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The Secret to Integration is NOT Choice… It is Legislative Courage

March 3, 2016

Last week an op ed article by Century Foundation fellow Halley Potter and her associate Kimberly Quick had the bold title “The Secret to Integration”. From a cursory examination of the Century Foundation website, it appears that the organization is high-minded and well intentioned… but as a fellow retired Superintendent noted in a letter to the editor that appeared in response to the op ed piece, the answer advocated by the writers is politically impractical and far too incremental.

As noted frequently in this blog, economic and racial segregation contributes mighty to the economic injustices in this country and perpetuates the class and racial divides that are weakening our ability to function effectively as a democracy. Because residential housing patterns that isolate families by race and economic class persist, and because school district boundaries mirror those housing patterns, racial an economic segregation in schools persist. Potter and Quick suggest that changes in student assignments at the district level are the best way to address this problem, and imply that the expansion of choice will solve the problem. But district boundaries often limit the possibility of a district achieving racial and economic integration because those boundaries contain homogenous racial and economic students. As for choice, its use as a force for integration depends on the willingness of parents in white and relatively affluent districts or attendance zones to voluntarily enroll their children in racially and economically diverse schools. Some will do so… but in many cases parents will declare they’ve exercised choice by selecting the neighborhoods or towns where they reside. And since our housing patterns exacerbate the racial and economic divide we are witnessing widening economic and racial disparity among school districts.

As Marc Bernstein, a retired Superintendent and adjunct faculty member at Fordham noted in his letter published a few days after the op ed piece, the solution is not at the district level or the parent level:

Major integration could occur overnight if the State Legislature and the governor chose to consolidate many of the 700 districts, perhaps by county. Elementary schools could remain neighborhood-based while middle and high schools would encompass larger areas. Only the politics of integration stands in the way of providing low socioeconomic and minority children with a better education and greater future opportunities. Lifetime inequality starts with segregated schools.

Choice MIGHT work if a child in the Bronx could enroll in Bronxville schools or a child in Yonkers could enroll in one of the affluent districts that border it… but as Bernstein notes, this can only happen if the STATE promotes it through legislation…. and if the States don’t have the courage to address this issue they should at least have the heart to provide equitable funding.

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