In Pursuit of Integration:   U.S. Education Secretary John King is calling for programs that largely leave it up to parents to desegregate schools. Will that suffice?

so so SO much to say re: this article. Firstly, it treats integration primarily as a race issue and that’s a damn shame. Though race surely factors into segregation in a huge way, the more important story around segregation is socioeconomics. Class. Money. The kids who come from more affluent schools do better and get more; the students in high poverty schools in general fare more poorly and get much less – regardless of race. The damage done by segregation comes not from racial concentration but concentrations of poverty (check out Kahlenberg’s article “From All Walks of Life” for a good overview ).

 

Moving on…


The issue of CHOICE:

Says TheAtlantic “’All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”

We need to be ever more clear that choosing a homogenous school is choosing against diversity. Segregated schools are not just those poor schools, those sad-state-of-affairs schools of color. Segregated schools are also those suburban seats of middle-classness. Those are segregated, too. This narrative needs to be all-inclusive.

Says TheAtlantic “According to King’s plan, integration would indeed naturally result [my emphasis] from efforts like magnet programs, dual-language schools, or district-wide choice, strategies that can help draw middle-class white kids into high-poverty neighborhoods.”

Okay. Can we talk about how all this magnet/choice/extra-cool-program work has trained us parents to go for the grab? School, plain ol’ school just isn’t enough anymore. I don’t mean to completely lambast well-intentioned attempts at integration, but over the past 20+ years, it has made it virtually impossible to even consider sending our kids “just” to school. And having done this, and still we are more segregated than ever, I worry about the “naturally resulting” integration..  We have been working toward integration by hiding integration inside of the cool thing…

Water-cooler conversations are much more fulfilling when we can look like good parents because we got our kids into an arts-themed this or engineering-focused that. Frankly, I kind of want my kid to get all of it; she has plenty of time to narrow her interests in college – but can’t it wait until then? (Okay. Yes. I know. It might seem that getting IN to college requires this extra-cool-badassery. This might be changing…)

Diversity/Integration should NOT be a “something cool”, it should not be some bitchen X factor that we congratulate ourselves for. Nor should it be something we try to sneak in under the radar of something else. This is the beauty of public education’s intent – that we teach all children and that we teach them together. Integration should be assumed and homogenous schools should be called segregated. We’ll get there.

 


The issue of Good for Middle Class kids: You’ve heard this before but Kozol says it beautifully. So listen:

Says TheAtlantic “Better test scores, of course, aren’t the only reason diverse schools matter. Integration is inherently good for all children. The cross-cultural exchange it allows prepares them for the real world—and, perhaps more importantly, to be good citizens. As Kozol put it, there’s an innate value in children from different backgrounds interacting with each other “in all the ordinary ways that children come to know each other when they go to school together and play games with one another and share secrets with each other and grow bonded to each other by those thousands of small pieces of perplexity and fantasy and sorrow and frivolity of which a child’s daily life is actually made.”

 


The issue of the Tipping Point (and Socioeconomics)

Says TheAtlantic “Schools will start to integrate and then very quickly lose that integration because we know that white parents are attracted to other white parents … When you talk about a ‘bad’ school, we can close our eyes and we know what color the kids are in those seats,” said Hannah-Jones … [E]ven progressive middle-class parents who live in diverse cities, people who champion integration and condemn schools that are homogeneously affluent and white. …. In her widely read New York Times Magazine essay “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Hannah-Jones, who lives in Brooklyn, described this custom as “carefully curated integration”—“the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations.” Urban, progressive, white parents, she argues, want their kids to be around peers of color—but only to a certain extent.” 

“Carefully curated integration”: NHJ does have a killer way with words. And we all know what she means. While she seems to be talking about some-but-not-too-many, I would add anecdotally (surely there is research somewhere on this, too) that many parents also love racial diversity as long as all the kids are dropped off in Priuses. Racial diversity is cool, especially if we don’t have to deal with poverty! (Steven Colbert on busing “what’s the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get poor all over them?”).

There is some research on a kind of tipping point wherein a school is no longer segregated nor interatING but actually integratED. (I’ve written a little on integratING vs. integratED). Some research suggests that when only 30% of a school is middle class, the students tend to “test” middle class and other research pulls that to 40-45%. And integratED schools – whether that be 32% or 47% middle class are much, much different than integratING ones. When a school is on the path to integration, already complicated things like navigating race/class difference are magnified by their newness. My kid is the last middle-class kid standing in the pilot 8th grade year of integration; it’s hard (worth it. but hard). We have to be careful not to conflate emerging integration with established integration.

 


The issue of RISK:

Says TheAtlantic Diversity is a nice idea, and few would say it’s not a priority, but when it comes to one’s children, a parent is seldom going to say diversity takes precedence over everything. And it’s hard to blame them: For those on the privileged side of the spectrum, force-fed diversity often translates into a sacrifice or risk that very few parents would knowingly take.”

I’ve talked about the idea of risk and integration before  but I am not sure we can talk about it enough. Not only are we terrible risk managers (we won’t allow our kids to play in the park because of sexual predators but are willing to drive all over hell and back; auto accidents versus stranger danger…? What’s likely to cause the most harm versus what kinds of independent adults are we trying to raise? How do we do that math?)

But the assumption made in this article – that in order to send your kid to an integrated/ing school, you would have to place diversity above all else is false. And talk like this are subtle reinforcers of the BIG RISK of getting, you know, “poor all over.” Sure, no one school is the “right fit” for all kids. However, middle class kids tend to become middle class adults regardless of where they went to school. Truth. So the risk  until you’re in it and know how it’s working for your kid is….. …. ….?

 


The issue of COMMUNITY:

Says a NYC parent in TheAtlantic: “[This school] feels more like a choice … It feels like we’re all buying into it.” For Stewart—and so many American parents—that kind of agency matters, and for good reason. “You’re buying into a social network of friends—it’s not just your kid. It’s who you want to hang out with on the weekends, what kind of places do you want to play, and that’s complicated,” she continued. I wanted a place “where I belong and feel comfortable and feel like my kid is becoming a good person.”

I am completely empathetic… and also a bit cringey. I need to think about it and write about it more but this exact point about community is huge. Maybe it’s just huge for me and this one NYCmom, but I am pretty sure I can generalize a bit. Early thinking – and don’t hold me to any of this: we (me and maybe you) don’t participate regularly in church/synagogue/mosque worlds, we live farther from family, our kids take up our social time, and we crave connectedness. Even though we swore that parenting wouldn’t change us, that we would stay the fun selves of our pre-kid eras, our community emerges through our kids. Whether it becomes PTA or playgroups or carpools or sports/arts/music/interests, the worlds of our kids shape the worlds of much of our adult playtime, too.

So as NYCmom says, choosing a school for your kid also means a “social network” for you, too. It’s your kid’s education but not only your kid’s education. This is not true for everyone at our school (and certainly wasn’t true for my parents [my too-busy-for-all-that single mom] or my husband’s parents [living life through church and rotary], but I think it matters to many of us… and it is something we don’t often talk about. But we should be. What is community, what does it mean….???

 


The issue of SIGNING UP for INTEGRATION

Says TheAtlantic The reality is that desegregation seldom happens organically. … policies that rely on the goodwill of parents and merits of individual schools have struggled to create wholesale, lasting integration.

This might be because we haven’t really tried. We’ve tried top-down policy – and it worked for awhile. And it also led to white flight and the increased politicization of district boundary gerrymandering, etc… But we have never really worked it from the ground up— dirty grassroots style.

Says TheAtlantic Many critics and civil-rights activists argue voluntary integration is a flawed ideal to begin with because … people’s inherent biases continue to dictate the compositions of classrooms. School forums are rife with parents worrying about their child being “the only white student at the school,” about their kid being picked on and bullied because she’s more privileged—concerns that are well-intentioned, of course, but often stem from racial stereotypes.”

 A) worrying about theirs being “the only white student at the school,” – again, the issue of integratED vs integratING…. 

B) worrying about theirs being picked on and bullied because of privilege – tabling this for later post. It’s real, but…

Says TheAtlantic Ultimately, many civil-rights scholars acknowledge that, however imperfect, voluntary schemes are the only viable option.”

True that. It’s up to us now.

And if more of us intentionally choose integration (and I think we will [stay tuned for more on this because I am weirdly optimistic!!!]) and we do so loudly and – even better – in a semi-organized way (hint: join the IntegratedSchools.org Movement!), then perhaps districts will pay attention. And if we are as strong as I think, sound, thoughtful policy that supports integration could follow. We’ve tried it the policy-first way, and now we are reaping those tragic results. Let’s flip this bitch!

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