The Strange and Bitter Fruit of Education Policy







In New York City, one of the most diverse yet segregated school systems in America, privileged parents routinely object to, resist, manipulate, and scheme to avoid sending their children to school with others whom they deem undesirable. It is easy to condemn these white, upper-middle-class resistors to school integration and de-tracking as selfish capitulators to racism and class condescension.  Calling them out is necessary, but insufficient if change rather than self-satisfaction is expected. In fact, their opposition is the evitable protect-your-own behavior of privileged residents in a city, state, and nation that purposefully maintain scarcity of education resources and then ration quality, steadfastly refusing to live up to the founding promise of the founding principle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Legally segregated schools were deemed inherently unequal and unfair in 1954 when they were outlawed in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court decision.  However, that decision did not eliminate racial isolation or its harmful effects.

Racial and socioeconomic differences in achievement, graduation rates and subsequent divergent employment success among America’s students are the strange and bitter fruit that grows from decades of federal tax, employment, housing and education policies that stubbornly refuse to address inequity and the racism that drives its persistence.

In his recent book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein exposed the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided as the result of individual prejudices, personal choices to live in same-race neighborhoods, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. In contrast, he describes how racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments created the patterns of residential segregation that persist to this day.

Long-standing racial and economic housing patterns abet school segregation.  However, school choice options, actively promoted by government policy, exacerbate isolation and its inevitable negative results. For example, a recent study by The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School found that the percentage of kindergarteners attending their New York City neighborhood school dropped from 72% in 2007-2008 to 60% in 2016-2017.  The study authors found, [attendance] ”….. zones provide families of means with exclusive access to the schools they like, while choice allows them to flee the ones they don’t.”

Certainly, as stated clearly in a post on the Education and Equity blog of the Learning Policy Institute, “Unfair school funding is a major reason why our nation remains segregated, separate, and unequal a half-century after the Kerner Commission issued its call to action. It’s time to put this issue at the top of the national education agenda.”

Calling out inequitable education funding is not new. Nonetheless, it continues with impunity.  Its raison d’être is to maintain the extreme privileges of the few and the relative privileges of upper-middle-class whites, at the expense of everyone else. The system is not naturally occurring. Instead, it represents purposeful design, enabled by funding education primarily through widely divergent local tax revenue and insufficient state and federal support for education.

However, the enabling of an inequitable education system is not primarily about the personal choices of integration-avoiding privileged parents or less-well-off parents who abandon their struggling local school for a charter school.  These individual behaviors are a predictable consequence of a rising-survival-of-the-fittest ethos in a system of increased wealth concentration in a globalized economy, flat wages, digital replacement of human workers, and the growth of so-called “gig” economy. It is the result of most of us living a constant state uncertainty.  For some of us, this means a sense of lost relative position. For others, it is just a continuation of the precariousness with which they have always lived. Choice, the euphemism for the abandonment of public education, is what happens when hopeful and desperate parents conclude that they have no choice when it comes to how inequity impacts their children.

Republicans have spent decades spreading myths about the poor in order get the not-quite-as-poor majority to blame non-whites and immigrants–anyone but the wealthy few– for their precarious lives.  Such blame is most successful when there are too few alternative values and policies.

At one time Democrats, pressured by mass movements, stood for a common good ethos.  The result was social security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, the right to organize unions, civil rights legislation, public housing, and banking, workplace safety and environmental protection regulations, to name a few.  And then, at the very moment when they should have done the opposite, Democrats more or less backed away– in a Faustian bargain with wealthy donors.  Now, we have Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo calling the nation’s cornerstone common-good institution, public education, a monopoly and supporting privatization.

Blaming or demonizing the behavior of privileged individuals, however reprehensible, is not enough.  Some people act to protect their relative privilege because they see no viable alternative.  Underfunded inequitable schools and it resultant constriction of life chances is a systemic problem.  Systemic problems cannot be solved piecemeal or when sub-groups blame and fight one another.

Unfortunately, shifting the balance of education funding away from local property taxes to more equitable state and local income taxes has been a political third rail.  That is because the foundational assumption has been scarcity.  As a result, achieving equity has always been perceived as taking from one group to give it to another.

A notable exception, first through Court rulings, is New Jersey. Through a series of “Abbott v. Burke” New Jersey Supreme Court rulings, the state was required to ensure that the children in 31 low-income districts get a “thorough and efficient” education, as required by the New Jersey Constitution. The Abbott rulings directed implementation of a comprehensive set of improvements, including adequate K-12 foundational funding, universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year old children, supplemental or at-risk programs and funding, and school-by-school reform of curriculum and instruction.  A 2017 study found, that Abbott remedies “improved academic performance of economically disadvantaged student in the Abbott districts, particularly at the 4th and 8th-grade level.”

The advantages that these ruling brought notwithstanding, because the underlying structure of funding schools through local property tax was left intact, the NJ State Legislature and then Governor Christie has been able to get away with underfunding and lax enforcement.  Even though ensuring equity was constitutionally mandated, leaving funding as a legislatively determined add-on constrained its impact.

Too often, the broad problem of overall insufficient, unfair, and uneven funding of education has been overlooked in the vital, but narrower, effort to compensate for uneven funding between poor and more well-off communities, dividing people who should be allies. Too often, the broader benefits of integration for everyone have been ignored in the still important discussion of how integration benefits children of color. As a result, a unifying struggle is undermined by the perception of narrow self-interest.

An effort to ensure that school funding is fair could unify disparate communities and counter the prevailing divisiveness.  The campaign would articulate how everyone would benefit from shifting education from property taxes to progressive state and federal income tax. It would be framed as giving to everyone what the most effective schools already provide.

The United States endures underfunded schools, low wages, extraordinary housing costs, and degraded infrastructure, environment, and healthcare, and only because the myth of inevitable scarcity persists in the wealthiest country in the world. American exceptionalism seems to mean all developed nations except the United States can find ways to support the common good.

It does not have to be that way.  Demand something better.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist.  He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.


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