The cost of living apart

By Richard Rothstein, The American Prospect

Without neighborhood integration, Mitt Romney’s school-choice plan won’t close the achievement gap. George Romney knew better.

Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with low-income children with low test scores. Faced with enormous challenges, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can, though. African American children from low-income urban families often suffer from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress interferes with academic achievement. With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose environment includes many college-educated professional role models, and whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings as well as the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic quality.

We have little chance of substantially narrowing the achievement gap without breaking up heavy concentrations of low-income minority children in urban schools, giving these children opportunities to attend majority middle-class schools outside their distressed neighborhoods. 

Busing poor black children out of neighborhoods with accumulating disadvantages is not only politically inconceivable but practically impossible—the distances are now simply too great. Yet without integrated education, we have little hope of remedying the educational struggles of the “truly disadvantaged” (sociologist William Julius Wilson coined the term a generation ago). Without integrating residential neighborhoods, we have little hope of integrating education. Residential integration is now also beyond the pale politically and perhaps inconceivable practically as well. But it was not always so; we should give the policy a second look.  

The Romneys

Delegates booed Mitt Romney at this year’s NAACP convention, as they had booed another Romney 43 years earlier. The speaker then was Mitt’s father, newly installed as President Richard Nixon’s secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Delegates were furious about an administration plan to waive deadlines for Southern school districts to desegregate. In the next year, however, George Romney launched an ambitious program to overwhelm white resistance and integrate the suburbs—not by busing schoolchildren but by forcing suburbs to accept black residents.  The son has also made a seemingly bold proposal to address the achievement gap: Low-income and special-education students should be allowed to transfer to any public school in their state. But Mitt’s proposal is more shadow than substance. The differing approaches of George and Mitt to the ongoing national embarrassment of racial segregation mark how far we have come in abandoning the civil-rights era’s modest dreams and how far we must go to reignite them. 

Public-school choice, permitting students to enroll outside their neighborhood but within their district, has been a staple of education reform for a decade. Permitting students to choose schools in another district, as Mitt has proposed, would be a dramatic departure, giving low-income black students the right to opt into mostly white, affluent suburban schools. It is hard to imagine suburban voters allowing Congress to adopt this—even in the few Northern liberal states where voluntary interdistrict-choice plans have been authorized (Boston’s Metco plan, for example), suburbs have been loath to participate.  Yet Romney’s plan is based on an accurate insight. In our largest low-income and minority cities, intradistrict choice can do little to narrow gaps because most same-district schools are demographically similar to students’ home schools.

Recent research confirms that integration not only benefits black students but also does no harm to white classmates, provided the concentration of disadvantaged children is not great enough to slow the instructional pace or deflect time from academics to discipline. When children whose parents are well educated make up a strong classroom majority, all students benefit from the academic culture established by that majority. Integration is no panacea, but without it, other reforms to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children have less promise.  

Race and the limits of choice

Even if enacted, Romney’s plan would encounter daunting obstacles. Would states provide student transportation to distant suburbs? Must urban districts reimburse suburbs for educating transfer students? Would they do so at the sometimes-lower per-pupil urban rate or affluent suburban rate? The Romney campaign says suburbs must accept transfers only if they have capacity, but would they be permitted to reduce capacity by lowering class sizes to eliminate seats or by closing schools if resident enrollments declined? Many policymakers don’t even consider school integration desirable. Some caricature it as based on a claim that a black child “must sit next to a white to be successful.” Ignoring research on how peer and community influences affect academics, they instead support charter schools that emphasize discipline and order, hoping to raise low-income black youths’ achievement in segregated environments. These efforts are mostly unsuccessful, but even when charter schools claim success, apparent gains are small and may be attributable to selective admissions and to attrition of failing students.

Schools remain segregated not because of inadequate choice but because neighborhoods remain segregated. To realize integration’s benefits, disadvantaged families must be residentially dispersed.

Across the political spectrum, we’ve largely accepted the “color-blind” view that aside from random acts of discrimination, neighborhood segregation reflects individual choice within a free market: Low-income African Americans are unlikely to live in white suburbs only because they can’t afford to do so. This ignores how government policy in the mid-20th century explicitly assigned whites to suburbs and blacks to cities. It also ignores the impossibility of reversing these patterns without equally explicit public action. Imposing segregation took much effort, and unraveling it will take even greater effort.   

Rest of article at http://prospect.org/article/cost-living-apart