following the 5-2 vote, the New York Times reported, “Michael Alves [one of the plan’s designers]… worried aloud today that abruptly doing away with racial criteria for school assignments, and the city’s gradual move toward sending virtually all children to neighborhood schools, would lead to resegregation.”

Having survived two previous attempts to move toward neighborhood schools (in 1998 and 2009), a hobbled version of Controlled Choice limped into 2012, when then-mayor Thomas Menino promised a “radically different student assignment plan, one that puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes.” The resulting Home-Based School Assignment System was adopted in 2013. Then-superintendent Carol Johnson described it this way: “It uses neighborhoods as a starting point and offers families the options closest to where they live. Where we have concerns about the quality of schools nearby, this plan offers additional choices a little farther away. It’s that simple.” Except it is not that simple. According to a 2018 evaluation of the plan by researchers at Northeastern, the home-based plan “diminished integration across the city without creating neighborhood schools” (p. 3).

As the parent of a student entering kindergarten in the Boston Public Schools this year, I am sympathetic to the allure of logistically uncomplicated school assignment. It would be easier – much easier – for my wife and I to walk our daughter around the corner to the school in our neighborhood than to undertake the contorted maze of pick-ups and drop-offs we’re currently planning. But as a researcher and close observer of public policy related to educational equity, I am considerably more sympathetic to the urgent imperative for racially and economically integrated schools (and its impact on educational quality for all students).

If we want to improve the schools – and who doesn’t? – we need to be mindful of the way we talk about race and education. More directly, whenever we talk about education, we also need to talk about race. School improvement is a collective endeavor, and it is inexorably bound up with integration. We need to commit ourselves and each other to push back when we hear over-simplified rhetoric boosting “quality for all schools” without also asking about racial and economic inequity.

We need to say clearly, unequivocally, and repeatedly: “Equity matters to us, which is why integration matters to us.” And by we, I mean everyone: the mayor, the City Council, school officials, journalists, neighbors, friends, you and me, in public pronouncements and private conversations. Modeling this during a recent School Committe conversation about reducing transportation costs, member Miren Uriarte was quick to point out the trade-offs and their impact on racial equity: “What that means is there is going to be more and more segregated schools. If we are willing to live with that, then we will go in that direction, [but] I’m not willing to live with that.” I am not either.